Most of the books I read are either ones that were recommended to me or that I added to my reading list because I saw it referenced and thought it sounded interesting. As such, they are generally ones that I tend to agree with on most, if not all, the points in them. A World in Disarray by Richard Hass did not end up in my hands via either of those routes and, as could be predicted, it was one with which I almost entirely disagreed.
That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s not, as I’ll get to in the “analysis” section. Hass is, despite his flawed opinions, an excellent writer and obviously thought deeply about what he was writing and how he came to those conclusions.
It is, however, a pro-globalism book. Hass’s central thesis is that the world is in “disarray,” albeit not anarchy or chaos, because of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of other nation-states, so the US must, therefore, step up to the plate and address the situation. To be honest, I don’t disagree with that thesis. The world is an increasingly complex and disordered place and the US needs to protect its interest. But, as I’ll get to in my summary of A World in Disarray, Hass draws all the wrong conclusions. Rather than returning to a world of realpolitik and clear, America First thinking of the Trumpian variety, Hass wants to double down on globalism.
Summary of A World in Disarray by Richard Hass
A World in Disarray is, in effect, a book about why Hass thinks globalism is the right policy. It’s as if he read all the same information that formed the background for Colossus by Niall Ferguson and, instead of drawing Ferguson’s conclusion, which is that America should act more like the British Empire, instead decided that we need to back down and appease (or, as he puts it “accommodate”) the rise of rival powers, namely China.
To eventually arrive at that conclusion, Hass begins with the problem. After the introduction, in which he cites Brexit as one of the examples of the rise of the populism that elites like him dread, he spends about 70 pages describing how we arrived at the situation that now exists.
Beginning with the post-Thirty Year’s War Peace of Westphalia, Hass charts how order was created in pre-World War I Europe and how World War I destroyed that system. The Peace of Westphalia established the principle that nations should not meddle in the internal affairs of other nations, even for religious reasons, and effectively created nation-states as we know them.
The system created by it lasted until Napoleon ravaged Europe with his armies until finally stopped by the Duke of Wellington in the fields of Waterloo. Europe responded yet again with the Concert of Europe, formed at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which kept major wars from breaking out until World War I. That war, with all of its violence and savagery, ripped apart Europe once again.
This time, Europe’s attempts to establish a lasting peace were feeble at best. The League of Nations was inept and powerless, the harsh terms of Versailles reaped resentment and another war twenty years later, and the weakness of the democracies meant that war was far longer and bloodier than it needed to be.
After World War II, the West did not make the same mistakes as before. Instead, with Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, and other policies, it ensured that peace would last, among Western European states, at least. While the Soviet Bear loomed to the East, the willingness of both sides to defend their interests, the dark logic of MAD, and general restraint after the Cuban Missile Crisis kept the war from going hot.
Hass then arrives, in Part II of A World in Disarray, at our current situation. While the US is the most powerful nation, it is far from a hegemon. Terrorist groups act with impunity in many areas, namely Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. China and Russia, as can be read about in Battlefield Ukraine, pose real military threats to our interests.
Apart from them, other nations, such as France, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, India, and even Pakistan are centers of power that exert some degree of influence. Additionally, there are extranational groups, such as NATO, the UN, and the WHO that exert some degree of control in nations.
So, our current world is not unipolar, bipolar, or even multipolar; there are no number of “poles” that could cover all the centers of power and influence in the world. As such, our world is, as the title implies, a world in disarray.
Overall, in this section of A World in Disarray, Hass covers the defining features of the post-Cold War World and how we arrived in our present predicament. The US has been unwilling to act, doctrines such as the “responsibility to protect” have been popularized then thrown out, diplomatic mistakes and missteps have caused us to lose faith in our leaders and world leaders in the US, and many nations have grown in power and influence as the US has faded. Others have risen and the US has lost a commiserate amount of influence.
Finally, in Part III of A World in Disarray, Hass turns to his solutions. Those “solutions” are largely globalist policies of the sort Trump railed against. Accommodating China. Letting international organizations, rather than the executive and Congress, handle trade disputes and punishing unfair trading practices. Signing more trade deals. Placing even more of a focus on Russia. Staying involved in the Middle East. Signing climate change agreements. Etc. Much of it is congruent with Kratuhammer’s philosophy in Things that Matter.
And that’s where A World in Disarray ends. Hass describes how the world handled crises through the Cold War, remarks upon our present situation, and gives his policy prescriptions.
Analysis of A World in Disarray by Richard Hass
As I said in the introduction, A World in Disarray is not a bad book. In fact, the first two parts are quite interesting, even in Hass’s globalist worldview seems into them somewhat. The history within them and Hass’s concise writing style keep those sections interesting and inform the reader of the various ideas and policies, such as responsibility to protect, MAD, and containment, that defined different eras of recent history.
Furthermore, all of his claims in A World in Disarray are well-cited. Every time he presents an idea or remarks upon a past principle, he backs it up with historical examples that show why he thinks his policies would work or past past policies did work.
The problem is that, whatever Hass’s writing ability, research, or the interesting nature of Parts I and II, he’s wrong. Globalism has not succeeded and the populism he decries arose because of its failures.
Take trade, for example. Since Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the West has moved ever more toward a free trade regime. And, generally, it worked. We were all similar countries with some similar skills and some unique advantages, so trade was competitive but the effects were positive rather than deleterious. As you can read about in Empire or The Last Lion, the pre-WWI era was one of incredible prosperity.
But then things changed. After the Cold War, trade exploded, but the costs of globalization fell largely on America’s manufacturing centers. We lost jobs that went to Mexico, Vietnam, and China. Goods do cost less, but what’s the point of a cheap TV if millions of skilled manufacturers lose their job?
Hass sees the problem there but is unable to grasp the solution in A World in Disarray. He says to rely on the WTO. The obvious response is that we had been doing that for years and that mechanism largely failed. We kept losing jobs and falling behind because the Chinese kept cheating and stealing intellectual property. Hass’s solution has already failed, yet he wants to double down on it.
And that, while only one example, strikes at the problem with A World in Disarray. It’s a serious book with unserious, unoriginal solutions. All of what Hass has suggested we have already tried. From the endless wars to the multilateral agreements and bad trade policies, Hass’s solutions drive the problems he suggests.
Wars in the Middle East empower and incite terror groups, as the Iraq, Syrian, and Libyan Wars have. The trade situation with China, before Trump, at least, was an unmitigated disaster not because we were too “unilateral” or protective of our national interests, but because we kept doing what he recommends- “accommodating” Red China.
So, overall, I disagreed with and was unimpressed by the final section of A World in Disarray and thus the book as a whole. Hass is obviously intelligent and a talented writer, but he has no real suggestions. He just advocates we continue with, or even double down upon, the same tired, failed policies of the Bush and Obama years. More wars, more foreign entanglements, more accommodation, and less realism. It’s a disappointing and unconvincing end to an otherwise well-done book.
Should you read A World in Disarray? Maybe. It’s a useful tool for understanding the arguments of the globalists and from where those arguments come. But, frankly, it’s not great.
Hass’s utter lack of originality in policy prescriptions and inability to grapple with the fact that globalism might have failed is disappointing and shows why the globalists couldn’t ever present an argument against Trump: their arguments have already failed for everyone but the elites. As Hass is one of those elites, he obviously supports them. The rest of us shouldn’t.
Read A World in Disarray if you want. It’s not boring and the historical sections of it, especially about pre-World War I Europe, are generally pretty well done. But it is, overall, a disappointing book.
By: Gen Z Conservative