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Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Amazing and Grim Prophecy

In 1993 Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a book called Pandaemonium, based on a lecture he gave two years earlier. It is less remembered than others by contemporaries, namely Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. That is too bad, because with every year it appears that Moynihan’s imagined future is turning out to be more accurate than theirs, just as he had been one of the few to anticipate the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade or so before.

Like Fukuyama and Huntington, Moynihan was trained professionally in the social sciences. He made his name in the 1960s writing controversial things about race, ethnicity, and the American family, and earning a reputation as a shrewd and somewhat iconoclastic public intellectual. It was rare—and today nearly unheard of—for such a person to enter politics; but Moynihan did, and succeeded, from his service in the Department of Labor to appointments as ambassador to India and as permanent representative to the United Nations. After this he represented New York in the United States Senate for more than two decades.

In this book Moynihan suggested that the largely stable international order at the end of the twentieth century would give way to a much less stable, and volatile, condition. He did not foresee it taking the form of another bifurcation, as many continue to do today in a number of us-versus-them formulas, nearly all simplified and exaggerated by journalistic convention. Rather, he imagined a transnational soup of conflict, reaction, and retrenchment—that is, a global pot that boils without melting its ingredients. This was because the international order of the late twentieth century, made up of nation-states and their supra- and supernational trappings—all those acronyms standing for institutions—paved the way for its own disintegration by basing itself on a single cause: self-determination. It has not gone away.

This cause was overlooked by both Fukuyama and Huntington in favor of others. Both writers advanced utopias, although the latter came in the form of a dystopia. Fukuyama proposed the universality of liberalism; Huntington proposed the division of the world into civilizational blocs that were bound to clash. Moynihan’s notion was at once simpler and more complex: sauve-qui-peut (every man for himself).

Moynihan and Huntington are no longer with us; Fukuyama has turned to writing about global disorder. As well he should, because the universal standard he celebrated twenty years ago survives but hardly thrives, even in its Western homeland. As to the distinct civilizations imagined by Huntington, they are clashing left and right, but more within themselves than against one another. Indeed, the very idea of civilization—a literary, creative, progressive, elevated form of humanity—is being called into question. Meanwhile, self-determination—identified by Moynihan with ethnicity and today with tribalism—advances and multiplies.

Just not in the way that its best-known proponent, Woodrow Wilson, had in mind. Moynihan included a long discussion of Wilson in his book. (He also dedicated it to Charles Blitzer, with whom he co-founded the Wilson Center at the Smithsonian.) For it was Wilsonianism—not just the glorification of ethnic autonomy but also, and just as importantly, the regulation of its politics by international laws, rules, norms, and institutions—that had long preoccupied Moynihan ever since he had been a graduate student in international relations.

A book he wrote before this one was one called On the Law of Nations. It appeared in 1990 around the same time that Moynihan engaged in a discussion in a Senate commitee hearing with the diplomat and historian George Kennan on this very subject. Kennan, who had earlier invented a role for himself as the opponent of nearly all that Wilson had stood for—Kennan called it the “red skein” of legalism-moralism—admitted now that Wilson perhaps had been somewhat ahead of his time. Moynihan appeared entertained but also skeptical. Would the end of the Cold War lead to the fulfillment of Wilson’s dream? Or to his revenge?

The resurrection of moralism over legalism should not come as a surprise. The neo-Wilsonian moment of the early 1990s lasted about as long as the Fukuyama moment. Already by 1995, amid the horrors of the Yugoslav succession and a number of other campaigns of ethnic cleansing around the world, the two isms came to appear mutually inconsistent, even exclusive. A reordering was in demand. Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State and the daughter of refugees, put it well when she touted the formula, human rights trump sovereignty. By 1999 the formula had crept into the deliberations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, at its summit that year in Istanbul.

Was this really a triumph of morality over law, or simply a different legalism that consigned the nation-state—the basis of world order—to a subordinate status? It appears to be the latter. For even Vladimir Putin now champions the responsibility to protect co-ethnics and others beyond the borders of his nation, which was rarely done following the Soviet breakup so long as non-interference with the “internal affairs” of states remained a viable international norm.

La Rochefoucauld could have been thinking of “internal affairs” when he said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Moynihan has reminded us that Adolf Hitler cited the responsibility to protect Germans in the Sudetenland. Then the borders moved.

Jump ahead to the end of the century and the OSCE’s Istanbul summit. NATO’s bombing of Belgrade took place just a few months earlier. The bombing occurred without a UN mandate. This was followed by more than a decade of armed interventions, some undertaken with one, others without, but nearly all accompanied by some moral imperative.

To many people they made sense. Globalization is real. It doesn’t stop at any state’s borders. Neither its proponents nor its opponents constitute a united tribe or team. It does not recognize firm distinctions between pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial societies, or make many allowances for their strained coexistence within an international political system that has yet to master the transnational forces it has created or unleashed. That needn’t mean it is ungovernable. A century ago Woodrow Wilson recognized the need for the alignment of constitutional, social, and technological change that today goes by the name of globalization. But where are the institutions to adjudicate crimes against it or those committed in its name? Where is the authority?

Barack Obama has suggested that regions ought to police themselves, that is, to build their own structures of order and justice like the ones that have existed in the Americas and Western Europe, while he has insisted at the same time upon “the irreducible worth of every person.” It is often said that his mission has been to wean his country and its foreign policy from a post-bipolar or unipolar world to a multipolar one, and this may be one way to do it. However, the real world may not recognize such abstract categories. It does recognize institutions and the many rules and practices they enforce. Among them are those like the OSCE that transcend regions, integrating their states and people with one another.

The OSCE today has 57 members and is involved in everything from election monitoring to police training. But it, or rather its predecessor, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), began with an agreement about borders. This was the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the first time since the Second World War that so many nations of Europe and North America agreed formally on a single map.

The Helsinki Final Act did several other things besides formalizing the postwar borders of Europe. Namely, it stipulated that borders, which are probably ubiquitous in human affairs, should only be changed peacefully, and that human rights—including the freer movement of people, goods, and ideas—had to be respected within and between such borders.

The CSCE became the OSCE in 1995 when the Yugoslav crisis had worsened and when the West, led by the United States, announced a unilateral revision of what some people on both sides of the former Iron Curtain had assumed was a viable post-Cold War arrangement with the successor states of the Soviet Union: NATO—which they had hoped would go out of business or at least reinvent itself with a more benign mission—would not only endure as a military organization but would seek to expand its membership, to include some former members of the Warsaw Pact, largely, but not exclusively, at their insistence.

So European borders changed. Peacefully (so far) for NATO; rather less peacefully in the former Yugoslavia and now in Ukraine. What about human rights?

They also have undergone an interesting change along the lines already described. Whereas the reaffirmation of territorial borders was once seen to be consistent with the protection of human rights, and, in some instances (as at Helsinki), a necessary condition, the two now appear at cross purposes. Some may say this was implicit all along, that is, until it became explicit with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, an act that many people on the Eastern side of it regarded as the culmination of many years of campaigning—by way of “Helsinki Watch Groups”—for adherence to the Final Act’s humanitarian provisions. In retrospect that may be so, but the Act itself never would have been signed had it been sold as a Trojan horse against sovereignty.

Thus it is ironic, or just very sad, that so many from the other side of the Wall—the Western side—have joined those from the East in demanding not only new barriers but also more restrictions, more conditions, and more limitations on freer movement while at the same time acting—and justifying their actions—extraterritorially. Some of it no doubt comes from well-deserved fear; but much of it is pandering to the tribe. Moynihan knew much about this from his earliest days in politics. His favored term for it was one he borrowed from Reinhold Niebuhr and W. H. Auden: “collective egotism” or, for Auden, “collective egoism.”

Nation-states are reasserting themselves, though with less of the international comity than many people had come to take for granted, even during the Cold War. Collective security, which had a good deal to do with keeping it cold, today sounds like the quaint mantra of another century. Moynihan would not be surprised but probably quite disappointed; so would Wilson, who insisted that no democracy is safe so long as those on the other side of the wall—or the ocean, as the case may be—are unfree and under threat.

The world has not yet succumbed fully to barbarism or disorder. We are not living in an era of every nation (or tribe) for itself. But we have already forgot much about the recent past. Not too long ago there was a plausible alternative, at least in the West, to Fukuyama’s optimistic wave, and to Huntington’s pessimistic one: not a wave but an “expanding spiral,” which Dwight Eisenhower once described as one “of strength and hope and confidence.” It has begun to spin inward and shrink as we have failed to find an answer to Moynihan’s question: how can a democratic world satisfy every aspirant to self-determination without succumbing to chaos ... or to tyranny?

Imagine though for a moment similar institutions to the OSCE in parts of Asia and Africa, underwritten by viable charters like the Helsinki Final Act and monitored by watch groups and review conferences. To those who say this is too tough and unrealistic a task will recall that it took some three years for dozens of nations to negotiate the Final Act during one of the bleaker moments of the Cold War. It has not guaranteed peace or freedom. But few Europeans have claimed that they would be better off without it.

For all his gloom, Moynihan was a progressive and even an optimist. He sought human advancement, as his own life showed. His book concluded that “[t]he United States embraced the presumptively anti-colonial idea of self-determination in our own fit of absent-mindedness. There were wartime uses. But after a point, self-determination no longer seemed such a good idea.” Yet, “there is nothing wrong—everything right—with an intelligent, responsible self-respect, even self-regard. The challenge is to make the world safe for and from ethnicity, safe for just those differences which large assemblies, democratic or otherwise, will typically attempt to suppress.”

The specter of pandemonium is even more vivid today; the reality of it need not be.