THE PLANETʼS DENSEST EMBODIMENT of international cooperation lies in the heart of Geneva, in the few square miles around the lake. From the lakeshore, a brief walk through a park will bring a visitor to the Palace of Nations, built in the 1930s as the seat of the League of Nations, and now the United Nations’ office in the city. To the east, the World Trade Organization; to the north-west, the World Health Organization; an amble away, the headquarters of the Red Cross, the International Labour Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, among dozens of others. Also nearby is the InterContinental Hotel, where in November 2013, Iran agreed to dilute its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief—the first edition of the pact that President Donald Trump abandoned last year.
It’s entirely fitting that just down the road from the InterContinental is the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, which occupies a complex named Maison de la Paix, its six buildings arranged like strewn flower petals. The InterContinental is of particular interest to Thomas Biersteker, a political scientist at the Institute, who has made a career studying sanctions. Biersteker, an American who taught at Brown University until 2007, is prone to discussing the antics of nation-states in a tone of wry curiosity, as if relaying the activities of ant colonies in his backyard. He lives for part of the year in a house in the Swiss Alps, where he hosts so many discussions on his preferred topic that his colleagues call it the “Sanctions Chalet.” Typically, Biersteker’s case studies deal with bad actors: states gone rogue, dangerous leaders thumbing their noses at the world. Increasingly, though, these descriptions seem to fit not just autocracies flush with oil or tinpot dictatorships but also the United States of America.