The New World Disorder


Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict

By William Shawcross

Simon & Schuster 447pp $27.50


Lessons from Kosovo

By Noam Chomsky

Common Courage 199pp $15.95

Among the remarkable aspects of the post-cold-war world is how faithfully humanity has picked up where it left off 50 years ago, as if a half-century of East-West conflict froze politics and history in time. The Japanese and the Italians now seek the functioning political systems that eluded them in the late 1940s. Indonesia's declared goals today--democracy and national integration of its disparate population--are those Sukarno set when he became the new nation's first President in 1949. Elsewhere, many of the conflicts seen on CNN seem like delayed responses to decolonization and the relaxation of big power politics during the first few years after World War II. It's a pet theory, unproven and unprovable. From it follows the corollary--equally beyond verification--that had the cold war not intervened, at least some of today's conflicts might have been resolved many years ago.

You needn't look far, certainly, to find "something approaching chaos in international relations," as William Shawcross puts it in his new book, Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict. But what is the cause of our New World Disorder, Shawcross asks? What should be done, or not done, to counter it? How effective--how justified, even--is "humanitarian intervention"? Indeed, what does the term really mean? And what is meant when "the international community" is invoked in rendering judgment on political causes or the independence movements that would redraw the global map?

These are questions that concern both Shawcross, a distinguished British journalist, and Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist and decidedly uncelebrated political polemicist, who now offers us The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo. Their books come at the same subject in very different ways. Shawcross--whose previous books include one on Cambodia, Sideshow--is a journalist in his very genes, dedicated to seeing and saying. Chomsky is a listener, a logician, and a Greek chorus all in one: He's not interested merely in what the West has done in Kosovo; he's just as concerned with what the West tells itself about what it has done and the gap--a wide one, Chomsky asserts--between the two. I wouldn't describe either of these books as delivering a happy, diverting message. But they succeed well in explaining where things stand a decade after the Berlin Wall fell--and where we need to go from here.

Deliver Us from Evil is an ambitious book. It's built around close accounts of the main crises that have erupted since the Berlin Wall's collapse. We fly from Cambodia to Bosnia to Somalia to Iraq to various African capitals and finally to Kosovo, with stops at the U.N. in between. In each case, Shawcross gives us the principal actors, a chronology of the crisis, how various forces coalesced in response, and the outcome--if, indeed, there has been one. On his travels, Shawcross is often in the company of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan, with whom he is evidently on chummy terms. He enjoys wide access to the leadership in pretty much any capital he visits, and he's at home in the borderless world of international agencies.

Shawcross' conclusions are cogent. Beneath the chaos, he writes, "a new global architecture is being built upon the international system that was constructed after the Second World War." Among its principal elements are "humanitarian rather than strategic intervention" and a world judicial system that includes the International Criminal Court inspired by the messes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. "The overall aim is to protect the rights of individuals and to limit the impunity of dictators," he says. The argument here is best made by Annan early on. The long-term answer to the world's conflicts, he tells Shawcross, is to encourage development and a democratic consciousness, so that people are involved in their own governance and learn to protect human rights and the rule of law in their own societies.

If there's a problem in this book, it has to do with method more than argument. Shawcross writes out of a long British tradition of "I-was-there" journalism, exemplified by the early work of Alan Moorehead, the great wartime correspondent of London's Daily Express. That's fine when describing El Alamein, but it's a mismatch here. I don't much care about the wind-chill factor as Annan ruminates one winter evening. Stale detail lends the book a superficiality that's at odds with Shawcross' purpose--and it crowds out analysis that would have better supported his arguments. At half the length, Deliver Us from Evil would be twice as powerful.

"There is never an easy answer as to why the spotlight of international concern focuses more on some conflicts than others," Shawcross writes. In The New Military Humanism, Noam Chomsky disagrees vigorously with this assertion. And "vigorous" hardly does justice to the force of his argument: Reading Chomsky is like standing in a wind tunnel. With relentless logic, Chomsky bids us to listen closely to what our leaders tell us--and to discern what they are leaving out. The answers become clear enough, he says. The catch is they won't be the ones we want to hear. "One of the hardest things to do is look in the mirror," Chomsky writes. "It is also one of the most important things to do."

Kosovo, site of the Western alliance's most recent intervention, is Chomsky's template. You can't put Western conduct down to humanitarianism, he says, when the West tolerates (or supports) equivalent (or worse) offenses in Turkey's war against the Kurds, or Colombia's anti-insurgent drive. NATO bombing may have brought Milosevic to his knees in Belgrade, but Chomsky makes a good case that it was against international law, that it could have been avoided via diplomacy, and that it was motivated by national and NATO self-interest rather than moral concern. As Chomsky sees it, the issue was credibility: The bombs were meant to consolidate NATO and stand as a threat to others who would defy it.

Humanitarian intent? A fig leaf, as Chomsky sees it, a euphemism employed by everyone from the American Puritans to Stalin and Hitler. Limiting the impunity of dictators is a fine idea, he argues, but who gets the job? His answer is not dissimilar to Shawcross': What's needed is a strong international framework to which all nations are subject. But he's less optimistic about whether that is within our grasp. "The world is ruled by force," Chomsky writes, "under a veil of moral purpose woven by the educated classes, who, as throughout history, preach eloquently about `a landmark in international relations,' a `new era' of justice and righteousness under the courageous leadership of the enlightened states, by accident their own."

The New World Disorder
The New World Disorder

Chomsky, as he often does, has a voice problem. He is shrill and sarcastic--chiefly because he's angry with what he sees as rampant American hypocrisy. The strident tone and unyielding criticism long ago landed him in the Siberia of American discourse. It's an undeserved fate. What Chomsky has to say is fully as legitimate as what Shawcross has to tell us. He is certainly correct as to the price Americans pay for ignoring history and failing to see themselves as others see them. If there is anything new about our age, it is that the questions Chomsky raises will eventually have to be answered. Agree with him or not, we lose out by not listening.

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