Book Review:

April 1, 2004

The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century

By Robert Cooper

Published By: Grove Press

On: October 8, 2004

Buy Here $13.56

Reviewed By: Richard Tite

Robert Cooper - former aide to Tony Blair and now senior EU diplomat - has written a fizzing policy novella: in one hundred and seventy pages of insight and argument he packs in a re-classification of the international system, a coaching manual for foreign ministers, and makes a bold contribution to the transatlantic debate. Like Bob Kagan's 'Power and Paradise', the tract that first popularized and re-energized the debate on the differences between Europe and America, it seduces the reader through its economy of phrase, broad scope and pithy observations. Cooper's book, again like Kagan's, started life as a series of shorter policy briefs and articles that enjoyed a wide audience in political circles, until the publishers convinced the author he was onto a good thing.

He begins by offering a new schematic to help order the confusing post-Cold War international system, now that the guiding 20th century principles of imperialism and bi-polarity have evaporated. States can today be bundled into three categories: the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern. These categories broadly correspond to the ideas of Hobbes, Clausewitz and Kant. In the pre-modern world we find failed states such as Afghanistan and Somalia. These states, where violence and disorder reign have become a threat to the developed world through the privatization of violence, allowing the power of radical and criminal groups to grow. Modern states still retain the use of force and are pre­pared to use it against others and reject violations of their sovereignty. The post-modern states, essentially the EU, are those in which the dis­tinction between domestic and foreign policy is breaking down. They have rejected war in favor of integration and charted a 'third-way' for achieving security beyond hegemony or the balance of power. This framework allows us to get to grips with the complexity of the interna­tional landscape and understand the breadth of security responses required to navigate it.

The second essay offers five maxims for the practice of 21st century diplomacy. The first, and most useful of the maxims, is the seemingly simple notion that foreigners are different. Behind this lies the idea that we must make a greater effort to understand foreigners, since the great­est threats the west faces will come from cultures that are understood the least. The second, third and fourth maxims argue that identity is the core value of states and peoples; that domestic politics has become the main driver of change in the international system, and that it is still hard to change state behavior. The final maxim is a call to 'enlarge the context', a phrase that is borrowed from Jean Monnet. The idea is that the key to resolving intractable foreign policy issues is to redefine and expand the identities of those involved. Cooper argues that others could solve their problems by becoming more like the EU. This is an optimistic assertion to say the least, since the experience of the EU is highly contingent and idiosyncratic, and is an unlikely model to export round the globe. The value this essay adds to the book is questionable and it sits uncomfort­ably between the sharp analysis of the first section and the bold prescriptivism of the last. Cooper is at his best when offering visions of world order, not career advice to fellow diplomats.

The third essay focuses on the transatlantic relationship and is the most prescriptive in tone. It opens with the realist observation that the US is shaping the history of our times due to its preponderance of power. Although the same values underpin their approach the EU and US to the international order, clear differences over strategy and policy flow from the asymmetry of power: the US is prepared to use its hegemonic posi­tion to seek security while the EU seeks to foster a Kantian society of law­abiding states beyond its borders through negotiation and bargaining. While Kagan finds a lack of hard power as determining the European position, Cooper turns the argument on its head: the multilateralism of the EU is a function of it eschewing fighting as an instrument of interna­tional politics. Yet, with one eye on the future, he envisions the European position as dynamic rather than static. If it is to have greater influence on the US, it must now set about accruing more power of the old-fashioned 'modern' sort: effective armed forces.

"If a higher degree of integration of European forces brought both greater interoperability and greater deploy­ment, and if this could be combined with genuinely inte­grated policies (as is beginning to be the case in the Balkans), Europe would go some way to answering Rob­ert Kagan."

However, while he finds the US at fault for not fostering a sense of legitimacy commensurate with their power, he assumes that the EU - with its multilaterialist tendencies - will find such legitimacy easier to come by than its transatlantic cousin, if and when it becomes a serious 'hard' power.

The Breaking of Nations provides an excellent framework for thought about the international system and about how the transatlantic relationship can re-shape itself in the face of new challenges. Cooper's vision is a mix of a defensive realism in the face of pre-modern threats, liberalism concerning the necessity of legitimating force through law and a humanistic optimism on spreading the post-modern security paradigm. This hybrid position is born of a career spent as a diplomat, not an academic. The temptation while reading this book is to find fault in every loose analogy and unsubstantiated claim, but this would miss the point. The essence of this work is - to use management jargon - 'horizon scan­ning' and 'the big-picture', instead of rigor and systematic exposition; its value is in its intuitive vision rather than its academic weight.