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America Goes Backward

Pushing aside the UN, or refusing to accept curbs on the use of US force, can mean one of two things. The US may want to return to pre-1914 conditions, when the only international limitations on the right of each sovereign state to use force were rules dealing with the jus in bello—the ways in which force could be used—but not with the goals. This discards the progress accomplished in trying to form a modern jus ad bellum, a definition of the purposes for which force can legitimately be used (self-defense, collective security) and of the procedures that can authorize the resort to force. Treaties such as the genocide convention and international tribunals created to judge persons responsible for crimes against humanity or war crimes would be discarded. The post-1945 efforts to protect the human rights of individuals against states would also be scrapped. Security in the world jungle would depend exclusively on an efficiently functioning balance of power, or on voluntary self-restraint by a dominant superpower.

Or else the US, seeing itself as the guardian of world order, would leave restraints on other states standing (unless they are its allies), and reserve to itself the right to select those restraints of international law and institutions that serve its interests and to reject all the others. President Bush, in telling others what the US “expects” of them, is coming very close to that position.

It is sad to have to remind those who endorse such positions that in a world consisting of almost two hundred states of very uneven strength and cohesion, and where the many forms of interdependence reduce the actual sovereignty of all, a pure and simple return to the rule of the strongest would be a catastrophic regression. It would promote insecurity, not security or moderation. Those who approved of the war in Iraq for entirely understandable reasons of humanitarianism, of pity for the Iraqi people, and of horror at Saddam Hussein’s regime seldom considered that a precedent used for a “good” cause can easily be used by others for causes they would object to: Russia could use it against Georgia, India against Pakistan, North Korea against South Korea.

It is true that international law and the UN Charter are full of flaws, are not self-executing, and are used frequently as fig leaves for the naked expression of power. But all laws and all institutions exist in a kind of limbo, between the ideals they express and the daily transactions among the passions and interests they seek to control. In world affairs, devoid of central power, of a strong judiciary, of a world police, the gulf between the two is wider than within most states. This is a reason for trying to close it, to persuade states to change their definition of their own interests, to extend and deepen the range of their ideals. A legal code that would merely ratify what people do, and not codify what they ought to do, would be a bad joke.

Actually, as the American scholar David C. Hendrickson reminds us, most international legal and ethical norms are “also prudential in character,” and often simply register “the lessons of experience.”6 Observing them is in the interest of the US because the responsibility for world order cannot be carried by the US alone. The task would exceed the capacities of the US, despite its huge military forces. “Observance of basic principles of the law of nations, together with action within the constraints of an international consensus,” Hendrickson writes, “are two basic ways in which the United States has acquired such legitimacy as it now enjoys in the international system.”

Recent US doctrines and actions have damaged that legitimacy, a damage compounded by a contemptuous attitude even toward NATO, and toward allies that have disagreed with US tactics or with the US evaluation of the consequences of a war in Iraq. The language of “you’re either with us or against us,” of punishments and rewards, sounds imperious (and imperial). It is likely to be counterproductive in the long term: as the former US diplomat John Brady Kiesling has written, “the more aggressively we use our power to intimidate our foes, the more foes we create and the more we validate terrorism as the only effective weapon of the powerless against the powerful.”7 One of the many impulses behind the unprecedented antiwar demonstrations throughout the world by people of all ages and classes was to protest an American policy that gives to its military might, and threats to use it, pride of place among all the kinds of power it has at its disposal.


During the cold war the US lapsed into unilateral sponsorship of violence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; but in the main contest with the USSR it showed itself aware of the advantages that regional and global cooperation provide to the dominant power. International cooperation had the benefits of lightening the military and financial burdens of the US as well as giving it more influence and providing ways of monitoring and shaping the behavior of others. The alternative is a policy of hubris, in which international domination is presented under the mask of universal benign ideals. Such domination will certainly incite some enemies either to resort to terrorism or to obtain weapons of mass destruction, so as to avoid being crushed in conventional wars.

The choice between unilateralism and international cooperation will, in the near future, have to be made with respect to four challenges that the US faces. The first is the challenge of creating a workable Iraqi society and polity. The US has done a huge service to the Iraqi people by removing a sadistic dictatorship. But the lack of American preparation for the tasks that follow, in contrast with the preparation for war, has been shocking. US hopes of being greeted enthusiastically by Iraqis as liberators have been undermined by a familiar tendency to underestimate the depth of “native” nationalism (as in South Vietnam),8 by the failure to protect hospitals, the national museum and library, and other public buildings from looting (whereas American soldiers immediately protected the Oil Ministry), and by the failure to improve living conditions in the first phase of occupation.

Moreover, the early decision to entrust the reshaping of Iraq to the Pentagon not only confirmed the decisive role in foreign policy that the Defense Department had begun to play during the Clinton years but concealed the very different interests and concerns that are manifest in the administration. In the Defense Department, the civilian coterie of neoconservatives and hard-line pro-Israeli hawks has promoted a grandiose fantasy of using Iraq as the model for democratizing the Muslim world. This assumes that liberal democracy, pro-Americanism, and Arab moderation in dealing with Israel can all be obtained at the same time, and that nationalist, populist, and religious impulses won’t result in anti-Americanism and in even greater hostility toward Israel.

At best, the task would be long and hard, and require a long US stay in Iraq. Indeed, if Arab and Iranian rulers should embrace liberal reforms, it would be because of internal pressures, not because of democratic winds originating in Iraq and fanned by the US. Rumsfeld has in the past supported the views of his deputies and advisers, but his enthusiasm for a long military occupation appears very limited. Before Paul Bremer was announced as the new US proconsul on May 6, the Pentagon’s appointee in Iraq, retired general Jay Garner, favored Kurdish representatives and ex-Iraqi exiles as rulers of the country. With Garner now departing, the State Department and the CIA have their own favorites. All of them will ultimately have to choose between Iraq as a protectorate and Iraq as a self-determining country, which may or may not be democratic; America’s protégés in the Gulf and Egypt are anything but democracies.

In view of signs of Iraqi resentment of a protracted occupation, the American government may be tempted to keep it short, but the risks of chaos are great, especially if power is transferred to former Iraqi exiles with little support among the people. America has no easy choices. Should the US encourage all political and religious factions to assert themselves and to claim a share of power? This would sacrifice both effective governance and the chances of liberalism to achieve representativeness. Should it exclude groups deemed illiberal or intolerant, thus sacrificing representation to its own preferences and driving the excluded further into radical and anti-American positions?9

Such considerations underline the US interest in turning for help to others with more involvement in “nation-building”: to the UN, with its experience in the Balkans and East Timor, and to the EU and NATO, with their records in Kosovo and in Afghanistan. This would be helpful to the US in many ways: for peacekeeping, for administrative supervision, for sharing costs and political burdens. Such organizations could provide a fairer distribution of reconstruction contracts and a more impartial control of oil revenues than the US. If the US chooses to retain power over all these matters while relegating the UN to a fuzzy “coordinating” role, as could be the case under the recent US draft resolution, the hostility and suspicions it encounters in the Arab world could rise.

The second problem is as urgent as ever: peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration’s obsession with Iraq, the hawks’ conviction that the balance of forces between Israel and the Arabs would change in Israel’s favor if Iraq were first “liberated,” the President’s dislike of Yasser Arafat and dismay at the terrorism of suicide bombers—all these resulted in a postponement of American attempts to revive a peace process. Pressure from Tony Blair and from Colin Powell, and America’s current predominance in the Middle East, have led to the installation of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister and the release of a “road map.” Few deny that ordinary Arabs as well as officials in palaces or ministries have been deeply disappointed by American delays and partiality toward Ariel Sharon, and by what they have seen as a double standard in the enforcement of UN resolutions. What remains to be shown is the will of the US to become, as was the case with Clinton in 2000, the chief force working for a fair settlement.

If the US delays again or leaves the bargaining to the parties, the Arabs’ sense of injustice and humiliation will grow. Combined with present misgivings among Muslims about the American war in Iraq, this might lead to more successes for fundamentalists, and to greater numbers of terrorists. The leadership of Abu Mazen may be an improvement over that of Arafat, but the gap between Palestinians and Israelis is much deeper than it was in 2000. Sharon seems unlikely to make as many concessions as Ehud Barak did. The problems of the settlements, Jerusalem, and the right of return are at least as difficult as ever. The powerful hard-line pro-Israel supporters in the White House, the Defense Department, and Congress may demand that before negotiations begin the new Palestinian government not only try energetically to curb terrorism, but give priority to obtaining a decisive success in a possibly bloody policy of antiterrorism.

In view of these lopsided pressures in and on the US, an American government concerned with its relations with the Arab world would be well advised to encourage the participation of the other coauthors of the “road map”: the EU, Russia, and the UN. Sharon views all these with deep distrust. Unilateralists and pro-Israel lobbyists, inside and outside the administration, would object. But if the US would end its monopoly on being the mediator between the two parties it would go far toward appeasing an old grievance of the allies of the US and of the members of the UN.

The third issue, nuclear policy, has been pushed to the forefront by the new American strategic doctrine. In US rhetoric, weapons of mass destruction in hostile hands have become a potential casus belli. The administration says it fears that waiting until its foes already have nuclear bombs may allow them to deter the US and make American deterrence impossible—a fear that nothing in our past experience with the USSR and China justifies. The current doctrine encourages American officials to envisage taking preventive action before nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are produced. A policy of endorsing preventive threats and strikes is being put in place.

This is a doubly dangerous approach. First, nuclear weapons are far more formidable than biological and chemical ones, and far more detectable. Chemical and biological programs are difficult to prevent but it is not impossible to neutralize their effects.10 Second, American unilateral preventive action against states that try to acquire a nuclear arsenal would encourage other states to do the same in order to protect against countries they consider to be their foes—once again, a recipe for turning the world into a jungle. On the other hand, the experience with sanctions against states alleged to have such weapons—whether the sanctions are sponsored by the UN or the US—has been disappointing, sometimes less damaging to a targeted government than to its citizens. There is no substitute for a policy of concerted diplomatic pressure exerted by the UN and of collective, and selective, measures of coercion. These range from much stronger international controls on imported technologies to more intrusive inspections than in the past. They could ultimately include the use of force under international auspices against nuclear power plants that are being built or operated. This means a reinforcement, not—as Bush proposes—a repudiation, of the present nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Finally, the case of Saddam Hussein has raised the difficult issue of international action against regimes that pursue policies of ferocious repression of the opposition, real or suspected. Here international law has failed, and the UN has legitimized only limited interventions. International law and the UN Charter ban armed interventions in the domestic affairs of states. This was one of the grounds of the policy of nonintervention followed by the US under Bush senior in 1991, when Saddam Hussein savagely crushed the groups the US had encouraged to revolt. Soon after, the US supported collective interventions to protect the Kurds from further massacres by the Saddam Hussein regime (which made Kurdish autonomy within Iraq possible), to stop the chaos and famine in Somalia (a fiasco), and to prevent massacres on ethnic grounds (in Bosnia, very late, and in Kosovo and East Timor). No such intervention took place in the biggest case of genocide, Rwanda, where the UN and the US behaved equally badly.11 In Kosovo, the Security Council, despite the formal requirements of the UN Charter, was ignored because Russian and Chinese vetoes were certain; the US and its European allies used NATO to legitimize their action (and the Security Council and the secretary-general refused to condemn it). Thus a new norm was established: collective intervention against a government committing serious human rights violations could be justified, especially when these violations threaten regional or international peace and security.

None of these cases entailed “regime change.” To limit a state’s sovereignty by collective intervention against its government’s assault on human rights is one thing; to forcibly remove a government and replace it with one more acceptable to the interveners is a far more radical attack on sovereignty. The US was passive when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in the 1980s, and killed Kurds and Shiites in large numbers in 1991; it never raised in the UN the issue of regime change on human rights grounds. When this issue became, in the US and Britain, the most effective argument for war, humanitarians and liberals were split. For some, the demise of an evil regime was what mattered most, although they were often worried about American intentions. Others, who were equally troubled by Saddam Hussein’s terror, were unwilling to approve of a unilateral American attack, especially since it opened the way for other countries to change whatever regimes they claimed were guilty of atrocities. They plausibly argued that, thanks in part to the presence of US troops in the region, the US could have worked out a multilateral consensus for continuing inspections and for disarmament, but refused to do so.

The issue of humanitarian intervention for “regime change” has now been raised, and we cannot push it back into the bottle by deliberately avoiding it. But it is not an issue the UN is likely to deal with effectively. Too many states among UN members have bloody domestic records, and they can be expected to block any proposal for a forcible collective intervention to change a regime.

What would be needed would be a new, two-stage system: (1) a group of UN members would ask the Security Council to authorize collective intervention to overthrow an evil regime, one clearly responsible for atrocities; (2) if the Security Council refuses or is unable to act, an appeal would be made to a new institution: an Association of Democratic Nations that would, in addition to members of NATO, be made up of Asian, African, and Latin American liberal democracies, such as India, South Africa, and Chile, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Only liberal democracies would be admitted as members.

If such an association approved a collective intervention to change a regime, it would report its reasons and its decisions to the secretary-general of the UN, and could proceed to act. Such an association of democratic nations could also provide useful advice to new democracies, and bring before the International Criminal Court or a special international court military or civilian leaders involved in crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide. Alas, the Bush administration cannot be expected to try to work out such a needed reform.

Too often, this administration has given, to many Americans and even more to foreigners, the impression that it is drunk with power, that it has somehow absorbed not the lessons of prudent realists such as George Kennan, but the spirit of the Athenian generals who, Thucydides tells us, informed the Melians that, between the strong and the weak, only the language of power matters. It seems futile to recall from the history of empire that even when imperialism imposes direct rule it is always threatened by rebellions and rising costs. Moreover, the shrinking of democracy at home does not go well with the spread of democracy abroad.

Perhaps it is also futile to say that in occupied Iraq the best advice would suggest what not to do: don’t hand-pick favorites who will be discredited; don’t allow the men in the “deck of cards” to be tried by a purely American instead of an international court; don’t appoint or select American companies to rewrite the history textbooks for young Iraqis or to exploit the oil fields. In foreign policy, following norms of self-restraint and international law and institutions can augment the real power of a strong country even if such norms curb the harshest uses of military power. The anti-Americanism on the rise throughout the world is not just hostility toward the most powerful nation, or based on the old clichés of the left and the right; nor is it only envy or hatred of our values. It is, more often than not, a resentment of double standards and double talk, of crass ignorance and arrogance, of wrong assumptions and dubious policies. Whether our current leaders are capable of self-examination at a time of military victory may affect the planet for a long time to come.

—May 15, 2003

  1. 6

    David C. Hendrickson, “Preserving the Imbalance of Power,” Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2003), pp. 157–162.

  2. 7

    John Brady Kiesling, “Diplomatic Breakdown,” The Boston Globe Magazine, April 27, 2003.

  3. 8

    See Minxin Pei, “The Paradoxes of American Nationalism,” Foreign Policy, May/June 2003, pp. 30–37. I made similar points long ago, in Gulliver’s Troubles, or The Setting of American Foreign Policy (McGraw-Hill, 1968), pp. 102 ff.

  4. 9

    See Eli J. Lake, “Split Decision,” and Kanan Makiya, “The Wasteland,” in The New Republic, May 5, 2003.

  5. 10

    See Owen R. Cote Jr., “Weapons of Mass Confusion,” Boston Review, April/May 2003.

  6. 11

    See Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: American and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002).

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