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The World at 2000
May 25, 2001

Among books on international politics prompted by the new millennium, Fred Halliday's book stands out in three ways.

First, in addressing international relations in terms that the author himself defines as "analytic and moral", the author does indeed, as claimed in his preface, manage to avoid "two besetting vicesI complacency disguised as realism, and irresponsibility posing as conscience". Second, the book is striking in the range of its coverage of a diverse set of issues as well as the accessibility of its arguments. Third, the book is a candid presentation of opinion by someone who writes about issues that he has not only studied over many years, but who also harbours a deep ethical concern for them. The result is a lively, thought-provoking and well-argued little volume.

The author begins by noting the current state of flux in the world and finds several reasons for optimism. For instance, the end of the cold war has removed the threat of nuclear annihilation. States have developed an expanded network of cooperation; economic growth is unprecedented, as are advances in science and technology; and the world is no longer torn by fundamental ideological division.

But here the good news ends. Negative trends include nuclear rivalry at the regional level, increasing economic inequality and rising inter-ethnic conflict. The new century could be better than the last one, but it could be worse. While it appears that the epoch of European and Atlantic domination may be waning, much remains the same.

The nation-state is far from its demise, irrespective of the impact of globalisation, although state power varies from region to region. And while much has been made of fragmentation and secession, Halliday points out that the unification rather than the secession of states, combined with regional integration, forms the biggest challenge to the contemporary world map.

Underlying much of the discussion is the author's concern for ethics and his attempt to uncover "global mythologies". For instance, chapter one states that "Everyone has strong views about morality in international relationsI If there is one assumption which pervades much of the public debate in all countries, it tends to be that there is a simple answer: most people are sure, more sure than in most domestic disputes, that there is one right answer, their own." Halliday aptly likens the ethical debate on international relations to the ultimate zero-sum contest: the football match.

Issues of cultural conflict, particularly as they are linked to the process of globalisation, appear in detail in the chapter "Delusions of difference". Halliday observes: "Cultural rejection is a form of resistance to domination, yet by concentrating on culture, it may divert attention from the other, political and economic, inequalities that reinforce domination." Here, the author's argument is at its most incisive; it persuades and provokes with ample, accessible examples.

In the final chapter, the author calls for a "radical universalism". He reminds us of the many ways in which cultural relativism has come to dominate the debate in theoretical and policy-making circles. The trend that celebrates diversity of cultures is accompanied by a tendency to abandon interest in and concern for cultures not one's own.

At times the arguments seem rather hurried, and most of the chapters could have been greatly expanded into independent volumes. But the price would have been a series of books with much greater detail but with much narrower scope, and the loss of this broad and invaluable overview of some extremely controversial and potent issues.

Amrita Narlikar is junior research fellow, St John's College, Oxford.

The World at 2000: Perils and Promises

Author - Fred Halliday
ISBN - 0 333 94534 4 and 94535 2
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £35.00
Pages - 170

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