Opportunistic political leaders caught on quick. Sept. 11 left the world awash in fear and anxiety. In order to remain in power, the world’s leaders had to respond to the attacks in a way that conveniently put them in the indispensable role of hero-in-waiting. Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero are defenders of very different faiths, but they’re alike in having derived much of their influence from a fearful populace.
Opportunistic intellectuals were not far behind. Sept. 11 renewed the relevance of political theorists who studied the effects of conflict and power on societies and nations. The end of the Cold War had left some of these thinkers—absent titanic global conflicts to ponder—wondering whether there wasn’t something corrosive about too much peace and prosperity. After the attacks, intellectuals found a cottage industry in addressing the same fear and anxiety that boosted certain politicians: big-think books that seek to put into context our curious new world. Noam Chomsky, Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama disagree over the very “newness” of the post-9/11 world itself, but they all owe their expanded authority to the newly heightened sense of anxiety among their readers.
In The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order, David Runciman, a lecturer in political theory at Cambridge University, joins the fray with a fiercely intelligent though muddled analysis of the way the war on terror has been made use of by both politicians and intellectuals alike. It’s a big, sprawling subject that Mr. Runciman explores through a parochial and ultimately limited perspective. Most of the 10 chapters originally appeared as essays or reviews in the London Review of Books, and while there’s an attempt in the introduction and epilogue to enlist them under a common cause, they never add up to more than a smart collection of tenuously related thoughts.
There is, however, much to recommend here. Mr. Runciman is a keen observer of contemporary political life whose sophisticated sense of history both tempers and enlivens his often thrilling polemics. Over the course of the collection, Mr. Runciman compares the political fallout from Iraq to the Suez crisis, uses the model of Weimar Germany to explore the possibilities of Iraqi reconstruction and democracy, and borrows from thinkers like Max Weber to shed light on contemporary politics. The results are never pedantic and almost always deeply revealing.
In Part One, Mr. Runciman eviscerates Tony Blair by analyzing both his pre- and postwar justifications for the use of force with an attention that can only be termed withering. Much of his criticism is so finely tuned and high-minded that it’s easy to miss the occasional asides that imply that Mr. Blair is a craven hypocrite, a liar and masochistic to the point of deviancy.
In an extended discussion, Mr. Runciman contrasts the British prime minister’s “good intentions” with Lincoln’s Civil War invocations of a “purity of purpose”—and finds Mr. Blair wanting:
“Purity of purpose here means, among other things, a willingness to fight to the end. Blair can’t really talk in these terms, because the fights he picks are too one-sided. It is true that he likes to point out that in each of his major wars (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq) he stayed the course when the doubters were writing his political obituary. But it was in each case just his obituary they were writing, and just a political one; the killing remained for the most part the killing of unknowns on the other side. Moreover, staying the course meant holding his nerve for a few weeks in the face of attacks mounted in television studios and on the pages of unsympathetic newspapers, and in the face of large, but largely peaceful, popular demonstrations, whose political momentum was quick to fade away. Blair has shown courage, but he has not had to show all that much courage; certainly he has not been given the opportunity to demonstrate his integrity solely by dint of what Lincoln and Weber might have called his ‘manliness.’”
The best of Mr. Runciman’s approach to “reading” Tony Blair is right here: The moral perspective, the exacting investigation of Mr. Blair’s self-delusions and a clever historical context—all to reach the conclusion that the prime minister is, comparatively speaking, a lightweight.
Mr. Runciman’s dissections of Mr. Blair are skillfully executed and well worth reading, but they also underscore one of the collection’s chief faults: Tony Blair is an utterly inconsequential figure in the “new world order.” The author acknowledges as much in his introduction, but he also argues that Mr. Blair—whose interventionist ideas predate 9/11—is an ideal representative figure of the “new” politics. Whereas Mr. Bush discovered the cudgel of democracy promotion as a rhetorical afterthought, Mr. Blair gradually adapted an already pre-existing faith in the use of military power for moral ends to the morally fraught adventure in Iraq. Mr. Blair is a superior spokesman for these ideals, and someone whose circumlocutions are far more nuanced than those of Mr. Bush. For a Cambridge intellectual such as Mr. Runciman, the target must have seemed irresistible.
The scrutiny of Tony Blair, sadly, leaves us with few lessons that are translatable to American politics or to the world at large. George Bush is an exceedingly minor figure in Mr. Runciman’s essays, which means that they don’t wrestle significantly with Mr. Blair’s tragic futility in the face of American hegemony. It’s unclear exactly what influence Mr. Blair has been able to exert on the strategic planning and execution of post-9/11 military operations. He and Britain have, in every meaningful way, just been along for the ride. This hollows out Mr. Blair’s rhetoric for everyone except the British public, which pays the price and bears the burdens of his decisions. In sum, Mr. Runciman succeeds in making his ruthless examination of the Blair rhetoric interesting but not especially important.
He’s much more successful in Part Two when he considers recent books by Robert Kagan and Philip Bobbitt and the largely forgotten work of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. Mr. Runciman incisively undermines Mr. Kagan’s false Hobbesian/Kantian dialectic, which has been worn out by conservative intellectuals in their attempts to justify the unilateral exercise of American power. He explores the possibilities for continued democratic representation in Mr. Bobbitt’s vision of a coming market-state that would largely usurp control from traditional national institutions. Though the two essays make for bracing reading, they also add to the sense of the book as a series of tangential ideas. In the penultimate chapter on Sieyès, Mr. Runciman introduces some telling parallels between the French Revolution and the formation of the European Union—but this, too, feels like an unwarranted addition.
It’s a testament to the author’s remarkable talent that there are a half-dozen better book ideas littered throughout this collection. Mr. Runciman could have further explored the ways in which Tony Blair and George Bush manipulated the art of risk assessment to provide ballast for their risky choices; he could have fleshed out his notions about the erosion of democratic representation in postmodern societies. In these anxious times, we could use any number of good books that make sense of the “new world order.” Among this flawed work’s many pleasures is the realization that David Runciman seems well poised to write one of them.
Jason Moring is a writer and editor in New York City.