Deconstructing Our Dark Age Future

P. Michael Phillips. Parameters, Summer 2009.


The state as described in this article differs greatly from the ideal imagined in the Westphalian paradigm. States do not universally enjoy unrestricted sovereignty. Nor are they equal. In fact, the sovereignty of a great number of the states in the international system is merely ascriptive.

Because these imperfect conditions have more or less existed since long before 1648, it may be more helpful to think of any observed chaos in the international system as the natural condition, rather than a decline into disorder. If the system is not melting down, are so-called nonstate actors as signifcant for the long-term as they appear to be for the present?

The return of multipolarity is a long-overdue blessing in disguise. Shaped properly, the rise of other credible powers may permit Washington to more widely distribute the responsibility of collective security among a more diverse and culturally relevant audience. Shepherding—not resisting—the emergence of multiple spheres of influence within a reconceptualized normative framework, one moving beyond simple Wilsonian idealism, has potential to co-opt potential troublemakers and might offer a better vehicle for expanding global prosperity by increasing the number of empowered stakeholders. Such a system might, over time, evolve into a practical security council of states reflecting not ancient martial relationships, but in-
stead the distribution of actual global power. Most importantly, the United States would be empowered to devise a transition away from the draining role of world policeman to one more befitting a global ombudsman. This shift can at once conserve American power for the long haul while insulating the nation from ultimate responsibility. Finally, such a system would more effectively highlight state troublemakers and allow the United States to focus its finite resources on real rather than imagined threats.

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