Power Shift: On the New Global Order by Richard Falk

| September 8, 2017
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Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Richard Falk (London: Zed Books, 2016), 300 pp., $95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

In his most recent book, Richard Falk—a contentious and controversial international law scholar of global fame—focuses on how the Westphalian state order creates human misery and political turmoil by not responding appropriately to the existential challenges of our time: war, poverty, and climate change. Power Shift, which is composed of an introduction and thirteen essays, is full of interesting insights and displays an impressive degree of rhetorical power. Collectively, these essays demonstrate, rather convincingly, what a precarious world we live in. For all those who are in search of a forceful, mostly Left critique of the status quo, this book is a must-read.

The first set of chapters focuses on specific instances of failures and dangers of realist policies. Chapter 1 criticizes the recent move “toward a new geopolitics” as strongly deficient, given the current problems such as climate change or financial instabilities. Chapter 3 argues that the development and employment of drones is “more dangerous than nuclear weapons” for international law and world order. In this vein, Falk questions President Obama’s policies against terrorism and the doctrine of perpetual war in an era of drone warfare.

Other chapters identify the negative and potentially destructive long-term consequences of major international events and developments. For instance, in chapter 9, Falk identifies the disruptive legacies of World War I; and in chapter 2 he addresses the post-secular divide as a result of the failures following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Arab Spring.

At the core of Power Shift are essays that analyze recent developments in world order, criticize their deficiencies, and discuss the chances to overcome them. In chapter 4, Falk identifies the “contours of new constitutionalism”; chapter 5 looks at the “horizons of global governance”; chapter 6 is about “responding to the global crisis”; and chapter 7 argues in favor of a “global imaginary.” In the final chapters, Falk discusses four models of global order, the role of individual attitudes in the global order, and ends with the provocative question: Does the human species wish to survive?

Arguably, these final chapters are the deepest and most interesting in the book, as each is a rich examination of how the world order works and why it is deficient. Falk points to the dynamic interaction between the equal sovereignty of states and the institutionalized rules of inequality; to the development of new norms and institutions, such as the Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court, and how they have failed to live up to expectations; and to the structural barriers to establishing a better world order, especially the dominance of realism in the mindset of decision-makers and the dominance of nationalism in the mindset of peoples. These chapters do not really add to explanatory theories, nor do they contribute from a perspective of normative theory; yet they are undeniably strong when it comes to criticizing and demasking current practices of world politics from a critical perspective.

Not surprisingly, these essays are highly critical of current politicians and politics; but what may be surprising to the reader is the book’s overall pessimistic tone, as illustrated by the following statement from the final essay: “The imperatives of a transition to a safer, more sustainable world are resisted by the embedded assumptions of old realism: that military capabilities and war-making are keys to security, that GNP growth is the indispensable foundation of political stability . . . and that the correct role of governments of sovereign states is to manage this set of relationships on behalf of national communities variously situated. Such an orientation is not so much wrong as it is anachronistic and in need of fundamental adjustment” (p. 246).

The view that the three cornerstones of current political order as conceived by “old realism”—the military is key to security, the growth of the market is essential for political stability, and national communities are paramount to others—not only stand in the way of a better global order but are also almost impossible to overcome is both depressing and also raises the question of whether his underlying normative project is a good one. Political projects certainly reach beyond philosophical theory. A good model of a global order, therefore, needs to take into account empirical conditions and moral principles. Such models or political projects can realize their potential only if they fulfill a double function, both enabling strong criticism of the institutional status quo and pointing the way constructively toward another order. Thus, in the words of Habermas, these models should represent “thinking and acting realistically without losing the utopian impulse.” Or, in the words of Rawls, they must aim at a “realistic utopia.”

Models of global order tend to fall into the trap either of espousing and reaffirming realism or of designing empty utopias. Falk is reasonably safe regarding the affirmation trap. However, to the extent that his underlying normative order depends on overcoming elements of the social status quo that are “social facts,” he steps into the utopia trap. If the three cornerstone beliefs of the current order are “true,” a normative order that is based on other beliefs may prove shallow.

To be sure, Falk himself cites Ralph Waldo Emerson in saying that “the health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired as long as we can see far enough” (p. 101). In line with this thought, he juxtaposes the politics of feasibility and the politics of necessity, aiming to bridge them with a politics of desire—to span the chasm between the flaws of affirmation and the flaws of empty utopia. Yet the politics of desire remain fairly underdeveloped in this collection of essays. There are no mechanisms by which the national orientation of most people can be changed or explanations of how the view of the whole can prevail over the view of the parts. It also remains unclear how politics can move itself in the right direction. Without a sketch of how the new world might look, the politics of desire remains weak and the politics of desperation seems likely to triumph.

In the end, this is what makes Power Shift a tough read. Falk’s eloquence makes it painfully clear what bad shape world politics is in. It also makes clear that, without a way out, we may end up in chaos. To that end, he reminds us of Einstein’s grim comment: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” The book, however, says little about how to avoid this bleak outcome; and, given the powerful language and the imagination of this great author, this does not bode well.


—Michael Zürn

Michael Zürn is Director at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Professor of International Relations at Freie Universität Berlin. He works on global governance, international institutions, and European politics. His most recent book (with Monika Heupel) is Protecting the Individual from International Authority.


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Category: Book Review, Issue 31.3

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