Robert Skidelsky
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International Relations after Iraq
Robert Skidelsky
World Political Forum, Turin | Monday, May 19, 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. It is now reasonably clear that Saddam Hussein didn’t possess any weapons of mass destruction. It is straining at a gnat to argue that UNSCR 678, passed in 1990, made legal an invasion undertaken in 2003. However, it is also true that the people of Iraq will be much better off without Saddam Hussein; and there is at least a chance that the Middle East will be reshaped for the better.So the balance sheet of the war is not yet clear.
Nevertheless, the way the Iraqi war came about has disorganised the relations between the world's great powers and frightened the smaller powers. This must count heavily in the negative balance. To give just one example: United States actions threaten to de-couple a large part of Western Europe from the United States -something Soviet diplomacy dreamt of, but never achiedved.
The traditional theory of international relations –certainly the theory by which we have lived since the war – is based on the principle of national sovereignty. Each state, constituted as such by history or by some more contemporary process of national self-determination, is deemed to be sovereign in its own territory, secure in law, though not necessarily in fact, against aggression by another state. This remains the bedrock principle of international law.
The system of international relations to which this principle gave rise is sometimes known as the Westphalian system, from its origins in the Peace of Wesphalia in 1648.This established the European state system on the basis of political sovereignty and religious toleration as opposed to imperial rule and religious monopoly. Largely through the agency of two immensely costly and murderous world wars, the Westphalian system had became a world system by the late 20th century, with the emergence of the of 190 national units, each claiming sovereignty –freedom from foreign intervention - in its own juridically recognized territory.
The United Nations not only codified the principle of national sovereignty in its Charter, but provided a particular mechanism –collective security - for upholding it. following an earlier effort in the League of Nations, provided a particular mechanism –collective security - for maintaining the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference, according to which the aggression of one member against another would be met by a collective response, including that of military force, authorized by the Security Council.This was intended to be a great improvement on the older balance of power theory, in which any threatened disturbance to a pre-existing equilibrium was supposed to activate a counter-coalition of powers to preserve it. Since the pre-existing equilibrium included small states, the balance of power system was supposed to preserve their independence too (unless the great powers agreed to divide them up between themselves, as happened to 18th century Poland, which simply disappeared from the map.) the use of force to settle international disputesd was prohibited except in self-defence or on determination by the Security Council that a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace, or an act of aggression existed and that collective force should be used to remove it. has been disintegrating for some years. no longer exists. The doctrine of national sovereignty is giving way to the idea that military interventions are justified to remove ‘rogue’ states, and reform ‘failed’, states. The right of self-defence, authorized by Article 51 of the UN Charter, has been been replaced by a potentially unlimited doctrine of ‘pre-emptive action’. This means that the United Nations Charter is no longer considered binding by its most powerful member.
3. The fall of Communism changed the context of international relations. It established the United States as the world's 'hyper-power' and it unleashed the politics of race and religion. American policy has become steadily more assertive even as resentment against American actions mounted. For some years the instability inherent in this state of affairs was masked by the facile promises of globalization. Economics, we almost believed, was creating a world village based on peace, democracy and free markets. This ignored not just the tensions inherent in globalization, but also the fact that an unstable system of international politics cannot create a harmonious system of international economics.
4. How can the crisis in international relations be overcome? What message should go out from this Forum?
5. Let us consider three possibilities. The first is that we are at the start of a Pax Americana, not unlike the old British system of territorial and informal empire, but, unlike the Pax Britannica, world-wide in scope. Secondly, a ‘multipolar’ system could emerge which would be in effect a new balance of power system. The EU, Russia, and China might form an axis of 'emancipation' from the United States A third possibility is a cooperative hegemony of the United States and the ‘great powers’, working through a reformed United Nations and other multilateral agencies. In such a system the US actions will be constrained by the need to reach agreement on the most important issues with the major players.
Pax Americana
6. Some building blocks of this Pax are already in place. The US and its allies currently occupy and administer Iraq. No one expects a rapid disengagement. Indeed, the chances are that the the United States will become the imperial power for the Middle East as a whole. The prize is fourfold: security for Israel, control of the world's main oil reserves, elimination of safe havens for terrorists, and bringing democracy to Islam. In the concepts of 'failed' and 'rogue' states, 'nation-building' ,'war against terrorism', and the stress on raw or 'hard' power to keep the peace, we already have the linguistic basis of an imperial ideology. And there is a momentum to it. Intervention produces complications, which require more interventions, and extended justifications. That is how an imperial ideology grows out of ad hoc events.
7. But America, you will often hear, is not an imperial nation. Its history is anti-imperialist. It 'won't stick around'. It's no good at 'nation-building'. These arguments need to be treated sceptically.Nations do not start off as imperial: they sometimes have imperialism thrust upon them and develop a vocation for it. (Germany is an exception to this rule: it was no good at all at being an imperial power, but tried desperately to become one.) The fact that the United States defined itself against British, imperialism does not mean that it was or is anti-imperial au fond. There's quite a bit of imperialism in its history. Here is an American President: 'Chronic wrongdoing or an incompetence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society...may require intervention by some civilized nation...' The President was Theodore Roosevelt and the words quoted are in his message to Congress in 1904. Let me point out, too, that Republican realism sits quite well with Democratic idealism. If terrorism is a product of dictatorship, to rid the world of dictators and instal democracies is more than an anti-terrorist policy, it is a moral duty. So do not expect Bush's policy to end with Bush; and do not expect it to stop in the Middle East. There is North Korea's nuclear programme and Taiwan's relationship with China to sort out.
8. The more important argument against the imperial project concerns the reaction of others. I discount the argument that terrorists will drive the Americans out of the Middle East. Terrorism will no more succeed in driving out the Americans than it has in dislodging Israel from Palestine. But overlordship of the Middle East is only one element in an assertiveness which is global, comprises both hard and soft power, and ranges from the unilateral use of force to a repudiation of political, juridical, security and economic rules which bind the USA in any way. How long will others stand for it?
A New Balance of Power
9. The instinctive response to an overweening power is to form a combination of powers to check it. The EU might develop some genuine military capacity. There has been talk of a French-Russian-Chinese axis. There are somethings EU countries can and should do. It is shameful that they could not lift a finger in the Balkans without a nod from the United States. Today hundreds of thousands are slaughtered in Central Africa without EU countries doing anything.There is no reason why American troops should stay in Europe; no reason for the continued existence of NATO. Europe can and should take more responsibility for its own security, and should revive a more audacious sense of its own value and mission. But the project of an anti-American axis is a pipe-dream. Apart from lack of capacity, would split Europe down the middle,and I am not just speaking of my own country. Of course, Russia and Europe will draw closer together, with oil providing a geopolitical nexus. But Russia is decades away from being a genuine great power.
10. What will make the imperial project unviable is not that a powerful combination will rise up against it, but that the United States will become progressively over-stretched. To do its work, American power requires the cooperation of the main actors in world politics.
A new Multilateralism
In concrete terms this will require four things:
11. Reform of the UN Charter. A way must be found of making beneficial interventions legal. Otherwise the Security Council will become irrelevant. The Charter should be reformed to allow three kinds of interventions: (a) to prevent or stop genocide, (b)to restore good government in failed states -possibly through a revived mandate system, and (c) to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
12. In return for these reforms, the USA should abandon its unilateral quest for security. This brings no real security -simply an indefinite extension of burdens. America should recognise that the best way to fight terrorism and other threats is through international cooperation.
13.The EU may need a constitution. Even more it needs a 'declaration of independence'. 'Europe' (which includes more than the EU) should come to think of itself as the responsible authority for its own Continent and also for much of Africa. It must develop enough independent capacity to meet any demands for interventions authorized by the Security Council. Multilateralism requires some division of labour.
14. Rejection of the idea of an inevitable clash of cultures. The world needs a deep dialogue between the West and Islam. The Europe is in the best position to sponsor such a dialogue.
15. I would hope that a message such as this would go out from the World Political Forum, which should set up sub-groups to flesh out the interlocking elements of a 'new multilateralism'.
US happy to act alone - e.g. Kosovo, fighting without UN resolution because Russians made it clear that they would veto it. EU didn’t really put any significant resources. Afghanistan - again US almost alone. But before 9/11 didn’t have a clear mandate. Now more proactive guided by influence of neo-conservatism (e.g. Paul Woolfowitz - deputy secretary of defence, who argued for the removal of Saddam for decades). Americans believe that their unparalleled power gives them an opportunity to expand democracy even to the remote regions in the world - i.e. see it as a special moment in history, so prepared to challenge the status quo. Belief that evil governments cannot be reformed, rogue states with potential of acquiring WMD can no longer be tolerated.
Iraqi involvement in Iraq - requires genuine representation, not token figures.
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction look like weapons of no destruction.
Economic - main contracts for the reconstruction will go to American companies, foreign companies “might be considered”.
North Korea: “axis of evil”, because of Iraq many of the developments there have gone almost unnoticed. Important - withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Launched two missiles into the Sea of Japan. US intelligence claim that Pyongyang is now pressing full steam ahead with its nuclear weapons programme. North Korea has 1416 km border with China, 238 km with South Korea, 19 km with Russia. Interests of those countries?
Iran - 3 times bigger than Iran, creator of Hezbollah, arguably world’s most lethal terrorist organisation + Syria
EU - can act as a counter-balance to the US? Tensions within - e.g. Donald Rumsfeld distinguished between New and Old Europe.
International law - in the West law is an attempt to live by negotiated solutions, in Islamic world law is used to impose moral and religious conformity. Danger that US may use its power to enforce a moral code unacceptable to many.
The argument is that, to endure, any system of international relations must be law-based, even though supported by power. There must be generally agreed rules, or understandings, that are binding on all the actors. We reject therefore the Kagan thesis that a peaceful world requires one law-breaker to enforce the peace.
The United States made little attempt to maintain the agreed position on terrorism readily established after the outrage of 11 September 2001. It bypassed the United Nations, ignoring the dissent of three of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The contrast between the world coalition assembled for the Gulf War of 1991and the 'coalition of the willing' (essentially the USA and Britain) which carried out the war on Iraq in 2003 could not have been starker.
the drive to do so has accelerated under the Bush Administration. In essence, the Cold War served two classic functions of a balance of power system: to prevent war and to preserve the independence of small states. International relations after WW2 were shaped by the Cold War rather than by the principles of the UN Charter, though there was an unexpected coincidence between the two for most of the time. Like any balance of power system, the Cold War gave a a conservative bias to international relations. Revolutionary changes to the ‘balance’ were excluded. The quality of the peace and of government within states was outside its concern.
4. By destroying the balance of power, the collapse of Communism unleashed American power. Iraq gave an awesome demonstration of it; but in reality it hardly tested American military might. America today is not just the one superpower; it has such an overwhelming superiority of power (see Lawrence Freedman, FT 9 April 03) that it could almost certainly fight a successful war against any combination of ‘great powers’; which is the main reason why no military combination is likely to form against it -at least for years to come.
No country, or combination of countries, will be able to do anything of which the US strongly disapproves. The political map of the world will not change much: there will still be almost two hundred ‘states’ of different colours; but many of them will be administered or protected or otherwise told what to do by officials of the United States and its allies.
6. Some mixture of the first and third is possible, and even likely, in the short to medium term-anything up to twenty-five years. The emergence of the second will depend on whether, and on how quickly, potentially independent power centres like EU, Russia, China, India, etc develop the capacity and will to challenge the United States in the realm of ‘hard’ power; also on whether terrorist activity (for example in the Middle East) can to some extent neutralize the overwhelming military advantage now enjoyed by the United States.
7. What follows is not intended to be just an analysis of three possible scenarios. It is also intended to be prescriptive: that is, by drawing on history and the theories of international relations, it will try to suggest what the best way forward should be.
Pax Americana
8. No explicit public doctrine of American imperialism now exists.Those writers like Kristol, Kagan, Boot, and Bobbitt who talk about America's power and duty to keep the peace and/or reshape the world do so in euphemisms:'pre-emptive action', 'nation-building', 'promotion of democracy', etc. But neither the Roman nor British empires started life with an imperial ideology. This developed from the complications created by military or economic interventions.
9. Theorists and historians have long argued about the meaning of 'imperialism', but broadly one can say that British imperialism in its heyday consisted of four elements: the British Empire proper, made up of the self-governing white colonies or dominions (eg Australia, Canada) and colonies ruled by representatives of the Crown (e.g. India, colonial Africa); protectorates (e.g.Egypt); economic domination backed up if necessary by 'gunboat diplomacy' (eg in much of Latin America); and naval supremacy. In combination these featuresd produced a 'Pax Britannica' over much of the world. After WW1 a collection of League of Nation mandates, most importantly in the Middle East (Iraq, Palestine), was added. Even within the Empire proper there was mixture of direct and indirect rule: much of India was ruled through subordinate Indian princes. Imperialism, in short,is compatible with many different degrees of dependence, with full independence reserved for the imperial centre.
10. It is important not to exaggerate the scope of British imperialism. It was based on pre-eminent assets: commercial and industrial might, naval supremacy,and an army which could not be defeated by non-European opponents. But neither the formal empire nor the Pax Britannica extended to Europe or (after 1789) to the United States and, outside Europe there were a number of other important 'imperialisms', chiefly that of France. British imperialism was merely the most important element in the West European domination of the non-European world.
11. The British Empire, it is often, said was acquired in a 'fit of absence of mind'. By this is meant that the British did not set out to 'conquer the world'. The Empire spread out discontinuously from a few overseas bases, mainly acquired through victory in intra- European wars, which became strategically or commercially unviable without an extension of political control. It is also true, though, that the British came to believe that they could run the places they acquired better than the previous rulers; without this belief, which died hard -and is surely not entirely dead today -opposition to formal empire in Britain, always sizeable, would have prevailed. Belief in the superiority of British civilization was the basis of the imperial ideology, which only became fully-fledged when the process of imperial extension was more or less completed. In its mature expression in the doctrine of 'trusteeship', the British proclaimed they were only there to bring the inhabitants up to 'Western' standards of government and morality. When this was accomplished, they would leave, having fulfilled their trust. The French similarly talked about their 'mission civilatrice'. We will never know how soon, in practice, Britain would have been willing to relinquish its empire (and more generally its world position) had that position not been mortally wounded in two world wars.
This, I believe, is a mistake which arises from the identification of the 'epoch of imperialism' with the formal empires of the European powers, which did disappear. Following Lenin, writers in the Marxist tradition have always seen formal empires as merely one element in relations of domination between the centre and peripheries of the capitalist world system. An important corollary of this view is that formal empire had become obsolete, since it had become cheaper and more efficient to exercise control through collaborating national elites than to maintain the apparatus and resentments of conquest. It is facile to reject this type of analysis of the post-WW2 international system simply on account of is inauspicious provenance.The concept of 'informal' empire is not rubbish, even though it is far from precise.
13. Secondly, the idea of national independence as the supreme value of the international system was never universally accepted in the post-colonial age. It was never accepted by the Soviets, who not only inherited the old Russian Empire, but seized control over nine countries in Eastern Europe after WW2. Just as importantly, the founders of the European Union rejected the view that national independence should be the organizing principle of European politics and economics. The European Union is not an empire, but neither is it a nation, and it is more than just a group of nations.
14. The third element of continuity is suggested by the well-known observation that after WW2, the USA 'stepped into Britain's shoes'. What is meant by this is not that the United States inherited the British Empire, but that it inherited its world role. It is not absurd to talk about the establishment of a Pax Americana over the free world -a Pax sustained by 'raw power'. In the now familiar contrast, the United States provided most of the 'soft power', too, through its leadership of the free world economy, mainly exercised through multilateral institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and GATT. However, US leadership was based on partnership, especially with the Europeans, in both dimensions of power. This relationship remains the model of those who look for a new world order based on a multilateralism which now extended to Russia, China, and other important or rising powers- the third possibility as I have described it.
15. Why, then, have people started to register the dawn of a new American imperialism? In the background, of course, has been the mood of American triumphalism fuelled by the collapse of Communism, the victory of free market values, and the renewed dynamism of the US economy. This is translated into more assertive or 'unilateral' behviour in international affairs. However, more important than any of this has been the revival of ideas favourable to the re-emergence of 'formal' empire. The first has been the failure of 'independence' to bring about minimal standards of good government -and therefore economic development and protection of life and human rights in much of the post-colonial world, especially in Africa. This points to a reassertion of what the former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd called 'an ethical kind of imperialism'. However, the immediate trigger was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Fair in New York of 11 September 2001. This led directly to the 'war on terrorism' and US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war against terrorism requires 'regime change'. But regime change, to be durable, requires occupation of the countries which harboured terrorism -at least until better regimes take root. The concept of 'failed' and 'rogue' states marks the start of the ideology of imperialism.
Imperialism -for a Pax Americana without imperialism is incoherent - evokes such a vanished world that it seems bizarre to talk about its revival at the start of the 21st century.
One can see The EU might mobilise sufficient of its quite ample assets to make it capable of independent action. they will remain is open to doubt. But the logic of intervention militates against quick withdrawal not just from Iraq, but from the Middle East itself. For this is the home of the terrorism which assaulted the United States. Not only must all the states of the Middle East be reformed; but American security requires a US military presence to ensure that they stay reformed -or at least under close surveillance. How much of the region will be formally administered by the United States and its allies (Britain, Israel) , how much ruled by client governments, will depend on the dynamics of the situation, in particular what happens now in Iraq, Syria, Palestine,Saudi Arabia, and Iran. But, as at the start of the British empire, the effects of the initial intervention impose a logic of consolidating and extending control.
So a possible lesson of the war is that, while it was illegal, it was beneficial, and that ways must be found of making beneficial interventions legal in the future.
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