As the new U.S. administration prepares to take office amid grave financial and international crises, it may seem counterintuitive to argue that the very unsettled nature of the international system generates a unique opportunity for creative diplomacy.
That opportunity involves a seeming contradiction. On one level, the financial collapse represents a major blow to the standing of the United States. While American political judgments have often proved controversial, the American prescription for a world financial order has generally been unchallenged. Now disillusionment with the United States' management of it is widespread.
At the same time, the magnitude of the debacle makes it impossible for the rest of the world to shelter any longer behind American predominance or American failings.
Every country will have to reassess its own contribution to the prevailing crisis. Each will seek to make itself independent, to the greatest possible degree, of the conditions that produced the collapse; at the same time, each will be obliged to face the reality that its dilemmas can be mastered only by common action.
Even the most affluent countries will confront shrinking resources. Each will have to redefine its national priorities. An international order will emerge if a system of compatible priorities comes into being. It will fragment disastrously if the various priorities cannot be reconciled.
The nadir of the existing international financial system coincides with simultaneous political crises around the globe. Never have so many transformations occurred at the same time in so many different parts of the world and been made globally accessible via instantaneous communication. The alternative to a new international order is chaos.
The financial and political crises are, in fact, closely related partly because, during the period of economic exuberance, a gap had opened up between the economic and the political organization of the world.
The economic world has been globalized. Its institutions have a global reach and have operated by maxims that assumed a self-regulating global market.
The financial collapse exposed the mirage. It made evident the absence of global institutions to cushion the shock and to reverse the trend. Inevitably, when the affected publics turned to their national political institutions, these were driven principally by domestic politics, not considerations of world order.
Every major country has attempted to solve its immediate problems essentially on its own and to defer common action to a later, less crisis-driven point. So-called rescue packages have emerged on a piecemeal national basis, generally by substituting seemingly unlimited governmental credit for the domestic credit that produced the debacle in the first place - so far without more than stemming incipient panic.
International order will not come about either in the political or economic field until there emerge general rules toward which countries can orient themselves.
In the end, the political and economic systems can be harmonized in only one of two ways: by creating an international political regulatory system with the same reach as that of the economic world; or by shrinking the economic units to a size manageable by existing political structures, which is likely to lead to a new mercantilism, perhaps of regional units.
A new Bretton Woods-kind of global agreement is by far the preferable outcome. America's role in this enterprise will be decisive. Paradoxically, American influence will be great in proportion to the modesty in our conduct; we need to modify the righteousness that has characterized too many American attitudes, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That seminal event and the subsequent period of nearly uninterrupted global growth induced too many to equate world order with the acceptance of American designs, including our domestic preferences.
The result was a certain inherent unilateralism - the standard complaint of European critics - or else an insistent kind of consultation by which nations were invited to prove their fitness to enter the international system by conforming to American prescriptions.