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US foreign policy: where to from here?

Minh Nguyen
Published at uniya.org, January 2004

An edited version of this article appears in the Jan-Feb 2004 edition of Eureka Street (vol. 14, no.1), the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, the arts and theology.

World order is in a state of flux not seen since the first half of last century. The way that the US executed regime change in Iraq is the coming of age of a decade of change. It is posing a serious challenge to the multilateral system that has existed for nearly 60 years. The post-1945 system has been characterised by détente and containment, by multilateral institutions and by the compromise of power around the United Nations Charter. That system now risks being swept aside in a new era of unilateralism and ad hoc coalitions of the willing.

Proponents of unilateralism argue that the old order is no longer relevant, if it ever was, in guaranteeing peace and security in a hostile world. What the world needs now and into the future, so the argument goes, is a benign hegemon to maintain order and stability and to promote the universal values of freedom, democracy and free enterprise. This requires a leading nation with military supremacy, in this case the US, to defeat current and emerging enemies, unilaterally if necessary.

Some world leaders are troubled by this logic. The usually subtle Kofi Annan warned last September against what he called the ‘lawless use of force’. ‘We have come to a fork in the road’, he went on to say. ‘Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue [with the present arrangements] or whether radical changes are needed.’

Annan left little doubt about the present disarray of world politics. But while we might be shocked by events of recent years, we should not be surprised. The world has been stewing, to adapt the old business analogy, like a frog in boiling water, oblivious to the changing temperature.

Over a decade ago the Cold War ended with the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its planned economies. This was a unique time in modern history, marked by turbulent change and a bankruptcy of political alternatives. With the monopolisation of world power, the Third World—which had benefited from playing off one superpower against the other—lost its bargaining leverage and became fractured and marginalised. Meanwhile, business interests became increasingly vocal and global in the absence of an ideological alternative. The triumph of the market hastened change and unleashed an unprecedented worldwide orgy of structural adjustment and deregulation.

The 1990s also saw the rise of groups resisting these trends. The Islamist terrorists are the most prominent, but there are others. Xenophobic and isolationist groups captured political discourse in many countries, including One Nation in Australia. They offered alternative views to the self-declared inevitability of cultural and economic integration. The same period produced the international protest movements against the excesses of global capitalism. These groups promoted globalisation of a different kind, one that prioritises human rights and sustainable development. By the late 1990s the world had become a battlefield of ideas.

It was in this context that two competing US foreign policy approaches developed. ‘Preemptive unilateralism’ is what we call the approach of the current US administration. Some Pentagon officials articulated this concept as early as 1992. This policy seeks to revamp the approach of the Clinton administration, which is the approach the former US ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright, called ‘assertive multilateralism’.

Assertive multilateralism works within the post-1945 international framework to exert US power while maximising consent and minimising risk. ‘When the United States intervenes alone’, Albright once said, ‘we pay all of the costs and run all of the risks. When the UN acts, we pay one fourth of the costs and others provide the vast majority of troops.’ Both views share a strong sense of America’s mission to the world, but whereas assertive multilateralism sees the spread of American values in evolutionary terms, preemptive unilateralism sees it as a revolutionary activity.

The current revolutionaries in Washington do not entertain the teleological fairytale that democracy and free enterprise is an automatic expression of economic facts or the inevitable product of history. ‘Freedom is not determined by some dialectic of history,’ says President Bush. “Liberty, if not defended, can be lost’. While the unilateralist camp shares with the multilateralists foreign policy realism, it is distinguished by its sense of moral purpose and historical urgency. Unilateralists see the absence of a rival superpower as an opportunity to transform the world radically and to create a capitalist version of ‘permanent revolution’. President Bush calls his project a ‘global democratic revolution’. The UN, a body that includes quite a few undemocratic characters, is a persistent target of their frustration.

The importance of Iraq in this debate should not be overlooked. Iraq is not just another petrol station under new management, although it would be naïve to dismiss the role of the global oil market in US calculations. Nor is the issue primarily about terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, reasons all but admitted to be ‘bureaucratic’ by the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. It is both a moral necessity to clean up the Middle East and an opportunity to free the US from institutional restraints. Assertive multilateralism was undone the way it was introduced: by bombing Iraq.

History records the debate at the end of the first Gulf War about whether to carry the fight on to Baghdad or not, with serious implications for US strategy and world order. Bush senior and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft made the case clear. ‘Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the UN’s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish.’ The argument against invasion won in the end and set the terms of US engagement for years.

If world order is still in a state of uncertainty, Iraq is the testing ground. Foreign Islamist fighters pouring across the border understand the significance of Iraq. Loss of American life and the hindrance of nation-building in Iraq will be the biggest test for America’s sense of purpose since Vietnam. But even as the situation gets worse, the US is unlikely to abandon its hard-fought gains. The credibility of preemptive unilateralism is at stake. The US will wrestle the UN for the sake of it.

Although the jury is still out, there are now signs that the revolution is unravelling. The situation in the Middle East is deteriorating, as are any moral gains of a quick coalition victory over Iraq. No revolutions (even global ones) can be sustained without short-term successes or popular support. Social and political forces opposed to the new order are again on the move. How the Muslim world reacts will affect how Americans see themselves. How the UN and Europe, particular the Franco-German alliance, reorientate themselves will affect US foreign policy options. Meanwhile, the people who mobilised the massive global peace protests last year are again meeting at the World Social Forum in January, where they will work on alternatives to President Bush’s vision. Over a year after the unveiling of the US’s preemptive strategy, it is not just the UN that finds itself at the crossroads. All interested groups are reassessing their strategies.

Minh Nguyen is a researcher at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.


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