Essay: The American Contract
Robert Skidelsky
Prospect | Tuesday, July 01, 2003

The system of international relations we have known since the second world war has broken down. The reasons given for the Anglo-American attack on Iraq were largely fraudulent. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction turned out to be weapons of mass distraction. It is straining at a gnat to argue that UN security council resolution 678, passed in 1990, made legal an invasion undertaken in 2003. However, it is also true that the Iraqis will be far better off without Saddam Hussein; and there is a chance that the middle east will be reshaped for the better. The main problem in international relations is to define the scope of lawful and acceptable military interventions in today's world.
 
The traditional theory of international relations, based on the principle of national sovereignty, would not have sanctioned the Iraq war. Each state is deemed to be sovereign in its own territory; that is, secure in law, although not necessarily in fact, against aggression by another state. The badness of a state is not grounds for attacking it; only its aggression, actual or expected, against another state. Self-rule is better than foreign rule. These remain the bedrock principles of international sentiment and law.
 
The system of international relations to which these principles gave rise is sometimes known as the Westphalian system, from its origins in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This established the European state system on the basis of national political sovereignty and religious toleration, as opposed to dynastic rule and religious monopoly. Largely through the agency of two murderous world wars, the Westphalian system became a world system after 1945, as the big European states lost the power and will to hold on to their imperial positions. Today there are over 190 national units, each one claiming sovereignty-freedom from foreign intervention-within its own internationally recognised borders.
 
The UN not only enshrined the principle of national sovereignty in its charter, but provided a mechanism-collective security-for upholding it. The attack of one member against another would be met by a collective response authorised by the security council, including, if necessary, military force. This was intended to be a great improvement on the older "balance of power" system, which aimed to protect the security of the great powers-and the peace of the world-by maintaining a sufficient balance of power to deter or defeat a would-be aggressor.
 
Although balance of power thinking was discredited by the two world wars, it revived after 1945 in the form of "bipolarity." There were now just two superpowers, which were supposed to deter each other from an attack on themselves and their allies through their possession of large stocks of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons ruled out major inter-state wars in a way conventional weapons did not. National sovereignty, proclaimed in law by the UN charter, was preserved in fact by the "balance of terror." But it was a qualified national sovereignty. Western Europe and Japan became, in effect, protectorates of the US, trading independence for prosperity. The illusion of great power status, briefly entertained by Britain and France after the war, collapsed at Suez in 1956. Britain discovered its vocation as America's permanently loyal ally, while France embarked on its career of high-profile dissenting gestures.
 
From the fragments of the defunct European colonial empires, a "third world" emerged, in which the superpower blocs competed against each other through arms sales and security-linked trade and aid policies. The result was a relatively stable pattern of dictatorial client states and spheres of influence in the middle east and central America, and low-level proxy wars in parts of ex-colonial Africa. Only the largest and strongest of third world states like China and India were able to preserve a genuine independence.
 
Although the postwar system of international relations was not static, it is right to call it postimperial. Except for the occupation of Germany and Japan, both superpowers abjured military conquest leading to direct rule. Thus, however impaired it was in practice, the principle of national sovereignty was not overtly challenged. Soviet intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia came nearest to breaching it.
 
Moreover, after Vietnam, it seemed that the bipolar world was breaking up into a multipolar one, with the emergence of Opec and the rise of the EU, Japan and China. There was talk of "imperial overstretch." But the bipolar era did not end in multipolarity. It ended with a single "hyperpower"-the US. The one thing the analysts had left out of the account was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
 
Today there is no settled theory of international relations. The doctrine of national sovereignty is in retreat, but nothing solid has taken its place. The idea has grown that military interventions are justified for humanitarian reasons or to remove �rogue� states, and reform �failed� ones. The right of self-defence, authorised by article 51 of the UN charter, has been replaced in US strategic thinking by a potentially unlimited doctrine of �pre-emptive action.� This means that the UN charter is no longer binding on its most powerful member. But what is binding? Is anything binding?
 
The collapse of the Soviet Union had three big consequences. First, it gave the US absolute military superiority over any combination of powers. Second, it established the world supremacy of capitalism, and particularly the US version of it. Finally, the end of the cold war revived the politics of religion and race. The global aspect of this was the emergence of an Islamic challenge to secularised Christianity.
 
America�s initial reaction to the fall of communism was restrained. The Gulf war of 1991 was the first real �UN war.� (The Korean war was authorised by a security council minus the Soviet Union.) It seemed to bear out Fukuyama�s prognosis that with the end of ideological conflict, peacekeeping, where needed, would be police work. Clinton�s strategic doctrine of 1996, formulated after the disastrous Somalia venture, asserted US leadership but limited the use of force to a narrow range of objectives, and stipulated an �exit strategy.� His doctrine was consistent with the predominant reliance on �soft power� to realise the promise of globalisation and was much influenced by a post-Vietnam horror of casualties. If this was hegemony, it was hegemony with a light touch.
 
At the same time, though, came an upsurge of foreign policy evangelicalism. The feeling grew that the end of the cold war had freed foreign policy to pursue ethical goals; that the victory of the west over communism might be turned into a moral crusade to spread its values. Positive peace, the realisation of justice, should prevail over negative peace, the absence of interstate armed conflict. Tony Blair, more than Bill Clinton, embodied this new moralism. The collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s brought the vista of an ethical foreign policy squarely up against the limitations of the UN charter. In a major speech delivered in Chicago on 22nd April 1999, during the Nato attack on Kosovo, Blair expounded what he called the �new doctrine of the international community.� It can be seen as a key document in the transition from the world of Clinton to that of Bush, just as Blair is the link between the old British ethical imperialism and the new doctrines of �benevolent global hegemony� which started to gain strength in Washington at the end of the Clinton era.
 
�Globalisation,� said Blair, �is not just economic. It is also a political and security phenomenon� we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure.� This new doctrine required an �important qualification� to the principle of �non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.� Blair suggested that the UN charter should be amended to make this possible, and also the quasi- permanent military occupation of countries or regions where humanitarian norms were being systematically violated. His key assertion was that values and interests could no longer be separated. �The spread of our values makes us safer.� But the new doctrine was not quite what it seemed. The unlimited scope it gave to righting wrongs was heavily qualified by prudence. Blair mentioned only two dictators: Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
 
A similar defence of humanitarian intervention was made by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a speech in June 1998. Referring to article 2.7 of the charter, preventing UN intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of states, Annan said: �Yet in other contexts the word �intervention� has a more benign meaning� Medicine uses the word to describe the act of the surgeon, who saves life by intervening to remove malignant growths.�
 
The Blair-inspired �strategic doctrine� proclaimed by Nato�s heads of government in Washington on 24th April 1999 called for a redefinition of �defence� to include threats posed to the security of Nato members by �ethnic and religious rivalries, territorial disputes� the abuse of human rights and the dissolution of states,� as well as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, sabotage and organised crime. The tendency in this doctrine to enlarge the scope of military intervention, and to decouple it from security council authorisation, was certainly disturbing, but it still coexisted with a view of the world which held that humanitarian and other interventions would be exceptional. Indeed, those of us who opposed the Kosovo war as signalling a new imperialism were assured that it was a �one-off��clearing up a �mess� in Europe�s backyard. Imperialism had become impossible because western nations, especially the US, were too risk-averse. The most they would do in the way of hard power was airstrikes.
 
The chance to use force more ambitiously was opened up by 11th September. Before it, US foreign policy under Bush had grown more assertive and �unilateral,� but it had not strayed beyond the limits of soft power. What 9/11 provided was a political opportunity for elements close to the Bush administration to activate their project for a �New American Century.� Terrorism would not just be stopped dead in its tracks, but a world would be brought into being in which terrorism could not exist. The key Bush innovation was the doctrine of pre-emption, which linked security to �regime change.� The war against Iraq was the first pre-emptive war.
 
The project for a New American Century is the first coherent design for a new system of international relations since the end of communism. Practical people will dismiss it as the ravings of mad professors. But one generation�s ravings have a habit of becoming the next generation�s common sense.
 
So where are we headed? What future system of international relations does such a design portend? There are three main possibilities. First, the New American Century project points to a Pax Americana, which, unlike the Pax Britannica, would be worldwide in scope. More power, hard and soft, is currently concentrated in the US than in any previous state in world history. Both kinds of power will be used to create a world supportive of US values and interests. Such a Pax would not conform to the contours of classical imperialism: the element of conquest and direct rule would be marginal.
 
Second, the classic answer to a hegemonic project is the emergence of a balance of power to oppose it. In this scenario, the EU, Russia and China, singly or together, would rebel against US dominance. �Multipolarity� would become a fact, not an aspiration.
 
Third comes the preferred option of most non-American leaders and thinkers�a co-operative hegemony of the US and the other great powers. US actions would be constrained by the need to reach agreement on the most important issues, although the US would continue to have the greatest weight in all decision-making bodies. The institutional structure for a �new multilateralism� remains vague.
 
Pax Americana. Some building blocks of a Pax Americana are already in place. First, the US and its allies currently occupy and administer Iraq. No one expects a rapid disengagement. Second, in the concepts of �failed� and �rogue� states, �regime change,� �nation-building,� �war against terrorism,� and the stress on hard power to keep the peace, we already have the linguistic basis of an imperial ideology. The central elements of the ideology are clear. Certain states, in their present form, do not deserve to count as independent members of the international community. Either they cannot sustain themselves, or they are an inherent threat to others. So they need to be reshaped as new nations, tooled with the skills of good government, equipped with the values of democracy. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, the definition of US security has been loosely linked to the spread of American values. Bush�s pre-emption doctrine made this link explicit. We can see here how Republican realism, based on the need to rid the world of terrorism, sits quite well with Democrat idealism, based on the notion that democracy is the way to end war. We can also see why Blair is so easily able to straddle the worlds of Clinton and Bush.
 
The enterprise sounds imperialist and this is enough to damn it in the eyes of anti-imperialists on both sides of the Atlantic. From American anti-imperialists you will often hear that imperialism is contrary to the US tradition; its history is anti-imperialist, its constitution is not designed for an imperial vocation. This argument is not compelling. Nations do not start off as imperial: they sometimes have imperialism thrust upon them, and develop a vocation. (Germany is an exception to this rule: it was no good at being an imperial power, but tried desperately to become one.) And those Americans opposed to �the project� also ignore the role which the US played in reshaping and re-equipping the free world to meet the
 
challenge of communism.
 
The Bush hawks would deny that their project is imperial. They would admit that the idea of �exporting democracy� is not in itself much different from the �civilising mission� and �trusteeship� doctrines of the late European imperialists. The crucial difference, they insist, is that they have an exit strategy, whereas the imperialists did not. This is based on two propositions: that democracy, like capitalism, is easily exportable, and that democracy is the pacific form of the state. Because democracy is inherently pacific and welfare-enhancing (so the argument goes), American occupation is inherently self-liquidating. Thus the New American Century project will be punctuated by imperial moments, but is basically non-imperial.
 
But this whole train of argument is based on an illusion. It is influenced by US experience of building democracy in Germany and Japan after the second world war. But it is particularly crass to apply this model of self-liquidating rule to Iraq or Iran. Germany was part of a political civilisation in which liberty was the norm and Nazism aberrant or pathological; Japan�s militarism was largely a product of the depression, and interrupted nearly a century of imitation of western values. Following military defeat, there was little or no cultural resistance to the re-westernisation of both countries. Moreover, even in their case, the idea of a rapid exit can be overdone. Until the collapse of communism, Germany and Japan were US military protectorates.
 
In the middle east, by contrast, the project of creating democracies runs up against the culture of Islam, which has never produced a single functioning democracy. Middle east expert Fred Halliday argues strongly against the �demagogy of cultural confrontation� and dismisses the �faultline babble about unbridgeable gulfs.� But can one really dismiss the tendency to theocracy in Islam, which has precluded the development of secularism, and suggests that Islam may be impossible to secularise on our terms? If this is true, it means that any brand of democracy will have to be derived from Islamic principles, not from their rejection. It cannot be imposed from outside by legions of Washington think-tankers.
 
The second plank of the exit strategy is based on the dictum that democracies don�t go to war with each other. This view of democracy as inherently pacific derives from the experience of a very restricted number of western democracies, which are either nationally homogeneous and therefore unthreatened by civil war, or which have a long history of secularisation. Many of today�s humanitarian disasters arise from civil wars. It is not dictators who cause these wars, but the extreme difficulty in some states of reconciling competing claims to ethnic or religious self-rule within a single polity. Indeed, dictatorship is the only thing which stops such states from breaking up: it was the emergence of democracy in Yugoslavia which led directly to ethnic cleansing. Europe had to undergo a 30-year civil war in the 17th century to establish the principles of political liberty and religious tolerance, and even then they were not fully secure. Where the tradition of rule is theocratic (as in most Muslim countries), democracy is no guarantee of pacifism. Rather it may be the most effective instrument of mobilising state policy behind religious passion. It is no coincidence that the western-leaning Muslim states are autocracies.
 
Beyond the �rogue� states which have to be democratised are the �failed� states�mainly in sub-Saharan Africa�whose peoples have to be rescued from humanitarian disasters. Contemporary discussion of such failure�except where it spills over into genocide�is conducted exclusively in soft power forums like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank. Checklists of good practice in governance are dutifully drawn up, with aid made conditional on performance. But such language fails to do justice to the collapse of any form of government in the poorest parts of Africa. No one envisaged the extent of the retrogression that has occurred since the end of colonial rule. Over wide swathes of sub-Saharan Africa a clear contradiction has emerged between self-government and good government. Here is another area where a rationale has developed for the use of hard power to eliminate poverty, with no clear exit strategy.
 
The key question is how far the New American Century project will survive its confrontation with reality. It is unrealistic to expect Bush�s policy to end with Bush, and to stop in Iraq, just as it was foolish to expect Kosovo to be a one-off. An imperial momentum has already been established in the middle east. American intervention in Iraq is likely to trigger a string of collapsing states, riven by civil war, or engulfed by Islamic fundamentalism. Above all, there is the security of Israel, America�s client, to attend to. I do not believe in the Bush/Blair/Aznar �road map� to peace because I do not think Israel does, and the US will never put enough pressure on Israel to make it work. Rather, the US might easily get drawn into underwriting further Israeli colonisation of Palestine. So a long-term US presence in the middle east will be needed. This can be sold politically by yoking US and Israeli interests in the fight against terrorism while emphasising the advantages of control over oil resources. Along the way, the project of bringing democracy to the middle east will be quietly dropped.
 
The doctrine of self-liquidating interventions is a bold attempt to reconcile national sovereignty with a revived imperial vocation. It will not work. Nation-building will take far longer to achieve the results the new imperialists want than they imagine; it may never do so. If the New American Century is seriously attempted it will generate serious resistance.
 
A new balance of power. The instinctive response to overweening power is to form a combination of powers to check it. The idea of a balance of power is associated with the notion of �multipolarity,� which is the official doctrine of Russia, China and some countries in the EU. Indeed, when people talk like this they have in mind the possibility of the EU, Russia and China getting together to check US expansionism. However, if we look at what a new balance of power would entail, we can see how far away we are from it. In the now-collapsed bipolar world, the Soviet Union had an effective veto on US actions which threatened the world balance of power, and vice versa. This imparted a conservative bias to the postwar system. The formal veto given to the permanent five members of the security council in 1945 was a recognition of the real power they had to check each other�s actions. With France and China this was a matter of courtesy. Britain soon fell out of the reckoning. Then there were two: the US and the Soviet Union. Now there is one. Today, Russia, China and (possibly) India can prevent a direct US attack on their homelands. China retains regional independence by being able to threaten retaliation on US allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which are within range of its missiles. But they are not global competitors of the US in either hard or soft power.
 
The EU can and does stand up to the US in terms of soft power (trade negotiations), but has less hard power than Russia and China, and even less prospect of developing any. Apart from the small professional forces of Britain and France, the EU military sector, which consumes over e160bn a year, is little more than an expensive part of the social security system. EU countries are neither willing to spend more on defence nor to pool what they do spend for more purposeful action. It is symptomatic of Europe�s weakness that the despatch of 1,400 troops to the Congo, where thousands are being massacred at present, is hailed as an important step in its military revival. Europe will not develop a significant military capacity unless Germany decides to become a serious military power again. With the encouragement of its European partners, Germany will need, for the first time in its history, to find a middle way between militarism and pacifism.
 
Recreating a global balance of power would mean recreating a global balance of hard power. Given the difficulty of such a project, it would be child�s play for US diplomacy to nip it in the bud by a strategy of divide and rule. Russia and Europe will draw closer together, with oil providing a geopolitical nexus. But Russia is decades away from being a military colossus. The worst that might be expected, from a US perspective, is a form of aggressive non-cooperation from Russia and the EU: the refusal of overfly rights, the rejection of US military bases and so on.
 
There is another type of hard power which might discomfort the Americans: terrorism. The Iraqi war, if coupled with the failure of the road map to produce a Palestinian state, may mean a global rise in terror�though the �shock and awe� effect of US military technology may have an opposite, sobering effect. But terrorism on its own will no more drive the US out of the middle east than it has dislodged Israel from Palestine or Russia from Chechnya.
 
Nevertheless, I believe that the attempt to establish a Pax Americana unilaterally will break down, despite the absence of hard power obstacles. The reason lies in a combination of repercussions which will impose ultimately unacceptable costs on the US. The chief one will be the explosion of anti-Americanism. Well before a classical balance of power emerges, this will increase the costs to the US of unilateral action. Terrorism on its own may well strengthen US resolve. But the combination of terrorism and mass civilian unrest in areas of US military occupation will sap the will of the democratic imperialists. Uprisings which need to be put down by force will shatter the dream that America is intervening to liberate people.
 
Secondly, a unilaterally imposed Pax Americana will drain America of the soft power it needs to support its hard power, while increasing the demands on its hard power. This classic progression in the decline and fall of empires may start to bite sooner than the hawks expect. To put it very simply: the older empires (including the British) lived on tribute, and died when the costs of empire came to exceed the tribute. The US was not able to levy an imperial tax for protecting western Europe from communism, but did the next best thing by persuading the Europeans to accept the seignorage of the dollar�allowing the Americans to print as many IOUs as they wanted�because it was in their interest to do so. An American hegemony which is not solidly based on mutual interests will necessarily forego vital means of sharing burdens. The costs of the first Gulf war were widely shared, because the coalition consisted of most of the world. The costs of the recent Iraq war, as well as the reconstruction of Iraq, will be mostly paid by the US. The expense of subsidising Israel will grow if, as I expect, the road map leads nowhere. At the same time, the US will find it harder to get its way in trade and monetary negotiations.
 
In short, what will make the imperial project unviable is not that a powerful combination will rise up against it, but that the US will become progressively overstretched. To do its work, US power requires the co-operation of the main actors in world politics.
 
A new multilateralism. Most sensible people want multilateralism. But they have scarcely begun to think of what it would mean in terms of hard power institutions. At its heart should be a deal whereby the US would be brought back within the fold of international law through a reform of the UN charter. Reform of the UN should address itself to a single question: how can military intervention which may be justified in today�s world be reconciled with the rule of law as embodied in the UN charter?
 
Clearly, one would need to consider interventions to prevent or stop genocide and humanitarian disaster, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, possibly, to rescue peoples from the consequences of gross misgovernment. Pre-emption confined to the case of �imminent attack� is too limited for today�s weaponry, when devastating weapons of mass destruction can be launched within hours. The power of the veto in the security council should also, perhaps, be linked in some way to actual power.
 
Successful reform of the UN would reconcile international law with contemporary conceptions of prudence and justice, thus strengthening the rule of law in international affairs. The US could be offered such a reform as a quid pro quo for abandoning its unilateral quest for security which brings no real security�simply an indefinite extension of insecurity. This would represent a compromise between the old doctrine of non-intervention and the evolving fact of international community; and a way of reconciling de facto US hegemony with international co-operation.
 
It will be objected that this is a scheme for a great power directorate. But it is only through the involvement of the great powers in the government of the world that US unilateralism can be checked. The most important need today is not to create a universal democracy�a parliament of the world�but to restore collegiality among those countries which, however unevenly, have power to shape the future. Such collegiality is the best way to preserve the independence and protect the interests of small countries.
 
There should also be an agreed distribution of responsibilities, dictated by resources and geography, between the great powers for maintaining peace and promoting justice. For example, Europe should join the US as an effective partner in the search for peace in the middle east, just as China and the US should be jointly responsible for disarming North Korea. Europe should come to think of itself as the responsible authority for its own continent and also for preventing the slide of parts of Africa into barbarism. There is no compelling reason for US forces to stay in Europe; nor, indeed, for the continued existence of Nato. But for Europe to function at all in the way I have suggested, it must develop enough military assets to have the power of independent action. In short, Europe can and should revive a more audacious sense of its own value and mission.
 
A new multilateralism is the best way forward from the present impasse. Most likely it will develop, if it occurs at all, not from a master plan, but through a process of trial and error, much friction, and mutual accommodation. But unless something like this does develop, the outlook for the 21st century will be bleak. We will not see a new American century, but an angry America confronting a resentful world in a ceaseless, frenetic quest for an elusive security. The consequences of this for the future of peace, democracy, and globalisation are too awful to contemplate.