Iran and other radical countries are ironically right when they charge that today's prevailing international order was largely imposed by Western nations. The West did take the lead in constructing the international laws of today, although that does not mean these laws are not in everyone's larger interests, including those of radical nations. After all, Western nations were once as grudging to accept the check on their freedom of action implied by international principles as the radical countries are today, for much the same reason. And even the most radical, anticolonial revolutionaries have tended to seek early recognition by international organizations such as the United Nations because of the ''rights'' this recognition entails.
Why then does the relative order of international relations seem to be in decline?
Even in its heyday after World War II, international law has prospered only as an adjunct of politics. Western countries established international principle after international principle in the spirit of self-interest which motivates most political behavior. Once established, these principles acquired lives of their own and became factors to reckon with in relations between nations, but countries have played them up or down depending on their national interest in given instances. These principles have never benefited from the threat of automatic, effective sanctions such as those sustaining the power of law in even the most democratic societies. The victim of international aggression has had less recourse to automatic, effective sanctions than the victim of domestic aggression in any Western country.
For many years after World War II, it was really the United States that provided both the impulse to create the structure of international relations and the sanctions needed to sustain it. But US influence on the rest of the world has been declining for many years.
The decline is most definable in the statistical world of economics: At the close of the war, our GNP was half of the world total; today it has fallen to about 22 percent and continues to fall. Strategically, the US no longer overshadows the USSR as it once did. Also, the political, economic, and even the military price of using our awesome military arsenal against another nation has risen steeply in recent decades. Most important of all, our moral authority or power to inspire emulation and cooperation abroad has deteriorated more rapidly than our real power. Some of this decline was inevitable, as the nations of Western Europe regained some of their old stature, as the third world acquired new importance, and as the US tarnished its national and international image.
What should the US do in a changed and changing world where more of the same is not enough? First, it should recognize that its new international problems are fundamentally political rather than economic. It must close ranks with the like-minded countries of the West and give new substance to the Atlantic political community. This kind of cooperation will require sacrifice and compromise of a sort countries on both sides of the Atlantic have not made since the foundation of their own national governments.
If the US and Europe fail to dedicate themselves to more thoroughgoing political cooperation, the inevitable result will be a rise in international vigilantism - economic, political, and eventually military. Its works are already apparent. Protectionism and exclusive bilateral economic arrangements undermine the international system of relatively free trade embodied in GATT at a quickening pace. Countries such as Libya engage in political terrorism without encountering a firm international consensus for censure, much less sanction. The system for controlling the spread of technology enabling countries to produce nuclear weapons is decaying. Western countries increasingly subordinate political principles to the shifting dictates of commercial advantage. OPEC appears to be in decline but we may yet see debtors' cartels which paralyze joint Western responses as gravely as the oil cartel did a few years ago.
In the West, the first and most serious victims of an Atlantic breakdown would be the Europeans. Europe would slowly revert to the political free-for-all that has marked its entire modern history except for the last 35 or 40 years, when the US has been deeply engaged in its fate. One by one, the cradles of the nation-state would succumb to the political, military, and economic power of the Soviet Union, much as the cradles of the city-state fell before Philip of Macedon in the early years of Western history. One by one, they would find themselves hostage to the economic power of the developing countries or, more specifically, to the loans they have bestowed on them to develop their markets. But the second victim of an Atlantic falling-out would be the US. Our foreign trade and the large sector of our finances which depends on it would likely be in mortal jeopardy, perhaps with serious consequences for social cohesion. The eventual diplomatic and military dangers would probably prove even more grievous.
Many leading Westerners, priding themselves on their realism, tell us that prevailing currents on both sides of the Atlantic doom any effort to forge a more perfect political union. But will we continue to heed those sages when their acquiescence to things as they found them has led us to decay?
Regular columnist Joseph C. Harsch is on vacation