Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Perils Of Unipolarity And Permission Slips, Part III

In Part I of this series, I discussed the recent, and relatively sudden, realization of American unipolarity, as well as the impact this dynamic has had on the perceived "legitimacy" of our actions given the prior era's framework for such determinations. In Part II, I examined the rhetorical and practical means by which the Bush administration has been charting a course that has deviated from accepted norms and precedents in foreign policy, and how this new course has impacted on legitimacy and our prospects for success in foreign policy endeavors in the present and future. In this segment, I will discuss the proper means and methods to adopt for confronting the threats unique to this period in time, as well as a prescription for managing our unipolar role.

Recovering From Iraq

I have stated before that I opposed the invasion of Iraq. I opposed it on several grounds. First of all, I thought that the inspectors should have been given more time to conduct their job. Ascertaining the true nature of the threat posed by Saddam's arsenal was crucial in determining the necessity of action. Relatedly, the United States could have used the extra time afforded the inspectors to further lobby world leaders and the court of world opinion regarding the need for regime change, and to fully develop a well informed and comprehensive plan for winning the peace. Despite the claims of many Bush supporters that the administration never said Saddam was an "imminent threat," their actions and haste in the run-up to the invasion suggested otherwise. If the threat was not believed to be imminent, then it only makes this lack of patience that much more inexcusable.

I also believed that invading Iraq would strike a blow against moderate forces and centrists in the Muslim world, and cut in favor of extremists and fundamentalists like Bin Laden. I tended to agree with Michael Scheuer who called the invasion a "Christmas gift" for Bin Laden. Furthermore, I think that the conduct of the war, and more specifically the reconstruction, has been a flawed exercise plagued by the pathology of putting ideological concerns ahead of empirical evidence and the input and advice of disinterested experts.

Nevertheless, there are real threats in this world, and threats that may require the use of hard power and military assets depending on the nature of the threat and the context, and Iraq is now, in some ways, a moot point. The real difficulty lies in processing the lessons from the Iraq campaign, while at the same time not over-reacting to the mistakes made.

For one, I am not willing to rule out pre-emptive war should an exigent situation present itself. I am also not willing to subject American foreign policy decisions to the sole discretion of any international body or alliance, be it the United Nations, NATO, the EU, or any other. Because future scenarios are unknowable, and their dimensions impossible to discern, I will not say a priori that I am categorically opposed to unilateralism. In this respect, I turn to the words of
Francis Fukuyama, a neoconservative thinker who has become a strange bedfellow of mine, but until he starts hoarding the blankets, we shall remain on amiable terms:
Certainly, it would be utterly wrong to conclude that the [Iraqi] war teaches us that the United States should never stick its neck out and lead the broader Western world to actions that our allies oppose or are reluctant to undertake. Nor should we conclude that pre-emption and unilateralism will never be necessary.
With that as a starting point, I will attempt to establish a framework from which we should operate in a manner that would make tactics such as pre-emptive invasion and unilateral action less likely to be necessary, and even then, more acceptable to those who dissent. Because there is no doubt that such policies are costly, risky and occasionally counterproductive to the stated goals.

Legitimacy Matters

The spark of this discussion was
the article by Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson which appears in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs. In it, the authors argue that, historically, there are four pillars from which the United States derives legitimacy in the arena of foreign policy:

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.
Whether Tucker and Hendrickson are right as to the actual sources of legitimacy, I find it hard to argue that legitimacy is irrelevant. Quite simply, it makes life much easier, and increases the prospects for success in almost any endeavor - but especially when undertaking such a grandiose project as nation building in the Middle East. While some neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer are quick to deride the cult of legitimacy, others like Fukuyama have pointed out the importance thereof. Krauthammer argues:

Liberal internationalists...appeal to legitimacy--on the grounds that multilateral action has a higher moral standing.
Krauthammer does acknowledge that having more allies is better, but he downplays the importance, argues in favor of acting without multilateral forces when some in the coalition might dissent from certain policies, and questions the motives of some of our traditional allies. His argument about "morality" is more or less irrelevant - except in so far as it induces the world to support us or not. I do not believe that multilateral actions necessarily have a higher moral standing, but the support of other nations is our target, not moral satisfaction. That support is vital to the success of nation building efforts and protracted military campaigns. While our military is capable of handling most tasks alone, the aftermath is better suited for a more inclusive effort. Beyond actual logistical support, legitimacy gives the United States the perception of moral standing, which, again, is more important than the ultimate disposition of actual morality. Legitimacy is an invaluable asset if we are really trying to win over the hearts and minds of vast swathes of the world's population, and usher in a pax democratia. I return to Fukuyama:
The final area of weakness in Krauthammer's argument lies in his treatment of legitimacy, and how the United States relates to the rest of the world. Failure to appreciate America's own current legitimacy deficit hurts both the realist part of our agenda, by diminishing our actual power, and the idealist portion of it, by undercutting our appeal as the embodiment of certain ideas and values.

Legitimacy is important to us not simply because we want to feel good about ourselves, but because it is useful. Other people will follow the American lead if they believe that it is legitimate; if they do not, they will resist, complain, obstruct or actively oppose what we do. In this respect, it matters not what we believe to be legitimate, but rather what other people believe is legitimate. If the Indian government says that it will not participate in a peacekeeping force in Iraq unless it has a UN Security Council mandate to do so, it does not matter in the slightest that we believe the Security Council to be an illegitimate institution: the Indians simply will not help us out.
So, if we accept as a base point that legitimacy matters, and it provides a set of conditions conducive to the realization of our foreign policy goals (be they realist, isolationist, neoconservative, liberal internationalist, etc.), then we must examine how do to best go about achieving such status.

Recapturing Legitimacy

Fukuyama, Tucker, Hendrickson and Ikenberry all argued two premises: first, legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder; second, legitimacy is a worthy objective of our foreign policy. Despite enunciating the four pillar model, Tucker and Hendrickson both acknowledge that the United States has not strictly adhered to those precepts in the past. Deviation is not unheard of, but there is a different context today that changes the nature of, and perceptions of, American unilateralism and circumvention of international law.

For one, we are in an era of unipolarity and have been since the Soviet bloc fell. Although China looms on the horizon as a future rival almost certain to attain super power status in both economics and military might, for now, and for the past decade, America stands alone relatively unchallenged. This tends to make other nations a bit more uneasy about our exercise of power, as I explained in Parts I and II.

In addition, the removal of the Soviet threat has taken away the incentive to grant the United States the benefit of the doubt in the sphere of foreign policy, so we have been forced by a newly skeptical international body to come up with other means to justify our actions.

Finally, the United States is currently under leadership that itself has expressed disdain for international law, treaties, and organizations. Whereas leaders of decades past have pushed the importance of these institutions, the current administration is composed of actors whose ideologies are almost opposed to their very existence.

Given those concerns, we must redefine our policies in a way to capture legitimacy, while not abdicating our ability to act absent the blessing of the world in all matters - a version of carte blanche that existed during the Cold War.

Rhetoric Matters

Before I continue with the second part of this essay, I want to focus on the importance of rhetoric. Whatever path to legitimacy is eventually taken, one thing is obvious: the Bush administration must alter the rhetoric emanating from the policymakers that are running the show. Rhetoric matters when you are trying to win over the people of the world, especially in a unipolar, post-Cold War world.

If you approach the United Nations, NATO and European allies with a sincere concern for their opinions, and regard for their institutional mandates, they will be more receptive to your entreaties. Those organizations and nations might not always agree, and they might not always endorse your actions just because you enter negotiations with a respectful demeanor, but it is prudent to minimize their opposition and leave open the channels for rapprochement in the future.

Threatening the United Nations with "irrelevance" if they do not accede to your demands is not going to foster cooperation. Considering dissolving NATO because the members were not unanimous in their support for your policies is not productive and not likely to pave a road for future cooperation. Grousing about "Old Europe" and obsolete alliances is not going to induce the targets of your barbs to contribute to your efforts. Closing off reconstruction contracts in Iraq to companies from non-coalition countries is just one manifestation of these punitive, exclusionary tendencies.

Perhaps most importantly though, if your ideological brain trust is churning out opinion after opinion concerning why these alliances, institutions, and organizations are bankrupt, corrupt, and hostile, and then you act accordingly, those same groups will likely treat you with contempt when you ask for their assistance in the future - which we almost definitely will.

I think Fukuyama is right when he chides fellow neoconservatives for their focus on the motives of allies and importance of the role of international law in the matter of Iraq:
But if [Krauthammer] had listened carefully to what many Europeans were actually saying (something that Americans are not very good at doing these days), he would have discovered that much of their objection to the war was not a normative one having to do with procedural issues and the UN, but rather a prudential one having to do with the overall wisdom of attacking Iraq. Europeans tended not to be persuaded that Iraq was as dangerous as the Bush Administration claimed. They argued that Ba'athi Iraq had little to do with Al-Qaeda, and that attacking Iraq would be a distraction from the War on Terror. Many Europeans, moreover, did not particularly trust the United States to handle the postwar situation well, much less the more ambitious agenda of democratizing the Middle East. They believed that the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a more dangerous source of instability and terrorism than Iraq and that the Bush Administration was undercutting its own credibility by appearing to side so strongly with the policies of Ariel Sharon...
Modified Pillars

Pillars One and Two

I have a few problems with first two parts of the Tucker/Hendrickson thesis which are: 1) Washington's long-held commitment to international law; 2) Its acceptance of consensual decision-making. The major problem is the way the authors resolve the apparent tension between strict adherence to these precepts on the one hand, and utter disregard for them on the other. The Bush administration shows the latter tendency, but perhaps rigid obedience is not a wise course either. Here is where I think Tucker and Hendrickson overstate their case, in the context of counseling for deferring to the United Nations in regard to pre-emptive war:

[Return to international law] would be imprudent, say the critics, because the principles of the UN Charter that allow for force only in circumstances of self-and collective defense cannot meet the dangers of a world in which terrorists and "rogue states" may acquire WMD...

Such illegal uses of force are in fact unnecessary for U.S. security and actually imperil it. The Iraq war clearly illustrates both points: not only did containment and deterrence offer a perfectly workable method of dealing with Saddam's Iraq, but the consequences of the U.S. occupation have also made Americans much more insecure. Those consequences include daily attacks on American soldiers, the inflammation of opinion in the Muslim world (encouraging new recruits for al Qaeda), and the possibility of further wars arising from the potential disintegration of the Iraqi state.

The baleful results of the Iraq war are also relevant to the dangers posed by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea or Iran, two instances in which preventive war is often urged. As with Iraq, "preventive" attacks would be remedies worse than the disease and could mean catastrophic war in both regions. U.S. threats of "regime change" also undermine the more reasonable policy of dissuading either state from acquiring such weapons through measures short of war-that is, through a mixture of negative sanctions and positive inducements. The prospects of a grand bargain with either Pyongyang or Tehran would be enhanced were Washington to abandon its not-so-secret wish to bring about the downfall of these regimes.
While I agree with the authors concerning the results of the invasion of Iraq, and agree that any non-sanctioned pre-emptive military action against North Korea and Iran could be disastrous (even UN sanctioned ones could be), I am still not willing to categorically rule out "illegal" actions such as pre-emptive war in all settings. Just because Iraq turned out poorly, and perhaps had paradoxical effects, does not mean that every such exercise of power will end up similarly - especially if you factor in the layers of incompetence displayed by the Bush team which might not be repeated by other administrations.

For example, what if the United States approached the UNSC before 9/11 with a plan for a limited invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and disrupt al-Qaeda. It is more than possible that the UN would have declined the request for endorsement. Unless the United Nations accepted our argument of self defense, the action would have been deemed illegal under international law. But such an action would have been proper despite its illegality in my opinion, though I must acknowledge the benefit of hindsight.

Furthermore, there are more ways to garner multilateral support outside of the United Nations, and its edicts of international law. The UN is saddled with its own corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude but there are other venues to court, and other avenues to travel. Fukuyama again:

Krauthammer and others have dismissed the importance of legitimacy by associating it entirely with the United Nations-and then shooting at that very easy target. Of course, the UN has deep problems with legitimacy. Since membership is not based on a substantive principle of legitimacy, but rather formal sovereignty, it has been populated from the beginning by a range of dictatorial and human-rights abusing regimes. Our European allies themselves do not believe in the necessity of legitimization through the Security Council. When they found they could not get its support for the intervention in Kosovo because of the Russian veto, they were perfectly willing to bypass the UN and switch the venue to NATO instead. But our legitimacy problem in Iraq went much deeper. Even if we had switched the venue to NATO-an alliance of democracies committed to the same underlying set of values-we could not have mustered a majority in support of our position, not to speak of the consensus required for collective action in that organization. The Bush Administration likes to boast of the size of the "coalition of the willing" that the United States was eventually able to pull together. One can take comfort in this only by abstracting from the quality of the support we received. Besides Britain and Australia, no one was willing to put boots on the ground during the active phase of combat, and now that post-conflict peacekeeping looks more like real warfare once again, Spain, Honduras and other members of the coalition are pulling out. Those countries that did support the United States did so on the basis of an elite calculation of national interest-in almost all cases against the wishes of large majorities of their own populations. This is true alike for Tony Blair, our staunchest ally, and for Poland, the most pro-American country in eastern Europe. While the behavior of Germany's Gerhard Schroeder in actively opposing the war was deeply disappointing, I would still much rather have Germany on my side than a feckless and corrupt Ukraine.

It is clear, in other words, that a very large part of the world, including many people who are normally inclined to be our friends, did not believe in the legitimacy of our behavior towards Iraq. This is not because the Security Council failed to endorse the war, but because many of our friends did not trust us, that is, the Bush Administration, to use our huge margin of power wisely and in the interests of the world as a whole. This should matter to us, not just for realist reasons of state (our ability to attract allies to share the burden), but for idealist ones as well (our ability to lead and inspire based on the attractiveness of who we are).
Fukuyama makes some important observations. First, in regards to Iraq, even if we went to smaller, more amiable bodies like NATO, we could not find the support we needed. Second, most of the nations that did eventually sign on were not enthusiastic in their support, and were mostly acting out of national interest that has revealed a lack of resolve on the part of the withdrawing members.

Thus there is something of a new test forming. On the one hand, appeal to international law and the United Nations, and, importantly, do so from a vantage point of respect for the institutions and an ideological position of appreciation for the importance of such multilateral organizations. Do not proceed with brash and inflammatory rhetoric which is prone to create distrust and entrenched opposition.

If those efforts are not met with success, continue to lobby, while at the same time consulting with traditional allies and smaller organizations such as NATO. If all three corners are counseling against our actions, then it would be wise to reconsider, or at the very least, agree to delay the decision. In the case of Iraq, this might have led to a better outcome than the tangled knot we are dealing with now.

While there could be exceptions to these modified pillars in the potential case of extreme and imminent threats that somehow fail to alarm our allies, I think these fundamentals provide a strong overarching principle to guide us going forward. They better guard our own interests than a strict obedience to international law would, but at the same time defer more to our allies and international bodies, and give weight to their counsel, so as to foster trust, support, and an air of legitimacy which are all so vital for our current mission.

At the very least, this approach will show the world that the United States is committed to acting within a set of principles other than "might makes right," and the related claim that since we are the mightiest, we can act with disregard and impunity. Such positions will hinder our efforts in the future, and diminish our standing. There is no way to maintain legitimacy while disregarding alliances and international norms, so we must be willing to give as well as take.

Pillars Three and Four

There are two other pillars that need consideration within the broad strategy of insuring support and legitimacy for our actions vis-a-vis the many pressing foreign policy dilemmas we now face, such as a nuclear North Korea and Iran. They are: 3) Our reputation for moderation; 4) Our identification with the preservation of peace.

The current problem we are facing with the loss of our reputation for moderation was a predictable outcome given the manner in which the Bush administration went about the intervention in Iraq. While the battle fields in Afghanistan were still smoldering from the effects of US munitions, the country rushed to war in Iraq, despite pleas for delay from almost all sectors of the international community.

Further, the rhetoric being used by Bush administration officials seemed to indicate a new era of American power: an acknowledgement of unipolarity coupled with the "crusade" for democratic regime change. To a world grown accustomed to the relative stability of the NATO/Warsaw stalemate, colored by strong American traditions of isolationism, this new paradigm marked a dramatic shift away from moderation and the preservation of peace, and toward radicalism and a promise of perpetual war.

I began discussing the problems, and inherent contradictions, with the Hobbesian conceptualization of "America as Leviathan" and democratic crusader in Part II of this series. Here is Fukuyama's take:

The problem of judgment gets to the heart of what is wrong with the vision of a unipolar world that Krauthammer lays out. In his words, the United States "has been designated custodian of the international system" by virtue of its enormous margin of military superiority. If we had in fact been designated global custodian, we would have no legitimacy problem, but we have unfortunately designated ourselves. We have in effect said to the rest of the world, "look, trust us, we will look out for your interests. You can do this safely because we not just any run-of-the-mill hyperpower. We are, after all, the United States." While we would not trust Russia, China, India, France or even Britain with a similar kind of power, we believe that the rest of the world should trust us. This is because the United States is different from other countries, a democracy espousing universal values and therefore not subject the same calculations of self-interest as other would-be hegemons.

There is actually something to this argument. But it is also not very difficult to see why it does not gain much traction outside the United States, and not just among those endemically hostile to America. Krauthammer-the-realist, after all, argues for a narrow definition of national interest, which does not suggest we will be a very reliable partner to a struggling friend when we do not have important interests at stake. And even if we were willing to bear other people's burdens, what about our judgment?
Fukuyama, like Ikenberry, touches on the fundamental stumbling block with this theory: unless the rest of the world accepts us in such a role, it will be untenable. But the rest of the world will not accept this reality, and provide the tactical and logistical support that it requires, unless the actions of the United States are seen as legitimate. Part of this is through deference to international institutions and alliances, another is to reassure the world of our commitment to moderation and peace.

I have argued before that the United States has been too ready to resort to military force on many occasions in our past. In this sense, I echoed Tucker and Hendrickson's critique:

The United States has gone down a road in which the use of force has become a chronic feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the country's security has been weakened rather than bolstered as a consequence. It is true, of course, that the American public does not like the idea of deferring to others, but it may come to see the advantages of doing so once it appreciates that enterprises undertaken on a unilateral basis must be paid for on a unilateral basis. Ultimately, however, the importance of legitimacy goes beyond its unquestionable utility. Certainly the leaders who earned the United States' reputation for legitimacy in the post-World War II era believed it to be a good in itself. For its own sake, and for the sake of a peaceful international order, the nation must find its way back to that conviction again.
We must be perceived as pursuing war as a last resort, not as a predetermined policy that we keep on the backburner until we reluctantly go through the motions in international bodies - as was the case with Iraq, and only then, at the urging of people like Colin Powell and Tony Blair. We must realize that in certain contexts, non-military solutions are more effective. A decision to commit troops and military assets is not always strong just because it is violent. Sometimes strength is in negotiation and creative solutions - such as Reagan's summits with Gorbachev.

In Iraq, sanctions and inspections were, in essence, a success. While Saddam was able to exploit them for his own personal enrichment, to the tune of several billion dollars, they were still effective in denying him access to weapons of mass destruction. While he was scheming to usurp the sanctions/inspections regime in the future, such goals were not in danger of being realized in the imminent future, and should have been anticipated anyway.

And to the degree that they were, that is where the United States should have directed its efforts. By rooting out corruption (including the graft of American corporations), and compelling the United Nations and its member states to uphold the sanctions and inspections in perpetuity, the United States could have kept Saddam defanged and contained within his box. Of course, "smartening" the sanctions in order to lessen the burden on the Iraqi people would have been a wise course as well. Granted such a task would have been difficult, and required determined diplomatic wrangling, I urge you to consider all the difficulties, expenditures and ramifications that are attendant our militaristic solutions - and the loss of credibility and trust that have accompanied them.

Furthermore, if we went through those pains, and the UN was as recalcitrant as some would claim, then our invasion would have been better received by the people of the world, and their leaders - seen as a last resort, not an inevitability. I am not suggesting that we would have enjoyed widespread support, but certainly more than we are seeing now, given our posture pre-invasion.

So too, should we approach Iran from the vantage point of appealing to international institutions such as NATO and the United Nations. We should seek to establish an effective and comprehensive multilateral regime of sanctions and inspections, building on the successes, and correcting the failures, of the Iraqi model. That would go a long way to restoring our image of moderation and preference for peace which are so crucial to our recapturing legitimacy. Always we must appear to be working as a cooperative power within the rules and norms of the international community - at least until we are required to deviate from them because we have truly exhausted all other means and the threat is imminent. We must consult our allies, accept their input, tone down our rhetoric, and be willing to consider other options than war.

Another important reality to consider is that the era of American unipolarity will not last forever, and it is important that we set a precedent in the world for establishing acceptable expressions of power. As I mentioned above, China will soon balance out our power, both militarily and economically, and the European Union is rapidly emerging as a force to be reckoned with on the economic front (though not militarily in the foreseeable future). If we do not modify our behavior, we will in fact provide powerful incentive to other regions and nations to try to enhance their power and stature in order to challenge our unipolarity. Once attained, they will be able to point to our actions as justifications of their own unilateral campaigns. The less cautious and circumspect we are in our role as superpower, the less likely it is that we will hold on to our singular status, and the less our credibility will be in the future if we object to unilateralism on the part of another nation.

I will leave the closing thoughts to John Ikenberry:
A unipolar order without a set of rules and bargains with other countries leads to a system of coercive unipolar American empire - and as such it is unsustainable at home and unacceptable abroad. As the Iraq episode shows, under these circumstances other countries will tend to "undersupply" co-operation. They will do so either because they decide to free-ride on the American provision of security, or because they reject the US use of force that is untied to mutually agreed-upon rules and institutions - or both. So the US will find itself - as it does now - acting more or less alone and incurring the opposition and resistance of other states. This is the point when the conservative unipolar vision becomes unsustainable inside the US. Americans will not want to pay the price for protecting the world while other countries free-ride and resist. This appears to be true in the case of Iraq: a majority of Americans now believe that the Iraq war was not worth it, after sustaining barely more than 1,000 military deaths. The US is 5 per cent of the world's population but generates nearly 50 per cent of total world military spending. Is this sustainable in a world where other countries are in open revolt against an American imperium?

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