Here’s a different analogy, meant to be a little closer to the truth than the last one.
Imagine a tough neighborhood, say in the Bronx. The police are all on permanent holiday. Chaos ensues — rioting, looting, etc. — but eventually a few gangs emerge as dominant, and one in particular is truly Dominant. They exploit the neighborhood in every way they can — loan sharking, extortion, intimidation. The other strong gangs often act in cooperation with them, since they get a cut of the action.
Despite the power of the Dominant, some lesser gangs fight back. It is not that they are noble or anything; they simply hate the Dominant’s power, would like more action for themselves, and perhaps disagree ideologically with the Dominant’s beliefs. They can’t really challenge the Dominant’s power, but they can sure be a nuisance.
Say what you like about the Dominant’s loathsome practices. The fact remains that the stability offered under their rule is in many ways preferable to the neighbors than the chaos of the lesser gangs’ acts of terrorism.
Now suppose you become the captain of the Dominants. What will you do with your power? You could simply retreat and let everyone do their own thing. Bad idea. The natural result would be even more chaos, and eventually a different gang would become dominant, and there’s no reason to think they’d be any better than you.
Probably, you’d think this way: I need to use my power to keep order and stability in the neighborhood, as much as I can. When I see obvious unstable elements, I will annihilate them, and try to set up my own operations in their place (or operations of my buddy gangs). Generally, I’ll try to make the stability I offer as attractive as I can to all other gangs, since that’s likely to reduce the incentive to be unruly. But the bottom line, of course, has to be the dominance of the Dominant: without that, no stability.
I think the most interesting idea Barnett (again, blog here) puts forward is the procedure for deciding when an ‘unstable element’ (read: Iraq, Sudan, N. Korea) needs to be annihilated. He leaves it to the UN Security Council to indict them; then the G-8 serves as an executive body to say precisely what needs to be done; then the US military handles the dirty work (who else?); and then, immediately following, a US-led international systems administration force — what he calls “a pistol-packing Peace Corps” — sweeps in to stabilize and rebuild. The resulting country will be obviously pro-US and pro-G-8 — that’s the idea: the Dominant stays dominant. But also stable, democratic (or nearly so), and to some degree ‘free’.
I can’t say how realistic Barnett’s proposal is, since it seems to me that sometimes the Dominant is simply going to want to flex its muscle and take over an economy — or back some other lesser gang who is doing this — without being governed by the UN or even the G-8: there is a lot of money to be made in supplying wars, of course.
Still, this seems like a recipe for a better situation than what we’re now experiencing. Bush really bungled Iraq — no significant international buy-in, not enough of an effort to rebuild. But if it had been handled along Barnett’s lines, there would be more of a stable country there, and with much better prospects than what was there before. (Or? Do I know what I’m talking about?) What if a process like this had been followed at the outbreak of the most recent violence in central Africa?