Monday, November 15, 2004

The Perils Of Unipolarity And Permission Slips, Part I

It was no lexical accident or anomalous coincidence that George Bush and his campaign surrogates repeated the phrase, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country" in every forum - from the 2004 State of the Union address, to the Republican Convention. The phrase "permission slip" - a reference to consultation with other nations and international bodies such as the United Nations - was specifically designed to evoke a whole pattern of thought that favors the Bush team's views of foreign policy. That pattern of thought is what linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff calls "strict father morality," which he describes thusly:

The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.

What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can:

-Protect the family in the dangerous world,

-Support the family in the difficult world, and

-Teach his children right from wrong.

What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. . .

In this model there is also a definition of what it means to become a good person. A good person - a moral person - is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant. A good child grows up to be like that. A bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous. She cannot take care of herself and thus becomes dependent.

Think for a minute about what this says about foreign policy. Suppose you are a moral authority. As a moral authority, how do you deal with your children? Do you ask them what they should do or what you should do? No. You tell them. What the father says, the child does. No back talk...

The United States, being the best and most powerful country in the world - a moral authority - knows the right thing to do. We should not be asking anybody else...

Most of the United Nations consists of developing and underdeveloped countries. That means they are metaphorical children...Should the United States have consulted the United Nations and gotten its permission to invade Iraq? An adult does not "ask for a permission slip"!...You do not need to ask for a permission slip if you are the teacher, if you are the principal, if you are the person in power, the moral authority. The others should be asking you for permission. That is what the permission slip phrase in the 2004 State of the Union address was about. Every conservative in the audience got it. They got it right away.

[From Don't Think Of An Elephant, pp. 7-9, emphasis added]
In this manner, the Bush campaign was able to undermine the credibility of candidate Kerry and many of his supporters for their perceived childish view of the world. To consult the world was to acquiesce to children and lesser moral beings - the "global test" was a failure. It was an effective linguistic tool, but it also oversimplified and obscured what is a necessary discussion of the future trajectory of U.S. foreign policy in the newly unipolar world. In that sense, and in many others, what is grist for the mill in electoral politics is often a hindrance to developing effective yet complex, delicate and, dare I say, nuanced policies in the aftermath. We are at such a crossroads now, and slogans and frames won't aid us in opting for the prudent course.

A Watershed Moment

At the risk of making a hollow, even trite observation, we are at a unique moment in this nation's history - indeed the history of the world. In the short term, the balance of power established by the post-World War II era of cold war brinkmanship has shifted heavily in favor of the United States. The former Soviet Union and its cadre of allies organized under the Warsaw Pact have ceased to exist, as of the past decade, in the form that they had inhabited for the prior 50 years. The United States has emerged from the bipolar dynamic to claim the unprecedented power and influence attendant its newfound unipolar status - especially in the realm of military supremacy. But this new found global dominance also marks a historic unraveling of the system of power distribution that has dominated the past half a millennium. Author and professor
John Ikenberry describes the historical significance:

For 500 years, international order has been based on two elements which together make up the Westphalian system. At the international level, order has been maintained by the diffusion and equilibrium of power. States with roughly equal capabilities - the so-called great powers - balanced each other, alone or in concert...

For centuries, the security of states was maintained by ensuring an absence of an overarching power in the international system. The Napoleonic wars and the two world wars were all about the overturning of dangerous challenges to international order based on the equilibrium of power. British foreign policy since the age of Charles V was organised around this fundamental goal: to prevent the rise of a powerful European state that could dominate the continent...

Domestically, countries have been sovereign, deploying what Max Weber called a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." But in a dual transformation, the Westphalian order has been flipped on its head. We now have one country - the US - with a quasi-monopoly on the use of force internationally. We also have growing legitimate international authority over what goes on within countries. Westphalian sovereignty is increasingly contingent.
After WW II, standards were set for the proper circumstances in which outside states could interfere with the internal workings of another state, but these mostly dealt with human rights, protection for the brutalized and specters like genocide. The events of 9/11 have led some in the Bush administration, and beyond, to further push the boundaries of "contingent sovereignty" - arguing that in certain circumstances pre-emptive and preventitive wars are necessary and justifiable intrusions into another country's sovereignty. While there is a need to redefine certain aspects of these principles, I will explore what is the proper balance to strike between old and new.

The defeat of Communism was an unquestionable positive for the people living under those now defunct regimes, and for those threatened by their aggression, however, such victory is not without its own problems and pitfalls. The fact that the United States is the lone superpower might look to some as an unmitigated good, but this relatively rapid upheaval of international order and heretofore agreed on guiding principles has caused much confusion, consternation and reflection in the capitals of the world which has put a strain on our most cherished alliances and agreements.

It is therefore not surprising that the world is worried about entering an era where the US presents itself as a unipolar fait accompli. Unipolarity happened almost without notice during the 1990s. The US began the 1990s as the world's only superpower. Its economy grew faster than an inward-looking Europe, while Japan stagnated and Russia collapsed. China has grown rapidly in recent years but remains a developing country. America's expenditures on defence are almost equal to half of global spending. The US did not fight a hegemonic war to become the unipolar state or overturn the old international order. It simply grew more powerful while other states sputtered or failed. This peaceful ascent to unipolarity has made the transition less destabilising. But in the aftermath of 9/11 and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US power has been exposed to the light of day. The simultaneous rise of America's quasi-monopoly on the use of force and the unbundling of sovereignty is a volatile mixture.
On Legitimacy

Two noted scholars, Robert W. Tucker, the Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, and David C. Hendrickson, the Robert J. Fox Distinguished Service Professor at Colorado College, have recently penned
a piece for Foreign Affairs which takes up the notion of America's role in the changing landscape of geo-political influence. In discussing this article, I note this endorsement of their effort by right-leaning blogger Gregory Djerejian: "These academics are not wild-eyed Chomskyites and Tucker, in particular, is an eminent diplomatic historian I respect much."

Tucker and Hendrickson discuss a certain predicament the United States is facing given its status as unipolar power and the recent examples of the exercise of this power by the Bush administration: how to maintain a perception of legitimacy for our actions within the new dynamic. According to the authors:

Legitimacy arises from the conviction that state action proceeds within the ambit of law, in two senses: first, that action issues from rightful authority, that is, from the political institution authorized to take it; and second, that it does not violate a legal or moral norm. Ultimately, however, legitimacy is rooted in opinion, and thus actions that are unlawful in either of these senses may, in principle, still be deemed legitimate. That is why it is an elusive quality. Despite these vagaries, there can be no doubt that legitimacy is a vital thing to have, and illegitimacy a condition devoutly to be avoided.
They make an important observation, echoed in the Ikenberry article, that the United States has not exactly followed the letter of international law in the past, yet its actions were still widely seen as legitimate, and perceptions matter most in this realm. Furthermore, legitimacy is something of value, a commodity worth expending capital in order to acquire. In a sense it is an investment, with returns that are tangible and contribute to the success of various and sundry ventures. Iraq is certainly a case in point.

Several factors contributed to the air of legitimacy, and it should be noted that the perils represented by the Soviet Union and the cold war in general led the world community to grant the U.S. a fair amount of leeway in bending the rules as established by that same community. But those laws, rules, norms, conventions and treaties should not be undervalued. The U.S. fought long and hard to have those principles codified and accepted.

Just as civilization itself is distinguished by the insistence that conflicts be settled by means other than brute force, so U.S. postwar leaders insisted that international relations be ordered by the same principle. This principle had all the more appeal because it was championed in circumstances in which, only a short time before, it had been blatantly violated...The German regime that brought on World War II was even more contemptuous of international law. It acted avowedly on the principle that might makes right.

The same position was taken in the U.S.-inspired Charter of the United Nations. Peace was the great goal to which all other ends were subordinated. In obligating the UN's individual member states to refrain "from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state," the charter permitted but one clear exception: force could be employed in self-or collective defense against an armed attack.
Tucker and Hendrickson also provide an interesting parallel between foreign policy and the underlying philosophy on which our country was founded: unchecked power leads to tyranny.

Undoubtedly, U.S. legitimacy did undergo a dramatic transformation with the end of the Cold War. U.S. legitimacy did not collapse "along with the Berlin Wall and Lenin's statues," as Kagan argues, but it became problematic in a way it had not been previously. Having built up a prodigious military machine in the course of its rivalry with the Soviet Union, the United States now found itself without a military equal and in a position, from a narrow military standpoint, to act without the serious prospect of external restraint. This advantage created a potentially dangerous situation, one that, from the standpoint of traditional American political thought, required correction. Whether in international or domestic affairs, it has been almost a first law of U.S. statecraft that any situation of unbounded power heralds an incipient condition of political pathology. Since the post-Cold War world continued to hold many dangers, it was easy to make the case that the international order required a guardian, but it was equally evident that the guardian's power needed to be restrained, whether internally or externally. The end of the Cold War thus thrust the United States and the world into a Madisonian moment. "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men," James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, "the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." [emphasis added]
Tucker and Hendrickson provide what they consider to be the "four pillars" that have garnered the benefit of the doubt and the cloak of legitimacy for U.S. foreign policy post-WW II:

Washington's long-held commitment to international law, its acceptance of consensual decision-making, its reputation for moderation, and its identification with the preservation of peace.
The authors point to the long history of institution building (NATO, the UN, etc.) as evidence of the historic commitment to international law. They respond to critics who point to evidence of divergence from such precedent:

Although it is certainly true that the protection the United States accorded Western Europe from Soviet expansionism conferred legitimacy on U.S. power, it is equally true that allied diplomats repeatedly justified this enterprise in terms of its conformity with the principles of the UN Charter and its rule forbidding aggression. Had NATO been constituted on any other basis it would not have gained the support it did...

The United States, to be sure, did not always scrupulously adhere to the rules of the charter in its conduct of diplomacy, as for instance when it quarantined Cuba to prevent the arrival of further Soviet nuclear armaments in 1962. But U.S. leaders generally made every effort to square their actions with international law. And despite some transgressions, the overall fidelity of the United States to internationalist norms contributed strongly to the legitimacy of U.S. power. The converse proposition - that world public opinion was reassured by illegal and aggressive U.S. actions, such as may have existed - would be absurd. This, clearly, is not what European leaders say now, and it is not what they thought then.
On the role of consensual decision making, the authors point to the "flurry of institution building that occurred during and after World War II" as well as the fact that even when the U.S. was operating on the fringes of acceptable practices under international law:

...the United States continued to seek for its policies the widest possible consensus within the Western alliance and within international society more generally. The normative order of the alliance enshrined the importance of consultation, and U.S. policymakers worked tirelessly to reconcile the divergent views of the nation's partners and forge a common policy through compromise.
The third pillar underlying U.S. legitimacy was the perception in the world that Washington exhibited a moderation in policy - a sort of reluctant champion of freedom. If anything, the world feared a United States that was prone to slip into the false comfort of isolationism. In this sense, I point to the prescient words of President Bush from his 2000 debate with then Vice President Al Gore:

It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us.
Bush is right. The U.S. benefited greatly from the perception of humility, moderation and non-imperialistic impulses.

The fourth pillar concern's Washington's "success in preserving a relative state of peace and prosperity within the community of advanced industrialized democracies" [emphasis added]. While there was fear that WW III would erupt between NATO and Warsaw, the decades of tension passed calmly into the night with the defeat of the Soviet Union. The policies and strategies adopted by the United States were mostly vindicated, and "the belief that U.S. power was both necessary and rightful-was, in short, legitimate."

According to Tucker and Hendrickson (as well as Ikenberry in his own words), the Bush administration has deviated from the path set forth by the four pillars enunciated above - and the results have been disturbing. Both articles cite trends in the international community regarding the dismal status of the United States' approval ratings, "especially in Europe-the cooperation of which Washington needs for a broad array of purposes-and in the Muslim world, where the United States must win over "hearts and minds" if it is to lessen the appeal of terrorism. In both areas, confidence in the propriety and purposes of U.S. power has dropped precipitously and shows little sign of recovery."

I have posted about this phenomenon here, citing studies such as this one.

According to Tucker, Hendrickson and Ikenberry, the change in course is the result of a deliberate strategy and philosophical commitment of the Bush administration, not a change of heart amongst our allies. In Part II, I will explore the nature and parameters of this new world view.

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