The Problem of International Anarchy

Global challenges require global institutions to address them. Can they be built on the bones of American empire?

This column is free to everyone. To receive more in depth analysis of US foreign policy and international affairs, sign up for Foreign Exchanges’ email list today! Better yet, please consider subscribing to support the newsletter and help it continue to grow:


In a recent piece for Noema, a magazine released by the Berggruen Institute, the political scientist Jonathan Blake and the historian Nils Gilman argue in favor of reconsidering the centrality of the nation-state to politics, broadly defined. According to Blake and Gilman, problems like climate change and inequality “are inherently planetary in scale and scope” and necessitate “collective action at a planetary scale” that the nation-state, and nationalist feeling more broadly, prevents.

Blake and Gilman propose a number of solutions to dealing with genuinely planetary problems.1 In particular, the two recommend that, in some instances at least, human beings “shif[t] the governance of planetary problems ‘up’ from nation-states to [new] planetary institutions” that have the power to address planetary concerns. These groups, Blake and Gilman assert, would differ from the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and other international organizations in that they wouldn’t be “multilateral member-state institutions that … represent the interests of their member states” but would instead have “specifically delimited authority at the planetary level over specifically planetary things.” In essence, the two thinkers hope to create “a new planetary tier of governance, above and beyond the nation-state.”

The major problem with Blake and Gilman’s piece, of course, is that it doesn’t address the myriad difficulties involved in creating such planetary institutions. Crucially, one of the major reasons we don’t have strong international organizations is because nation-states refuse to surrender their sovereign powers. Furthermore, the essay does not discuss how planetary organizations will enforce their rules if, as Blake and Gilman maintain, nation-states will remain responsible for “overseeing military matters and distributing economic goods.” Suffice it to say that the record of present and past international institutions suggests that, absent military and economic power, these groups are severely restricted in their ability to shape global politics. Finally, it’s not clear why Blake and Gilman believe many national leaders “will be relieved to move off of their desks issues that they know they are unable to address properly.” Again, there is little in the history of supranational institution-building to support this claim.

Despite these lacunae, Blake and Gilman’s piece is a thought-provoking one that I implore readers to check out. In particular, it raises the question of “international anarchy,” which is perhaps one of the most pressing problems facing the US (and international) left, though it is one that I have rarely seen discussed on our side of the political spectrum.

As Helen Milner noted in a 1991 article, many scholars of international relations consider anarchy—the idea that because there is no global government, the field of geopolitics may best be understood as existing in a state of anarchy—“the central condition of international politics.” Because there is no world state, IR theorists (especially “realists”) claim, nations are required to act for themselves, which is a major reason why wars break out. (In IR parlance, the international system is a “self-help” system.) Put simply, unlike in a domestic setting, where various institutions of organized violence (the police, the military, etc.) usually prevent civil wars from breaking out, at the planetary level the lack of equivalent institutions makes it so that war is, if not inevitable, quite likely.

The great Marxist dream of the nineteenth century was that there was, in fact, a group not bound by the nation-state that was able to overcome the problem of anarchy and lead the world toward revolution: the working class. Nonetheless, this dream was dashed during World War I, when the workers of the world forgot to unite and instead faced off against each other in a maelstrom of violence. Indeed, the working class’ “failure” to prevent the nation-state/empires of Europe from fighting each other engendered a “crisis of Marxism” that gave rise to a number of influential schools of thought, the most important and influential of which was the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School.

In 2021, the dream of an international working-class movement is mostly a dead letter; though various socialists and communists might refer to it, there are few, in my opinion, who genuinely think that a transnational workers’ uprising is in the offing. Instead, many on the left believe—rightly—that the nation-state will be the engine of socialist transformation.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that socialists are free to ignore the problem of international anarchy, especially because the realities of twenty-first century geopolitics present us with an interesting question: Do we actually live in a state of international anarchy? Or, put another way, does the existence of a US empire of 750 military bases, an empire that has regularly deployed troops to most of the world’s countries, indicate that there is in fact a supranational body that shapes international politics, and that body is, in fact, the US empire? And does this not suggest, to use Marxist terms, that if capitalism is the prerequisite for socialism (in that it creates the conditions that make socialism possible), then perhaps the US empire is the prerequisite for planetary organization (in that it creates the truly global structures necessary for the latter)?

Thinking about the problem of international anarchy thus opens a space for leftists to think more coherently, and hopefully more strategically, about governance on a planetary scale. In particular, Blake and Gilman are right that, as presently constituted, the existing organizations of global governance are not situated to address planetary concerns. But we might, in fact, have another structure—the US empire—that could serve as a means to building institutions at the level of the planet. Especially in an age where everyone basically accepts that workers’ revolution and the withering away of the nation-state are not on the table, the US empire/nation-state might ironically (and tragically) be the path to global governance.

Of course, this raises a number of critical questions that I hope to explore in future columns. Is it possible to steer the US empire toward positive ends, or is it simply too corrupt, and does it simply have too awful a history, ever to be used productively? How could the US empire be made more democratic, both at the national and international levels? How could other nations be brought on board with a system of global governance built on the remnants of the US empire? Is it possible to entice nation-states, including the United States, to surrender many of their sovereign powers? Is the dream of a world state a chimera? And if it is, should the left abandon internationalism and embrace a more localized politics? These, and many more questions, will have to be asked and answered in coming decades.

Most on the American left understand that the problems of twenty-first century geopolitics will be different from those of the twentieth. For the first time in human history, the species is confronting several global threats that could threaten human flourishing and, perhaps, human existence. Simultaneously, no international organization or group of international organizations currently retain the capacity, buy-in, or will to address climate change, pandemics, inequality, nuclear non- (and de-) proliferation, or the myriad unforeseen planetary issues sure to arise in the future. If the left hopes to govern, and if the left hopes to overcome these extinction-level threats, then it needs to think seriously about how we get from a world governed by the United States to a world governed by all. That may involve destroying the US empire, or it may involve transforming it, if possible, into something positive.

Without exaggeration, the fate of the species might very well depend on the fate of the US empire.

1

 In an aside, Blake and Gilman note that the terms “global” and “globalization” are “conceptual categor[ies] that fram[e] the Earth in human terms,” whereas planet is more descriptive, species-inclusive, and accurate: after all, “worldwide integration is not merely the intentional work of humans.”