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A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order

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A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard Haass. Penguin Books, 2017, 339 pp.


As worldwide economic and informational integration seems to make borders less relevant, diplomats and strategists will have to consider the implications for the traditional view of sovereignty. Foreign policy expert Richard Haass takes an updated look at international relations in his latest book. With his prescriptions for policy makers, Haass offers analysis and insight into policy decisions, implementation, and outcomes. He proposes the concept of a “World Order 2.0” in a post-unipolar hierarchy as the United States slips from its position of global hegemon. According to Haass, to achieve this, the world must accept a new definition of sovereignty based on acknowledging the impact of globalization or otherwise face continued violent conflict.

Disarray is a quick-reading account of global politics since the end of World War II and provides the layman with an abridged account of the actions that created the modern world. Haass delivers special insight into the George H. W. Bush administration, 1989–1992, where he served as senior Middle East adviser and in the key position of director of policy planning under Secretary of State Colin Powell. It could be argued that this experience biases his account, but he strives for fairness in the analysis both before and during his involvement in policy making. 

The first two sections of Disarray deliver a succinct strategic analysis and are a review for those with knowledge of the science and history of international relations. It is the third section that is of interest to military professionals, when Haass introduces the concept of “sovereign obligation.”

His central premise is that the principal powers must develop a common approach to what constitutes legitimacy in the form of sovereign obligation. Haass claims that globalization has made domestic sovereignty inconsequential because the implications are not constrained by the borders of states. This leads to the crux of his perceived shift to World Order 2.0. He says states have obligations of behavior they must follow to maintain their international legitimacy. Haass does not make a neo-liberal or institutional assertion that states must cede sovereignty to supra-natural powers. His belief is that the implications of domestic policy in a globalized world must be addressed by modernizing the definition of legitimate sovereign behavior and the contract between nations.

Sovereign obligation resembles Henry Kissinger’s notion of states affirming “universal principles” described in his 2014 book World Order. Kissinger also says there must be a redefinition of legitimacy anytime cohesion is challenged. Today that challenge to cohesion comes in the form of globalization. To addresses traditional realist concerns about his new interpretation of legitimacy, Haass points to the transnational effects of globalization and implies this new definition modernizes realism. Haass redefines sovereignty by including domestic obligations, and this has implications for terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and myriad other concerns. These issues are no longer bounded by the formal borders established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which established the concept of national sovereignty central to the current world order.

Haass does not lightly dismiss the problems associated with sovereign obligation, however. One example is the implication for climate change. Due to global affects, he acknowledges that reaching a consensus on climate change is the major problem with this shift. Without consensus on the responsibility of states, there is likely to be little agreement. Without agreement on responsibility, any solution to such a borderless problem is incomplete.

True to his realist leanings, Haass insists that the state is still the primary actor on the world stage. His “sovereign obligation” concept intends to recalibrate the behavior of states to prevent conflicts created by the transcendence of borders due to globalization. Haass’s conclusions in Disarray offer possible resolutions to the problems created by the erosion of the Westphalian model of sovereignty. Some military leaders and strategic planners may take umbrage with the acceptance of sovereign obligation and international consensus as a weakening of their state’s domestic supremacy. It is unlikely that states that do not adhere to the modern liberal system would ever agree to this change.

This does not mean that redefining sovereignty is not worthy of study. It helps analyze the transnational impact of domestic policies. Haass’s insight into his expert policy-making philosophy promises to be valuable to military professionals interested in diplomatic history, international relations, and the future of American foreign policy.

Maj F. Bart Doyle, USAF


The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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