The essence of conservatism is realism. Conservatives properly study the bloody lessons of history and recognize the ambiguous temper of human nature. They reject the grand but unworkable schemes for radical reform proposed by the socialist left. They favor local and state programs over federal ones, because they fear that the plans of a distant Washington will be too abstract for parochial community needs. By extension, the notion of a world government is even more fanciful.

Ever since the first modern multilateral congress of powers gathered at Münster and Osnabrück in 1648 to draw up the Peace of Westphalia, schemes for a “New World Order” have been hatched at the end of every major conflict. William Penn, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill are among the many who have tried their hand at such plans. All have failed. And while enlightened thinkers have played the parlor game of peace-mongering, the duty has fallen to conservatives to keep a wary eye on the inventory of powder and shot.

At the turn of the last century hope was invested in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The Great Powers held conferences in 1899 and 1907 to discuss arms control and dispute resolution. However, a third meeting scheduled for 1915 had to be canceled . . . due to the outbreak of World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson then took his turn as champion of a new order. His Fourteen Points and proposal for a League of Nations owed much to the thinking of British leftists. The Fabian socialist H.G. Wells was the first to coin the phrase “The War That Will End War,” using it as the title for an essay in August 1914. Wells urged, “Let us replan society as we mean it to be constructed. Now is the opportunity to do fundamental things that will otherwise not get done for hundreds of years.” Among his proposals was to “set up a Peace League that will control the globe.” The destruction of the “reactionary” autocracies of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Russia brought hope that the remaining Great Powers would cooperate in a democratic system based on international law, general disarmament, and free trade. Wilson’s utopianism was rejected on the home front, and the United States did not join the league. Men like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who opposed Wilson did so not because they were isolationists but because they were realists and nationalists. Lodge had long been a proponent of American overseas expansion. What was rejected was any diminution of American sovereignty or military strength and the restrictions on America’s freedom of action that the league seemed to entail.

Yet the United States did participate in other interwar diplomatic efforts compatible with the Wilsonian vision. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg cosponsored the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which “outlawed” war. All the major powers that fought in World War II had signed this agreement, pledging to “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies and renounce it as an instrument of national policy.”

After World War II, the United Nations was established with a Security Council dominated by the major victorious powers: the United States, England, France, China, and the Soviet Union. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke openly of the “Big Four” (excluding China) as “policemen” whose power would dampen conflict between the minor states. The flaw became quickly evident. The World War II Allies did not stay united, as the Soviet Union and then China became enemies of the West. This had also happened after World War I, when Japan and Italy broke with the Western Allies to form the Axis with a revived Germany. Time and again the liberal notion that in an enlightened world everyone would recognize a harmony of interests in peace has proven a delusion. Even the horror of two world wars and the threat of nuclear escalation failed to bring forth such a common view. People the world over continue to hold causes (national, religious, ideological) to be more important than peace, causes for which some are willing to die and many more are willing to kill. There is no status quo that satisfies everyone. Change is always in the air.

How change evolves depends on the balance of power, a balance that occasionally must be tested. The liberal response has been “collective security,” the attempt to prevent change by meeting force with force. Whenever war breaks out, the United Nations is to identify the aggressor and intervene against him; the proposed intervention is dependent on American “leadership” to be effective. The result is more American involvement in more foreign conflicts with less likelihood of success than the more modest agenda of traditional diplomacy based on fighting only when clearly defined American interests are directly threatened. It also naively assumes that “aggression” can be easily defined.

During the Cold War, any expansion by a communist regime, whether by cross-border invasion or internal subversion, was branded “aggression” in accordance with the national security interests of the United States and its allies. Critics attacked this for not being “evenhanded.” They wanted a general principle that would condemn friends as well as foes for their violent acts regardless of their effect on American interests. And all too often, the State Department gave in to such pressure to place sanctions against countries that not only were friendly to the United States but in some cases were actual military allies acting against avowed enemies of the United States (examples: siding with the Soviet Union against Britain and France during the 1956 Suez Crisis; denouncing Israel for its attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981; and levying sanctions against various anticommunist regimes in Latin America).

Most of these cases involved alleged human rights abuses or punitive or preemptive military strikes. However, another common approach is to appeal to the supposed universal “principle” that borders should not be changed by force. Calls for American intervention in Bosnia have been based heavily on this notion. Yet this is one of many ivory-tower ideals far removed from reality. Flip through any historical atlas and watch the colors depicting nations and empires dance back and forth across the page. Watch the border of the United States move westward. The world is a dynamic place; its political geography cannot be frozen in time. Yet the advocates of collective security are willing to spend American blood in a futile effort to attempt this.

But collective security has a very poor record. The reason is simple. Nations do not want to waste their precious blood and treasure fighting wars that do not concern them directly and horn which they will gain nothing to offset their losses. Instead, nations which feel that their interests or security may be threatened are free to use the tools of traditional diplomacy and form alliances to achieve mutual goals. Such alliances, because they are more narrowly focused and originate from concrete national concerns, are much more likely to be honored.

Despite the many failures of collective security, new calls are being made for a stronger United Nations that can act as an independent authority superior to national governments. The aim is to restrain or direct the energies of national governments and the private interests they shelter. Unsurprisingly, most of these calls are coming from the left.

With the Soviet Union gone, leftists are looking for a new power to contain American “imperialism.” To them, collective security means counterbalancing the influence of the United States as the only superpower. When Mikhail Gorbachev raises millions of dollars by speaking of the “need for some kind of global government . . . one in which all members of the world community could take part,” it is clearly a bid by the former leader of the defunct Soviet Union to create a new power to confront an old rival. The same is true when Joanne Lundy of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy argues that all members of the U.N. Security Council should be elected by the General Assembly in the name of “an equitable distribution of wealth and power” with no “anti-democratic” vetoes. Here is an excellent example of why the United States, with only six percent of the world’s population, should not claim that advancing global democracy is its top priority.

Another dangerous notion is that the United Nations should have its own armed forces and intelligence agency. An advocate of this is Michael G. Renner of the left-wing Worldwatch Institute. Renner is critical of the U.N. Security Council for “abdicating its responsibility . . . by giving a U.S.-led coalition a blank check.” During the Gulf crisis, he wanted American forces placed “under control of the Security Council and its Military Staff Committee.” The United Nations should not be dependent on forces contributed by national governments but should recruit its own army from “individuals whose loyalty to the U.N. is not in question,” says Reimer. That is, individuals who have turned their backs on their own homelands. Renner believes this army could go beyond protecting borders to intervening in domestic affairs through the “facilitation of political transitions . . . and elections.” A prescription for global tyranny.

A large step in this direction was advocated by Martin Walker in the Summer 1993 issue of the World Policy Journal, published quarterly by the World Policy Institute. In an essay entitled “Global Taxation: Paying for Peace,” Walker points out that “the more than $900 billion traded on the world’s currency exchanges every day is recorded and most of the transactions are accomplished on the world’s most sophisticated data network. They are thus, at least in theory, easily taxable.” The principle use of this new tax revenue would be to fund a United Nations army independent of control by major U.N. members like the United States.

Taxation and the raising of armies are sovereign prerogatives. For the United Nations to claim such rights, regardless of how implemented, would establish it as a superior entity. Walker sympathizes with this notion:

The power to assert one’s own economic and taxation policy has long been the cardinal characteristic of the nation-state. That power is now in question. But so is the continued utility of the nation-state as the guarantor of internal order and prime actor in international affairs.

Note that the United Nations’ role is to extend to assuring “internal order” within nations and not just to serving as a mediator between nations.

These ideas were once confined to the far left, but their containment has broken down. The present danger comes from the naiveté and absentmindedness with which these notions are being picked up in mainstream circles. A case in point is the Final Report of the United States Commission on Improving the Effectiveness of the United Nations, released last September. Entitled The UN and the Health of Nations, it implies that the United Nations has the cure for all of the world’s ills. The members of the commission were picked by President George Bush and by leaders of both parties in Congress.

In the report’s introduction one finds the following statement:

Just as the Pentagon should become “blued” in the decades ahead with U.S. armed forces prepared to serve as the need arises in blue-helmeted U.N. operations, Washington must become “greened” with policymakers prepared to demonstrate an increased commitment to addressing transnational environmental problems.

More disturbing than the assertion itself is the fact that it was made by the Republican cochair of the commission. Representative James Leach of Iowa. Leach is a foe of what he calls “the corrosive cynicism of the realist critique.” He condemned the fact that “as recently as a decade ago, the Executive Branch took a hard-edged ideological approach to international relations that included toying with the U.S. withdrawal from parts of the U.N. system.” To name names, that was part of Ronald Reagan’s policy, which led to the American victory in the Cold War. How soon some people forget the nature of the real world in their hubristic embrace of a “New World Order”!

Leach also denounced Reagan for “taking an ideological walk at the Law of the Sea negotiations.” Yet the Law of the Sea Treaty proposed in 1982 under U.N. auspices called for the creation of a Seabed Authority modeled on the U.N. General Assembly, which would literally have had exclusive jurisdiction over half the planet, meaning the oceans outside of territorial waters. It would have licensed (for a fee) all deep seabed exploration, taxed companies engaged in ocean development, and mandated the transfer of technology. The money and technology obtained was to go to the Third World. The Seabed Authority was also to fix prices, set production limits, and control the marketing of ocean resources. American opposition killed this dangerous U.N. plot, but such battles are never permanently won.

Leach owed his appointment as cochair to Bush. The two became political allies after meeting at the United Nations, where Bush was the United States ambassador and Leach a State Department foreign service officer. It was Bush’s tactic of using the United Nations as cover for the Gulf War that is primarily responsible for the revival of the U.N. after it had been rendered impotent and irrelevant by Reagan.

The commission report calls for “the U.S. and other nations to subscribe to the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (World Court) at The Hague” and for the creation of a new International Criminal Court. Though Leach teases the reader by suggesting Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Miloshevitch, and Abu Nidal as potential defendants in such a court, his is an American wish-list. Other people’s lists may differ radically. As even Leach concedes, “In a dynamic, divided world . . . one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; one man’s narco-trafficker is another’s Robin Hood.” That is why the creation of new supranational bodies, or the empowerment of existing bodies, is dangerous. The United States is only one of 184 members of the United Nations. America’s national strength gives it a far better capability to protect its own interests than to control a global organization of diverse states, many if not most of which do not share American values or care anything for the well-being and security of American citizens.

While Leach cannot be considered a conservative, similar calls for an expanded United Nations have come from those closely associated with the putative right. Paul Johnson advocated the resurrection of the United Nations as a world government in National Review (Dec. 14, 1992). Johnson sees the U.N. Security Council becoming “the last, most altruistic and positive of the imperial powers.” The U.N. Security Council would intervene around the world “from the provision of basic government almost from scratch—as is plainly needed in Somaliland [sic] now—to the provision of internal security systems to mandatory currency and economic management.” This call for involvement in the internal policies of states goes far beyond the original idea of controlling external aggression. Thus his attempt to cite the Gulf War as a precedent for his grand scheme does not connect. Johnson’s target list for intervention includes “at least a score of states where government cannot discharge its elementary functions.” Elsewhere Johnson mentions “60 or 70 poor nations distressed by war, famine or economic collapse.”

Johnson believes the end of the Cold War has made consensus-building on the U.N. Security Council easy. He is so optimistic about Russia he is even willing to give Moscow a “trusteeship” over the trans-Caucasus region, an obviously foolish idea because the region’s inhabitants want independence from Russia. Will the United States be asked to provide troops to help Moscow recreate its empire under the U.N. flag, or will technical and financial support suffice?

Johnson admits that China poses a problem, but he naively assumes that if given more responsibility in the world community, China “will act more responsibly in consequence.” Johnson would also expand the U.N. Security Council to include Germany, Japan, and India. Yet the more members there are in this “inner cabinet of the world community,” the harder it will be to reach a consensus. Accustomed to thinking in narrow Cold War terms where ideology was paramount, Johnson grossly underestimates the variety of issues that can divide nations.

Yet in his much heralded work Modern Times, Johnson was hostile to the Wilsonian world view, denouncing proponents of the League of Nations as “quasi-pacifists” bent on creating “a sense of security which is wholly fictitious.” He rejected the concept of collective security, writing “nations eschew war except when their vital interests were at stake. How could frontiers be indefinitely guaranteed by anything or anybody?” Johnson, like so many other historians, has a realistic view of the past but is unable to translate this into a defense against current fads of a quixotic nature.

Johnson does see economic rivalry as a growing problem, but he glosses over its importance by repeating the tired cliche of “free trade.” If “history shows that trade wars have a depressing tendency to erupt into fighting wars,” as Johnson believes, does this not mean that the economic stakes are high? Too high for responsible statesmen to ignore by adopting a laissez-faire attitude? Today, manufacturing in strategic industries is characterized by imperfect competition, externalities, and economies of scale. The gains from market dominance are not just from immediate income but also from enhanced national security and faster future growth. Thus the economic argument for “free trade” has lost its force while the political argument for strategic-industrial independence remains.

This leaves Johnson with the old argument from Richard Cobden that free trade is “the grand panacea” under whose influence “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away.” This has always been the real appeal of free-trade theory. Yet prominent free-trade advocates like Charles Kindleberger and Robert Keohane have conceded that a major power needs to act as the self-sacrificing “leader” to hold such a system together: one that will turn a blind eye to the predatory policies of others, that will unilaterally keep its markets open and watch passively as its own strength is eaten away “for the good of the global system.” The United States has played this role for several decades, and the costs have risen to the breaking point. It is, of course, easier to build a consensus if the United States shoulders the burden of intervention. But it is not true that only America has the power to act. The Europeans could have handled Bosnia, and the oil-rich Islamic states could have come to the aid of their coreligionists in nearby Somalia. But they refused. The costs were deemed too high for projects that did not touch their national interests.

It is a credit to American compassion that the United States has been in the forefront of emergency relief efforts. But Johnson’s agenda goes far beyond this. He recognizes that the problems of Third World nations are of their own making, of “bad, incompetent or corrupt government . . . or no government.” He speaks glibly of a “new imperialism” whereby the U.N. Security Council assumes responsibility for hundreds of millions of people. Such a scheme is almost certainly futile. But even if it were not futile, American leaders have no right to spend the nation’s blood and treasure on massive ventures unrelated to the needs of the people they represent. If they forget, the public should remind them. Somalia provided an object lesson in this regard when a strong political backlash developed after a number of American soldiers were killed in gun battles with the forces of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. The media tried to portray Somalia as another Vietnam. But the two are not the same. In principle (though fortunately not in scale), Somalia was worse. North Vietnam was a communist regime backed by the Soviet Union, and when the communists won in 1975 (after the Americans withdrew and Congress made draconian cuts in aid to South Vietnam) the Soviets moved bombers and warships into the former American bases. It was a part of the global chess game that bore directly on American security.

Communism has now collapsed almost everywhere, but the left remains opposed to any American military action to protect national strategic interests. Thus the left opposed the Persian Gulf War because it was a struggle for the control of oil. And it is exactly because America has no strategic interests in Somalia that made intervention so attractive to the Clinton administration. Intervention was to be a humanitarian act of “nation- building” under the U.N. flag, an act of self-sacrifice to uplift the poor in a new liberal world order. It was very much in line with the trustee system Johnson wanted to revive.

But the League of Nations trustee system, like the older system of imperialism, saw nations administer territory in accord with their strategic interests. The best examples are Britain’s use of league mandates to control Middle East oil fields and Japan’s use of mandates in the Mariana and Caroline islands to form the outer bulwarks of its Pacific empire. When the costs of empire became too high or they were defeated in war, the trustees withdrew. In contrast, the costs of altruistic intervention always end up being too high. Though the loss of any American GI is a tragedy to friends and family, there is an unequalled honor in having given one’s life for one’s country. But because those who were killed in Somalia were supporting a policy that explicitly served no American interest, they seem to have died for nothing. And that is what sparked the backlash.

The final appeal made by advocates of an expanded United Nations supported by the United States is the alleged fear that failure of American action means that the country is lapsing back into isolationism. This would be a sign that democracy itself is fatally flawed if it cannot rally itself on behalf of global leadership. Yet the United States has proved its ability to act forcefully when its real interests are at stake. The United States has fought just as many wars as any other major power—and has a better win-loss record than most. The massive public support that manifested itself during the Gulf War attests to the strength of the American patriotic spirit. The real danger comes if the United States is dragged into a series of fruitless conflicts without benefit to the country. It is then that public opinion becomes disenchanted and turns “isolationist,” thus undermining the ability of the country to maintain the means and the will to defend its own interests. True conservatives are realists who understand that American blood, treasure, and moral energy are too precious to be wasted on barren liberal “principles” unconnected to America’s actual needs.