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Is the US clever enough to rule the world?

By Ian Williams

Will the Iraq debacle cure, or at least ameliorate, the megalomania that has infected the foreign policy of the United States?

During the 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?

That the 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.

Former 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.

We are 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 the subject.

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.

In 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 normative power.

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.

In 1990, 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.

This scofflaw 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.

Indeed, 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.

In the 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 ago.

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.

In over-reaching, 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.

Money, and 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.

In a 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 economic reality.

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.

One simple 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 countries.

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 accept dollars.

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 money.

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 bitch".

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.

There 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 glory.

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 international credibility.

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.

The 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".

The 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 Iraq.

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 not.

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.

However, 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.

Other countries 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.

It seems 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 Iraq.

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.

The British 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".

I would 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.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Jun 17, 2004



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