Daniel W. Drezner

Tempting the ghost of Norman Angell

Right now, the final paragraph of The System Worked — in which I argue that global economic governance has done pretty well and that the great powers have acted pretty responsibly with respect to their international obligations — reads as follows:  An occupational hazard of international relations observers is that is easier to stress gloomy ...

Right now, the final paragraph of The System Worked — in which I argue that global economic governance has done pretty well and that the great powers have acted pretty responsibly with respect to their international obligations — reads as follows: 

An occupational hazard of international relations observers is that is easier to stress gloomy scenarios than to suggest that things will work out fine.  Warnings about doomsdays that never happen carry less cost to one’s reputation than asserting things are fine just before a calamity.  History is littered with peddlers of optimism who, in retrospect, have been mocked for their naiveté.  From Norman Angell’s great illusion to James Glassman and Kevin Hassett’s 36,000-point Dow Jones average, optimistic predictions that turned out to be wrong stand out as particularly foolish.  Nevertheless, there has been excessive pessimism about the state of global economic governance over the past few years.  This book has argued that these pessimists have been wrong, and that perhaps a dollop of optimism is in order. Despite considerable economic turmoil and despite some material shifts in the distribution of power, global economic governance reinforced pre-existing norms of economic openness. If past financial crises are any guide, the global economy should be primed for more robust economic growth for the rest of this decade.  The open global economy survived the 2008 financial crisis.  It will likely persist for quite some time.  

Now you have no idea how terrifying it is to write that, for exactly the reasons outlined in the paragraph.  I don’t think I’m wrong in my prediction – but if I am, I’m gonna be spectacularly wrong, and it’s gonna be pretty embarrassing, and sometime in the 22nd century someone at Starfleet Academy will write a clever thesis about the legacy of Drezner’s Folly.

I bring this up because Paul Kennedy has an op-ed in the International Herald-Tribune in which he makes some points that are similar to what I’m making in The System Worked

To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?…

All of these Great Powers are egoistic, more or less blinkered, with governments chiefly bent upon surviving a few more years. But none of them are troublemakers; nor are they, in any really significant sense, a source of trouble. Would they but realize it, they all have a substantial interest in preserving the international status quo, since they do not know what negative consequences would follow a changed world order…..

If this thesis is correct, and the Great Powers, while sometimes complaining about one another’s actions, generally act in a restrained manner, then perhaps we may look forward to a long period without a major war, rather like the unprecedented peace among the Great Powers that existed after 1815 under the Concert of Europe.

Now, you’d think that having Universally Acknowledged Eminent Thinker Paul Kennedy on my side would make me feel better…. but actually, it’s the opposite.  See, Paul Kennedy has written a lot, but in international relations scholarship he is remembered for two things: 

1)  Writing that the United States was about to suffer from some serious imperial overstretch in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987.  A decade later, the United States was the sole "hyperpower" on the planet. 

2)  Writing in early 2002 in the Financial Times that,

Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain’s army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies — right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy.

One could argue that the United States has been in relative decline ever since Kennedy penned those sentences. 

Now these points are unfair to Kennedy.  Rise and Fall is an outstanding book, and closer read of the predictions in his conclusion suggest he was pretty prescient about a whole lot of things.  And his assessment in the 2002 op-ed is matched by others’ analyses  — it was just that he wrote it at the apex of American power. 

So this is a battle between my rational and superstitious brains.  Rationally, I agree with almost all of Kennedy’s analysis – indeed, it’s a point I make in The System Worked.  Less-than-rationally, I’m worried that I’m wrong, and somehow Kennedy’s endorsement of my worldview feels like a bad luck sign.  Somewhere, I sense the ghost of Norman Angell is clucking, waiting for company in the Cursed Optimists Hall of Fame. 

Developing….

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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