Shall We Overcome?

War and Peace

Conundrums of Humanity: The Quest for Global Justice Jonathan Power Martinus Nijhoff, 2007

On completion of Conundrums of Humanity one cannot deny Jonathan Power is a man of passion gathered and honed from a lifetime of worldly experiences. Conundrums, a reflection of this passion, is a heartfelt, ambitious attempt to solve eleven of the world's critical issues in one volume. Because of this constrained scope, however, here and there Power falls short on delivery. This is to be expected though: how can one expect to delineate and solve the world's problems in eleven short chapters? Nevertheless, Conundrums is an insightful collection of analysis (often personal) underscored by the author's enduring clarion call for more free markets, more democracy, and more human rights-three instruments Power deems essential in overcoming humanity's wildly varied ills.

Divvied up into eleven chapters, Conundrums covers a broad spectrum of problems. While the topics vary, each chapter is woven to the next by the idea that Enlightenment principles of human rights and democracy, coupled with well-behaved free markets, can solve most of the world's puzzles. Power draws the reader in with tantalizing queries: "Can we allow the free movement of people?" (chapter 2). Yes, but not right now. "Can we get rid of nuclear weapons?" (4). Yes, as long as the U.S. leads the way in disarmament and abides by international mandates like the Non-Proliferation Treaty. "Can we feed all the people?" (8) You bet: distribution, not output, is the main hurdle here. "Does Africa have a future?" (10) Of course, and Nigeria and Tanzania provide promising examples. "Will China dominate the century?" (11) No country will dominate the new millennium, but if you are placing bets in Asia, Power has his money on India.

Some chapters do, however, fail to adequately address the teasing lead. "How far and fast can we push the frontier of human rights observance?" (5). How far is not answered. How fast? It would be faster if the U.S. gave legitimacy to international juridical regimes by signing on to the International Criminal Court, and abiding by treaties and World Court rulings. "Does the United Nations have what it takes?" (7) Takes to do what, exactly? Yet Power recognizes the struggling forum needs reformed, or risk becoming irrelevant. "How far can human development progress?" (9) I was hoping to read an eloquent paean to global governance and colonies on Mars. Alas, Power dodges the question, instead focusing on our collective, slow progress toward an unnamed end. Power claims the "essence of the problem" of our slothful progress is "markets," and that the solution lies in six improvements of good governance. I remain unconvinced. In these three chapters Power's passion for the subjects and his research shine, but rather than looking to the future too often the material bogs down in statistics or dwells in the past.

While there is no doubt Power is passionate and well versed in these issues, I found three discussions more thought-provoking than others. His background analysis on the so-called "clash of civilizations" (1) was a page-turner, while Power's musings on the questions of "can we diminish war?" (3) and "can human rights be pursued by making war?" (6) were intellectually thoughtful and stimulating.

Indeed, more than a few times Power's assumptions and assertions jumped right off the page. Time and again I sadly realized I was simply reading his work on the train rather than engaged in frank discussion over beers. I wanted more, immediately! The diminishment of war in the past 600 years, Power says, "boils down to this question of the legitimacy of war-what is illegitimate by the reasoning of one age is quite foolhardy, unnecessary and even illegitimate by the lights of another." Quite right, but Power's statement implies that war is a natural part of international relations. To me, however, the more profound question is, "Is war a legitimate means of problems solving?" I want to buy Power a drink and ask him this.

Later in this same chapter, Power cites as one reason for the decline of war over time technological advancements and the creation of less than useful, massively destructive armaments. This seems to conflict with another argument Power dismisses of Cold War generals who cited nuclear weapons (i.e., massively destructive armaments) as war deterrents. Is there a weapon that is more destructive than nuclear weapons? No. So how can Power dismiss the Cold War generals' position on technically advanced weaponry and war while at the same time using the same argument to advance his own theory?


Why not argue then, that the same technological advancements used to create these evil weapons diminishes war because they also open up the world to more people: air travel, the Internet, and satellite television, for example, have all brought the worlds people visually, digitally, and physically closer. Could it not also be we are more sympathetic to familiar faces, places and voices, and this is also why inter-state war is diminishing? Yet again, I wish we were batting these and many more ideas around at the pub.

Give Power credit, however, for taking a serious crack at some of humanity's puzzles, without disregard to their status in the headlines. Nuclear weapon proliferation is a huge problem, but is it any more troublesome than food insecurity plaguing hundreds of millions? Power thinks not and gives each conundrum equal billing. Yet Conundrums does not address all of humanity's riddles. Missing are segments, for example, dedicated to energy and the environment and the devastating impacts of HIV/AIDS. And while the problem is touched on in the first chapter, the intractable Arab-Israel-Palestine conflict is a huge conundrum of our times. Likewise, increasing tensions between India and Pakistan is an interesting predicament to untangle. And given the current global economic crisis, a chapter dedicated to the destructive consequences of unfettered capitalism and free-markets is surely a worthwhile (and necessary) endeavor.

To me, the underlying meta-conundrum (if you will) propping up and reinforcing Power's eleven enigmas is the arrangement of the international system itself. The domination of state-centric (rather than human-centric) thinking and general subservience to the primacy of state sovereignty are tremendous obstacles humanity must overcome if most of the world's problems are to be tackled. Aggravators (e.g., terrorism, genocide, disease, hunger, and finance to name a very few) of the many conundrums Power names, are not restricted to the political borders bounding the thinking of world leaders.

Unfortunately, humanity has the grueling task of transcending some very serious issues. Doing so is possible, but it will take generations. Along the way there will be many more missteps, but at least we have optimists like Jonathan Power to point out where we go amiss.

March 6, 2009