Is the US clever
enough to rule the world? By Ian
Will the Iraq debacle cure, or at least
ameliorate, the megalomania that has infected the
foreign policy of the United States?
Cold War, the US often tended toward a position of
primus inter pares, first among equals, with its
allies. However, the past two years have seen both the
culmination and, in Iraq, the catastrophic failure of a
trend toward being solus sine paribus, alone
without equals. The rest of the world is aware that the
US is not equal to the task of ruling the world. In the
light of Iraq, is Washington aware?
administration of President George W Bush even made the
attempt is a demonstration that being a military and
economic giant does not necessarily translate into
diplomatic or intellectual acuity. We should also point
out that this administration is not alone in its hubris;
it took a unilateralist trend well established during
the two administrations of president Bill Clinton and
pursued it to a reductio ad absurdum et
tragediam, reduced to absurdity and tragedy.
The overdose of Latin is a partial tribute to
the imperial role model that set the standards - of
decline and fall as well as triumphalism.
United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali,
who unsuccessfully tried to teach US secretary of state
Madeleine Albright the art of statecraft, once noted
that neither the Roman Empire nor the US had any
patience for diplomacy, which is "perceived by an
imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a
sign of weakness".
However, as the Goths, Huns
and Vandals, among others, demonstrated soon enough,
this was a dangerous misperception for the Romans and is
currently proving equally dangerous for the Americans.
Even if Bush is defeated for the chaos and
casualties that his unilateralism has wrought, a John
Kerry administration is at best likely to revert to the
Clintonian norm of remaining unilateral in its formation
of foreign policy, albeit with a more cosmopolitan and
sophisticated attempt at multilateral execution.
There is no doubt that, short of some
science-fiction-style cataclysm of the kind that
Hollywood is so good at showing, the US is, and will
remain, a world power. Whether it will be the
world power, capable of independent unilateral action
regardless of the views of the rest of the world, is
another story completely.
Regardless of the
opinions of the rest of the world, we really have to
question whether such an ambition is even consonant with
the views of most Americans, especially in view of the
sacrifices such ambitions may entail.
used to a certain cynicism in world affairs, in which
national interest often tempers morality. For example,
while then French foreign minister (now Interior
Minister) Dominique de Villepin's UN speech against the
proposed Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was in the best
traditions of Cartesian logic, we would need to be very
naive indeed not to accept that the interests of
Total-Elf-Aquitaine had much to do with French policy on
Indeed, it would be good if France
had practiced in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Western Sahara and
West Africa the lofty principles that it was
recommending to the US and Britain on this occasion.
However, no one would accuse either the Bush or
even the Clinton administration of Cartesian logic in
its recent policy formulations. Indeed, what makes
recent US foreign policy so anomalous is how often it is
in violation of any rational national interest, let
alone of abstract moral and legal principles.
this less than perfect world, real powers with real
problems will occasionally bend and stretch the rules,
but this administration has gone further. It has
challenged the rules themselves, and denied their
The doctrine of preemptive
strikes and unilateral action, and the scorn for the
United Nations and its Charter, represented a
fundamental threat to the very global order that the US
did so much to bring about in 1945.
George Bush Sr spoke of a New World Order, which he
presented as a revival and continuation of the 1945
settlement that the Cold War suspended. By 2003, Bush Jr
was presiding over a Hobbesian disorder, in which his
ideologues were telling the world that rules did not
apply to the US, and in fact only applied to others when
Washington deemed it appropriate.
tendency applies not only to existing normative rules
but, in a profoundly disruptive and self-defeating way,
to new and developing international conventions and
normative rules that the rest of the world considers
essential to cope with the growing challenges, military,
social, economic and environmental, that threaten global
prosperity and even survival.
For example, a
small group of conservative ideologues has succeeded in
delaying the US signature of the Law of the Sea. It is a
hopeful sign that among the factions that want it
ratified are Senator Richard Lugar, the chair of the
Foreign Relations Committee, and the US Navy. The
distressing thing is that a small group of
fundamentalists obsessed with sovereignty can stall
participation in a treaty that is so self-evidently in
the interests of the US.
It reinforces the
messages sent by the refusal to honor the Kyoto
conventions, to sign the landmines treaty, and to
control the small-arms trade. Similarly, the US has
expended huge diplomatic capital across the world to
sabotage the International Criminal Court. All across
the world, US envoys bullied small countries into
signing bilateral treaties protecting Americans from a
non-existent threat - in the process getting a very bad
lesson in international ethics.
One of the major
problems with US foreign-policy formulation is that the
democratic process of checks and balances does not
function effectively, not least because far too many
Americans have neither the information about nor the
interest in what happens elsewhere, which leaves the
field open to obsessive interest groups.
there is a satirical dictionary definition of "war" as
"God's way of teaching Americans geography". Sadly, it
has much truth in it, except that it seems that with the
current teaching aids of Fox TV, MSNBC and talk radio,
the curriculum does not get beyond Geography 101. It
does not bode well for democratic debate of foreign
policy, and leaves the field open even more to the
lobbyists and fundamentalists.
That is why, for
example, while it may seem to much of the Arab world
that the invasion of Iraq was an imperial enterprise, we
should bear in mind that to most Americans, and
certainly to a majority of those reservists drafted to
staff the prisons of Abu Ghraib, this was an exercise in
self-defense, payback for September 11, 2001. They would
not have supported an overtly imperial agenda.
Sadly, not only ordinary Americans are
geographically challenged. In many ways, the ideologues
of unlimited US hegemony who contrived the Iraq invasion
had as little awareness of the realities of the world as
those many Americans misled by a potent combination of
White House spin and cable-TV collusion.
end, the USA is indeed powerful, but in reality, it
could not exercise the sole hegemony that the more
visionary planners in the Pentagon imagined.
Imperial over-reach Despite spending
as much on defense as the next 10 largest military
powers, the US armed forces are hard-pressed to maintain
the occupation of Iraq, let alone to attack other
countries such as Syria and Iran that seemed to be very
seriously in the sights of the Pentagon planners a year
One of the more obvious lessons was that
military power could not be effective without "soft"
moral factors, such as diplomacy, which in turn are
helped by moral legitimacy.
the US has shown its weaknesses. US abilities to wage
conventional war across the globe depend on willing
allies abroad and a public at home prepared to make
sacrifices. All those military bases are on sufferance
from other countries, which have often imposed
restrictions on their use for purposes that they
disagree with. The Turks and Saudis, for example,
severely disrupted US plans to attack Iraq when they
refused to host the invasion forces.
credit, said Daniel Defoe, are "the sinews of war".
Paradoxically, in relation to the rest of the world, the
US is economically weaker than at any time since the end
of World War II. The combination of ideologically
motivated tax-cutting and increasing military spending
has made the US more vulnerable than ever before.
Domestically, it is politically impossible for a US
administration to increase taxes.
little-reported report it published on the US budget at
the beginning of January, the International Monetary
Fund hints at a rapidly undeveloping country, whose
fiscal irresponsibility is compounded by a political
immaturity that tends to ignore geopolitical and
Ironically, the globalization
that some have denounced as an instrument of US global
domination has actually made the United States more
vulnerable than ever before. Once a relatively autarkic,
self-contained trade system, the US economy is now
integrated into world trade systems.
basis of the "Bush boom" is that China is recycling its
US$100 billion-plus trade surplus with the United States
back into dollars, and especially into Treasury bonds.
Almost half of US Treasury bonds are now owned by Asian
Among Asian countries, the Pentagon
dreamers have identified China as the major future
threat. Yet if Taiwan, for example, became a major
crisis, those Chinese T-bonds could do more damage than
H-bombs. All Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao has to do
is shout "sell" down the phone in order to devastate the
US economy more than any Chinese nuclear strike.
The US refusal to take the measures necessary to
reduce its oil consumption has also made it extremely
vulnerable to creeping measures of readjustment, such as
a decision by oil states to price their product in euros
rather than dollars. There are very good economic and
political arguments for them to do just that: why take
payment in a depreciating currency from a country such
as the US where your holdings are vulnerable to strange
tort actions and arbitrary political decisions? In that
light, the mystery is really why the oil states still
Globalization, even as it makes
the US more vulnerable, also gives it some measure of
protection, since anyone who pulls the plug on the
dollar would get very wet himself in the resulting
splash. Nevertheless, even with that qualification, the
fact is you cannot be a solo superpower on borrowed
Apart from military and economic power,
there is a power of leadership. Opinion polls worldwide
show that almost no other country in the world would
elect George W Bush.
At one time, the US had
high moral stature, certainly in much of the world,
although we should remember the trend represented even
by Franklin Roosevelt, an undoubted hero, who is on
record as calling Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza a
"son of a bitch" but excusing him as "our son of a
Going further, there has been a strong
and increasing tendency in US thought toward Manichaean
binary thinking, to see the world in terms of absolute
good and evil, indeed, one might say, cowboys and
Indians. Allegedly in the Levant they say that "my
enemies' enemy is my friend", but in the US they take it
a stage farther and consider that my enemy's enemy must
necessarily be morally superior, a saint.
is also an adage about knowing people by the company
they keep. Support for the Saudi and Uzbek regimes, let
alone Israeli practices, does not cover the US with
Above all, to attack Iraq, allegedly for
its violation of UN resolutions, in defiance of the
wishes of most UN members and the UN Charter is a sin
for which the US is now paying penance as it implores
the international community to relieve it of its burden
there. It will take a long time for Washington to regain
Can anything be
done? At the time of the tragic and murderous
attacks on New York's World Trade Center, the one
consolation was that it would focus the American public
on what its government was doing abroad in their name.
After all, perhaps for the first time since the British
burned the White House in 1813, Americans had foreign
policy happening to themselves, rather than it being
something that their rulers inflicted on others.
Sadly, that was clearly not the case. There was
little or no public debate on the origins of al-Qaeda,
no realization that expedient and ad hoc US policies had
brought about and indeed financed the organization, that
it was a US ally, Pakistan, that with general US support
had put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan.
rest of the world was much more aware of that, and
despite that, it was the soon-to-be-hated French who
quickly moved the resolution in the Security Council
expressing solidarity for September 11, shortly followed
by another that in effect provided legal cover for the
US to attack Afghanistan in "self-defense".
rest of the world watched with puzzlement as the US gave
up on Afghanistan and finding Osama bin Laden while the
American public were, almost subliminally, persuaded
that the battleground for the "war on terror" should be
It took not much more than a year for the
Bush administration to boil away nearly all the
unprecedented international support it had immediately
after the September 11 attack.
Of course, there
are different trends in US foreign policy, with the
State Department, which has the unenviable task of
explaining it to the rest of the world, much more able
to see the benefits for the US from a general support of
a normative global structure of law and order, and a
predisposition to go along with it principle.
Indeed, it is more likely to recall that the US
was the main sponsor of the United Nations and in its
drafting of the Charter, and throughout the decades,
from Korea to Suez, has invoked its authority whenever
it can - and sometimes, as in Iraq, when it really could
It is not surprising that for past few
years, the leaders of the United Nations and most of the
major powers have had as the first item in their bedtime
prayers a plea that Secretary of State Colin Powell
would stay on at the State Department, and much of their
diplomacy has been directed at boosting his position
inside the Bush administration.
It is not always
successful, since the Pentagon-Powell dualism sometimes
looked like a planned good-cop-bad-cop routine. On the
other hand, the State Department's attempts to keep some
vestiges of multilateralist faith have occasionally been
pathetically touching, like the attempt to pull together
a list of states that supported the "coalition", most of
whom were so vulnerable and weak that initially the
department was too embarrassed to name them. However, we
should take the attempt as a signal that even in the
darkest days of triumphal unilateralism from the
Pentagon civilians, there was a flicker, or at least a
smolder, of multilateralism in the State Department.
The conundrum is that the US needs
counterbalancing, as traditional political theory would
suggest, but the question is whether that can be
achieved without reverting to some form of antagonistic
great power system. However, it is possible if we take
into account one of the Anglo-Saxon inventions in
domestic politics: the concept of a "loyal opposition".
We often forget that for most of history, and across
much of the globe even now, this is an oxymoron. Sadly,
that is also true of some sections of the US body
politic who have shown difficulty in accepting
opposition at home or abroad as anything but starkest
treachery. Last year's rabid francophobia was very
embarrassing to any sophisticated American.
However, a loyal opposition is still a useful
concept. If it stood together, the European Union is big
enough to insist on a hearing in Washington, and even
more so if it teams with Russia and China, although it
has to beware of expediency in joining with, let us say,
incompletely democratic societies. In conjunction with
countries such as India, and many states in Latin
America, it could indeed assemble a loyal opposition.
In this connection, perhaps the British were
almost as important as Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks
they are. Harold Macmillan had fond paternalistic hopes
of London playing the role of Athens to Washington's
Rome, perhaps forgetting that the Athenians who taught
the Romans were often literally slaves.
for some years now the British have indeed played a
special role with the US. It has been surprising how
little contumely the British have attracted over the
years for their role as amanuensis for successive US
administrations - like Colin Powell, they have
functioned at once as a bridge and a fudge between the
more outrageous US wants and the realities of the world
and norms of international law.
I suspect saw it as on a par with cleaning sewers: it's
a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and much better
someone else than us. It also has to be said that the
British have done a reasonable job of it most of the
time. Their constructive engagement as a reliably loyal
ally did indeed give them an occasional hand on the
steering wheel, as Tony Blair said.
fairly certain that President Bush would not have gone
to the UN at all if were not for the British prime
minister's blandishments. Nevertheless, in the end it
became clear that what Blair thought was the steering
wheel in a car was just the whistle on a runaway
locomotive. All he could do was warn that the train was
rattling down the tracks and would not stop until it hit
Confronted with the realities of the US
style of occupying Iraq, and the reaction of the
occupied, the British have reverted to their former
role. In the various drafts of the resolution to end the
Iraq occupation, they have been assiduously supporting a
much more sovereign sovereignty for Iraq, even as they
draft the successive resolutions.
invented the special relationship for their own reasons,
once they realized that the empire thing was a dead
duck. As they put it at the time, the British foreign
minister in the 1945 Labour government wanted the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization to keep "the Americans in,
the Germans down, and the Russians out".
question whether that historical basis still exists, and
would urge the Europeans, particularly the French and
Germans, to work hard on the British, to suborn and turn
the British Trojan Horse so that instead of being a
source of unilateralist US infiltration into the EU, it
takes multilateralism into Washington. That is always
assuming that Blair survives his election and that Kerry
overlooks the British prime minister's somewhat
promiscuously rapid switch from Clinton to Bush.
Will things change if Bush
loses? Returning to the point at the beginning,
the present US policy has much continuity with the
previous administration's. Remember the conversation
between Madeleine Albright and her British counterpart,
Robin Cook, over Kosovo, in which Cook cited problems
"with our lawyers" over using force in the absence of UN
endorsement. Albright's response was, "Get new lawyers."
Certainly, a Kerry policy has to be an
improvement over Bush's - but it may be a more marginal
improvement than most of us would wish. There is the
dreadful possibility that his fudging on foreign policy,
his support for Ariel Sharon, is not just a cynical
electoral maneuver, it may be the real thing.
However, no amount of internal argument or
external exhortation can do as much to change US policy
as has now been done by the over-reachers in the
Pentagon, whose hubris has reduced the US to begging for
international help to get out of the hole they dug in
Iraq. Ironically, our best hope for a change of policy
is the effect of the cold shower of reality on their
fevered apocalyptic visions.
Whoever is elected
has to pay the bills for this war, for the tax cuts, for
the energy policy and all the other enormities of this
administration. In the world councils where it will need
help and indulgence, the next president is going to need
a lot of forbearance and indulgence from other
countries, since bullying has failed so egregiously.
The real battle is to get that message across to
US legislators, opinion formers and indeed the
electorate to maintain a continuing interest in foreign
policy, what it does to others and, most tellingly, what
the cost will be to them. Since the US is a world power,
this is a global task, an essential task for everyone in
the world. Stop pandering. Be firm but friendly. Real
allies do not applaud your every move. They shout
"Stop!" when you want to run over a cliff edge. Next
time Gerhard Schroeder offers a US president advice, the
latter should listen.
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