Remarks Upon Receipt of The Alexis de Tocqueville Prize
I am deeply touched to be introduced by my friend Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who served as French President when I had the honor of conducting the foreign policy of the United States. Four decades ago, then-President Giscard d’Estaing was in office when the European Community crystallized its political institutions, raising issues of how to synthesize autonomous perceptions on the two sides of the Atlantic. President Giscard d’Estaing was a wise mentor in helping evolve this wider conception in the face of new challenges, such as the emergence of a post-colonial Africa and the impact of multiple national nuclear forces on deterrence.
So I thank the Tocqueville organization for this occasion, which commemorates a great author who was astonishingly prophetic about the trials the international order faces today.
Alexis de Tocqueville was a European by birth, but he secured his place in history through a voyage of discovery to the New World. It is indicative of the American character that the person celebrated as perhaps the most perceptive observer of their society was not a native son but a foreign visitor to its shores. As the first American Secretary of State to be himself an immigrant to the United States, I have long felt a great affinity for him.
The work of de Tocqueville also suggests that the fate of democracy is linked in a deep sense to the wider relationship between Europe and America. This is a vitally relevant insight as the United States and France confront a crisis of world order and simultaneously a crisis of democracy.
When de Tocqueville visited the United States, Europe was the most powerful and prosperous region of the world. Out of its internal contests emerged a framework for international relations that sought to distill order by striving for equilibrium amidst division and multiplicity. It was a concept for peace that reflected a practical accommodation to the realities of the European Continent. It operated, uniquely, on the basis of procedural requirements that made it open to new entrants and therefore potentially universal.
The elements of this system included the state as the basic unit for foreign affairs and domestic governance; the doctrine of equality for all states; and simple universal norms of international law and human rights.
France played a seminal role in the cultivation and elaboration of this system. The great French statesman Richelieu conceived the idea of the state as the foundation of international order. It found formal expression in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and emerged in the laws of war and peace set forth by Grotius.
Across the Atlantic, a different concept of world order developed. The American vision of peace emphasized not a balance of power among sovereign states but the cultivation of a shared set of principles and the extension of democratic liberties on a continental scale.
Yet while Americans portrayed their foreign policy as a repudiation of Old World practices, in the process of defining their own concepts, they drew deeply from the same established currents of European history that informed the European vision of international order, vividly expressed in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, all of which made “reason” a universally-recognized modern force and respect for the individual the essential foundation of civilization.
The modern world order that emerged following the cataclysm of the Second World War represented a synthesis of the American and European visions. It was consolidated in new international entities and arrangements such as the United Nations, the Bretton Woods System, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other multilateral achievements.
This Eurocentric system of states evolved into history’s first-ever and still only truly world order. It has a dual structure: a thin but undeniably global layer of general rules, and a proliferation of diverse and substantively distinctive cultural-civilizational polities, each with its own history, interests, and aspirations. As symptomatic of this process, when the European state system accelerated towards a more international character, Europeans and Americans began to think of themselves as part of an Atlantic culture and political entity, interpreting their foundational procedures as a universally applicable system. This interpretation was not a parochial conceit. The global order through which international debates move, and which imposes restraints on state behavior, reflects its civilizational origin: a Western tradition that has emphasized order based on the juridical equality of states, the balance of power, and legal constraints. By contrast, traditional Asian and Middle East systems have their origin in more hierarchical conceptions.
Such is the current system of world order. What is the nature of its crisis?
As the system established its global character, major or potentially major powers who existed in tension with its logic—such as China—began to apply pressure along vectors determined by their own historical experiences. They have remained states in the system but, at the same time, have been sympathetic to ideological forms that reject the principles that underlie procedural universality—for example, the equality of states—and instead have moved toward suzerainty over their perceived spheres of influence.
This process has accelerated as the United States has seemed to grow ambivalent about its own role in the system that it has been central to devising and defending. Some foreign policy intellectuals and observers in the West have asserted that it is time to abandon any aspiration for world order entirely and to accept a return to “normal” history—by which they appear to mean multiple great power rivalries to define the balance of power.
Yet history suggests that, in the absence of some shared concept of legitimacy, the balance of power by itself is insufficient as a guarantor for peace. Eventually it breaks down because calculations are too difficult. Given the uniquely destructive capacity of modern and emerging technologies, including not only nuclear explosives but cyber weapons, artificial intelligence, and space-based weapons, such a course is a prescription for catastrophe.
What is required therefore is an effort to develop new concepts not only for competition but for coexistence, which would entail some measure of mutual and universal restraint among major power centers, even when their ideological premises differ—a challenge particularly relevant to the interaction of the Atlantic nations with China. The great powers have shaped the course of the nuclear evolution. Their technology and technical experience are even more needed for the world of cyber and artificial intelligence.
The issue is not to ignore the reality of rivalry. Great powers are bound to preserve their special status, which the established international state system recognizes. The 1945 United Nations Charter is explicit on this, with the big powers seated in the Security Council, and all states, powerful or not, given equal and legitimate representation in the General Assembly.
The most urgent question is whether, in the process now before us, the Atlantic nations will operate with some sense of common purpose, and hence strategy, on the larger issue of world order. Or whether, in the course of adjusting to changing circumstances and redefining roles, they pursue above all their national or regional interests. This will shape the future of world order in its deepest sense.
If the coming evolution of the world system is defined not only by disputes over what rules should govern but also by a dispute over whether rules should govern at all, increasingly intense clashes are inevitable. The consequence would be to revert global affairs to the sort of strategic dance that occurred before the First World War, the repercussion of which would be a threat to civilization.
The realities of power and expediency in the conduct of international affairs need to be understood. But they rise to the status of an international system only if they pay obeisance to the role played by common notions of just conduct. The future of world order must be an essential component of the agenda of Atlantic identity, including the deepest subordinate issue: whether an element of norms or rules is essential to the concept of world order upon which the modern age itself has been built. Is the goal victory or a more inclusive system?
Statesmen must take care to conduct the necessary security-oriented and strategic dimensions of their policy in such a manner that they do not foreclose the possibility of an emerging world order where the potential use of force is not central to every question. An acceptable evolution of the current system demands that the part of the world that gave birth to a rules-based order remain committed to its principles. But these encompass an inclusive concept of peace.
In the end, the problem of world order turns into a challenge to democracy, as de Tocqueville emphasized in his great book: “Foreign policy,” he said, “requires the use of almost none of the qualities that are proper to democracy, and demands, on the contrary, the development of almost all those it lacks … Only with difficulty can democracy coordinate the details of a great undertaking, fix on a design, and afterwards follow it with determination through obstacles.”
This is precisely the task history has set for the design of world order.