| Let’s do it
The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
One year after the terrible events of September 11, the United States of America is once again aspiring to reassert the myth of its invincibility. It has decided that terrorism, and all its other foes, can be defeated by military means, that recalcitrant regimes can, one by one, be taken out and replaced with more benign ones. The American foreign policy establishment has chosen to disguise America’s vulnerability by trying to recreate the illusion that America can, if it so chooses, control the world.
The extraordinary unilateralism of American foreign policy during the last year has even left its NATO allies aghast. One by one, the Bush administration is taking a battering ram and making international institutions ineffective. The US (like India) has trashed the International Criminal Court and has used the withdrawal of peacekeeping funds from the United Nations as a threat. It has openly expressed contempt for all multilateral institutions, reinstated protectionism in trade, ridiculed global environmental protocols and even considers treaties to be non-binding. It looks all set to embark on a unilateral mission to replace, one by one, regimes around the world it finds recalcitrant to its interests.
George Bush’s unilateralism has left even the most ardent realists breathless. From a true premise that events around the world impinge upon US security interests, George Bush has drawn the false conclusion that therefore the US alone must be the custodian and policeman alike of the entire world.
What is driving this hubris' Certainly, the balance of power in the world makes unilateralism tempting. American military superiority is unmatched: its defence and related technology expenditures are greater than the next seven powers combined. Arguably no other power is even trying to catch up. The rest of the world is in political disarray: Russia is too weak and has too many skeletons in its own regional backyard to be a really effective world player; China has never shown the zeal for building a genuine global anti-American alliance and Europe is too militarily disabled to carry much credibility. Indeed, there is a curious way in which the rest of the world is quite willing to go along with the exercise of American power, because it is actually quite convenient.
Iraq is a case in point. In a way George Bush is right in thinking that there is something perverse about the international consensus on Iraq that has obtained since 1992. This consensus basically says: we think Saddam is a menace, Iraq should be punished and controlled through sanctions, but we must stop short of armed intervention to overthrow Saddam. Everyone in the international community knows sanctions are both cruel and ineffective. But sanctions allowed the international community to have their cake and eat it too. It allowed the international community a cheap way of saying that they took the threat Saddam posed seriously without actually wanting to do anything about it.
The result has been a decade of protracted suffering for the Iraqi people and a stalemate in the region. The simple fact is that no other power in the world, including the European Union, has managed to come up with a half decent initiative that could rescue Iraq from the worst of all possible worlds. The failure of the rest of the world to break the logjam in Iraq of course does not entitle the US to unilateral military action. But it does suggest that there might be something unmeaning about the public protests over Iraq in the EU and Russia. Secretly, they would rather let the US get on with it. In an odd kind of way, despite public protests, US relations with other great powers, Russia, China and India have never been better. But this is a result of their weakness. They are all friendlier with Washington than they are with each other.
The inability of the rest of the world to get together to articulate an even half defensible and sustainable geo-politics has emboldened the US. But the patterns of Bush’s interventions are entirely a product of his odd way of thinking. Bush came to power as an unabashed isolationist, who made much of the fact that he did not travel much, had no historical interests beyond oil and baseball in Texas, and wanted to roll back what he conceived of as the liberal globalism of the Clinton administration. His intellectual coterie consisted of thinkers such as Condoleeza Rice for whom it is an article of faith that the US should proceed from “the firm ground of the national interest and not from the interest of an illusory international community”.
The logical conclusion of such an outlook would have been a prudent and happy isolationism. But America’s existing entanglements and the events of September 11, 2001 thrust an activist foreign policy upon Bush. But the one feature of his frame of mind that it left untouched was this: the rest of the international community does not exist. The war on terror required international cooperation, but it did not lead the administration to make the conceptual leap that it could not quite go it alone. We thus have a superpower with global interventionist ambitions, but no real interest in creating the global consensus that a genuine internationalism requires. Even though most of the existing international institutions, such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are often conduits for US power, US participation in them was at least a tacit acknowledgment that in the long run international relations are best conducted through multilateral institutions.
The extent to which the Bush administration is undermining them is unprecedented. To be fair, the stupor that fell over American politics after Sept 11, 2001 has allowed George Bush to undermine the authority of institutions, especially congress, even within the US. If Bush likes being a lone ranger around the world, at least that ambition flows from a consistent disposition.
The net result is extensive global action without real global commitment. For all its bluster about nation-building in Afghanistan, it is quite clear that having taken punitive action against the taliban, the extent of US aid for creating stable institutions in Afghanistan will be quite meagre; Iraq will also probably suffer the same fate of short term military attention followed by dangerous inattention. Inconsistent American engagement in the west Asia peace process has produced an appalling outcome for the Palestinians. In retrospect, even the deal Clinton tried to broker between Barak and Arafat seems sweet.
Even in the case of India and Pakistan, Bush’s attention span will be limited to warding off a potential nuclear crisis, not to facilitate a long term dynamic inside Pakistan that could result in an enduring peace. Bush’s engagement with the world is not the engagement of the Marshall plan; it is that of the lone ranger who shoots and leaves.
As even many unapologetic defenders of American power recognize, an excessive reliance on military solutions without a prudent regard for multilateral institutions on the one hand, and sustained diplomatic engagement on the other will, in the long run also undermine America’s own national interest. While there is no immediate challenge to US hegemony, the frustrations with the US are multiplying rapidly. It might lead some actor, perhaps a non-state group to conclude, as the great medieval international lawyer Gentili did, that in international politics, “the mere possession of great power is a threat”. It is doubtful, September 11 notwithstanding, whether anyone in the Bush administration has enough of a sense of history to take this thought seriously.