If there is one word that must come to define American foreign policy in the future, it is multilateralism. What we need, however, is not a regression to prior forms of multilateralism as embodied by the United Nations or even NATO, but one which more closely reflects the fact that the intertwined nature of foreign affairs is becoming exponentially more so with globalization, as well as, and this is the most fundamental point, the unique legitimacy of democracies in the shaping of geopolitics.
Any broad assessment of American foreign policy must, of course, acknowledge the specific challenges that our country presently faces, rather than simply offer broad generalizations of an ideal future stance. When we look at our current predicaments, however, the rationale behind these broader orientations will manifest itself. At present, of course, the primary foreign policy issue for the United States is the war in Iraq.
The way in which the war in Iraq was commenced should, by now, serve as a study of how the United States must not go to war. Despite the nominal contributions of the “coalition of the willing”, this was, and is, an essentially unilateral effort by the United States. Compare this with the 1991 Gulf War, in which Saudi Arabia and Japan footed most of the bill. This time, the horrible toll in blood and treasure is being paid almost entirely by the United States, despite the fact that nearly every nation on Earth stands to benefit from a stable Iraq. Because of its arrogance before the invasion, the United States is now stuck with unilateral responsibility for a multilateral problem.
The Curse of Sovereignty
Keeping this critique in mind, one thing must be made clear: the type of multilateralism which would have been obtained with UN support for the invasion of Iraq is no more viable a model for our future conduct than American unilateralism. While the war in Iraq may have been cheaper in American dollars and lives had there been UN approval, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the UN’s endorsement would have made the war any more legitimate.
Among the many nations who refused to endorse the American invasion of Iraq, including some of those who were on the Security Council at the time, were governments that the United States, and other democracies, can no longer afford to treat as legitimate and equal members of the international community. In other words, if a state such as Syria or Zimbabwe were to bless an American initiative, would that somehow make the proposed action more “legitimate”? My vision for the future emphatically says, “No”.
While I reject and regret the way in which America went to war in Iraq, the underlying premise of its right to do so is something I endorse, albeit somewhat qualitatively. That premise is this: Saddam Hussein, and many like him, are not legitimate and equal members of the international community; they are sadistic thugs with no right to be accorded the respect of a sovereign government. To those of you who would qualify this statement as overly judgmental and holier-than-thou, you should not vote for me.
We see a similar dynamic in regards to the genocide in Darfur. Most efforts aimed at staunching the bloodshed seek to persuade or coerce the government of Sudan. This is the very government that is allowing, indeed supporting, indeed orchestrating the slaughter. This is not a legitimately elected sovereign government protecting the interests of its people. This is not a “government” at all; it is a group of murderers, nothing more, cynically employing the cloak of “sovereignty” to enable its horrific crimes.
Men like these have no right to govern states, any states, and the new American foreign policy must move past the antiquated UN framework in which any thug with enough guns is accorded the same respect as the chancellor of Germany or the prime minister of Japan.
Many who were dismayed and worse by the United States’ conduct in the lead up to the Iraq War made the argument that closer cooperation with the UN was required. I respectfully assert that this is precisely the wrong lesson to take from this diplomatic debacle. The entire episode, rather, proved that the UN is inherently incapable of condemning and confronting sadistic governments because far too many of the UN’s members are dictatorial sadists themselves. Again, George W. Bush’s instinct was correct; Saddam Hussein had no right to “govern” Iraq. However, the answer to the UN’s ineptitude is not, and never can be, American unilateralism.
The Nature of the UN
The United Nations is the product of a different time, a time to which it is impossible to return. The primary function of the UN has been to prevent conventional wars between states, especially powerful states. In this regard, the UN has proven remarkably successful, despite what its legions of critics may say. Surely the specter of nuclear weapons played an inestimable role as well, but the six decades of the UN’s existence have been, in a historical context, inconceivably peaceful, if peace is measure as the absence of open warfare between powerful states.
The world, of course, has seen no lack of war since 1945, but for the most part these wars have taken place within nations rather than between them. The type of civil war presently raging in Iraq has been far more common since World War II than the conventional mechanized invasion of the country by American armies has been. In fact, the United States is the only country in the world which has invaded foreign states in the 21st century with conventional armies.
What accounts for this shift in the nature of war? Partly wars within states are the inevitable consequence of European decolonization throughout the third world and the subsequent local battles to define the nature of the newly-independent states. There has also been, however, a sort of default green light for this bloodshed from the UN. Again, the UN is a product of a very different world, and we must assess if and how its mandate even applies in the 21st century.
One of the positively (both qualitatively and quantitatively) revolutionary elements of the UN’s founding was its explicit codification of certain international laws. The UN explicitly outlawed aggressive war, delegitimizing it as an acceptable expression of any state’s national interest. The moral and strategic import of this should not be underestimated.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, there was nothing technically illegal about it; Germany had simply decided that its national interest compelled it to invade Poland. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, however, there was no room for debate; it was illegal. Regardless of Iraq’s perceived national interests and somewhat legitimate grievances against Kuwait, the action was recognized by most as illegal and unacceptable. It pains me to say that when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the legal footing for doing so was essentially as weak as Saddam’s had been in 1990; it employed the familiar logic of might makes right.
While the UN stigmatized and banned aggressive international war as a morally or legally viable instrument of any state’s foreign policy, it made another stand at the same time that totally undermines America’s position in the 21st century. This second component, perfectly understandable at the time, is the concept of sovereignty within states. In other words, whatever a state did within its own borders was outside the purview of the UN; all domestic conduct was seen to be the state’s own business, and it would not become the international community’s business unless and until international borders were crossed.
The strength of this granting of internal sovereignty is that it deprived powerful states of the excuse for invading weaker neighbors under the guise of supposedly benevolent attempts to quell internal unrest in those weak states. However, there are two major flaws with the granting of such blind sovereignty. Firstly, it allows illegitimate governments to massacre its own people, like Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds in the al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980’s. There was little legal room for UN intervention, since the crimes were carried out inside of Iraq, where the butcher of Baghdad was accorded the status of an internationally recognized “sovereign”. This is a huge moral dilemma whose ramifications should be clear to all of us who would hope to prevent blatant human rights violations.
Secondly, in addition to moral blind spots, internal sovereignty poses serious tactical, and even strategic, threats to the United States. This is the most far-reaching lesson of September 11th; what happens within the borders of other countries is our business, even if that country is, like Afghanistan, thousands of miles away and located in one of the poorest, most remote corners of Earth.
The New Multilateralism
I hope to make the case, if I have not already done so, that the old UN precepts of total equality of all states in terms of their sovereignty and their roles in fostering multilateralism are as poor an option for America as is American unilateralism. We must seek a third way, one which embraces the value of international cooperation, while not falling victim to an insipid relativism that grants criminals the status of statesmen. The new multilateralism must come to recognize democratic or democratizing governments as the sole legitimate actors on the international stage.
This does not mean, let it be clear, that governments deemed non-democratic by the United States are to be ignored and consigned to pariah status; rather, it means that tyrannical governments will be given a great impetus to reform and to integrate themselves fully into the family of nations. As a model for this approach, we can look at the European Union. The EU shows us that, when democratic reforms are explicitly linked to tangible economic and political benefits, even the most repressive governments can be swayed to reform. Does anyone really believe that the communist bloc states would have democratized so quickly in the absence of the benefits that EU membership promised them?
We must take great care, when formulating this vision, that we do not equate “democratization” with “Americanization”. States absolutely must be granted the respect that their distinct cultures and values demand; we must, however, be confident enough to draw distinctions between cultural relativism and tyranny. For example, we can look at the fact that many democratic or democratizing states in Latin America and Asia have different definitions of certain freedoms than Western states do.
This is a delicate balance, of course. Many Muslim states, for example, do not believe that freedom of speech extends to the “freedom” to blaspheme their prophet; they are not against freedom of speech, but they absolutely do not recognize a freedom to blaspheme. Many Latin American states, populated by conservative Catholics, do not believe that women’s rights extend to the “right” to an abortion. We must take care not to engage in cultural imperialism; we must not condemn as un-democratic any state that does not totally mirror the American concepts of freedom.
At the same time, of course, we must be self-assured enough to know where to draw the line. We must, for example, be willing to accept Turkey’s right to censor blasphemy. We must not, however, recognize any state’s “right” to police its population via murder and terror. Murder is not a cultural quirk. Murder is murder. There is no objective standard for this threshold, of course; it must be the product of negotiation among the universally recognized democratic states.
We must also make sure not to equate democracy with elections. While elections are obviously the most public manifestation of what we in the West know as democracy, they are the last step in the march towards democracy. Without a foundation of rule of law, equality under the law, free enterprise, minority rights, and an independent judiciary, elections would simply serve the majority. Elections without the foundations listed above simply empower radicals and sectarian groups. We have seen this trend over and over, from Bosnia to Iraq.
It is often said that if elections were held in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, Osama bin Laden would win as a write-in candidate. This is, unfortunately, probably not totally hyperbolic. Part of the United States’ role in endorsing and incentivizing democratization must be the patient acknowledgment that premature elections can often serve to undermine democracy rather than foster it. States must not be allowed to endlessly drag their feet it democratizing, but the West must maintain a sober respect for the time it takes to foster a genuine, sustainable democracy. Sustainable is the key word; we do not want one man, one vote, one time.
With this broad framework of the ideal medium and long-term goals of the United States established, we must also acknowledge that American faces many immediate problems, especially in the Middle East, that will come to a head long before that region is even remotely democratic. The two immediate trouble spots are Iraq and Iran.
Books have been written with great haste and devastating detail documenting the American failures of foresight and conduct in Iraq. Those errors do not need to be rehashed here, but all Americans owe it to themselves to make a sober assessment of the best option moving forward, untainted by their personal feelings towards the president. This is not George W. Bush’s war; it is America’s war. When Mr. Bush is out of office, the war will go on. Quitting Iraq out of a desire to humiliate and discredit the president is, and I hesitate to use this word, un-American.
When considering the national interests of the United States, however, I am of the firm conviction that the war in Iraq, in its current manifestation, must be ended. We must not delude ourselves as to what this means. Firstly, it does not mean peace. There was no peace in Iraq before the American invasion, there is no peace there now, and there will be no peace if Americans are withdrawn. Iraq has been at war with Iran, Kuwait, the United States, and itself since 1979. We cannot expect this to change anytime soon. We must not, in other words, profess to “end” the war in hopes of securing “peace”.
What we must do, rather, is end the American component of the Iraq war. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it pains me to say, the war’s aims, as originally defined, are not attainable. The war, if its aim was to secure a stable and pro-American government with real authority throughout Iraq and along its borders, is lost. It is against the American nature and paradigm to admit this, but it must be done. If I had to pick a point where the war was lost, it would be the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, but that is almost beside the point at this late stage.
Yesterday was always the best day for America in Iraq. This is not pessimism; it is logic. If, for fifty months, each month is more bloody and less shapeable by American power, this is not a coincidence; it is an undeniable truth. The act of repeating the same act endlessly in expectation of a different result is the definition of insanity. Expecting that the American military can secure Baghdad is insane.
The United States has little influence over the course of events in Iraq. It has the ability to bleed and to spend, but not to win. Americans are dying every day in Iraq to ensure that the Iraqi civil war remains bad as opposed to terrible. This is not the role of the American military.
We should not be so cavalier as to throw Iraq to the wolves, but if Iraq is throwing itself to the wolves, we should not be so vain as to think that we can convince them not to do so. American soldiers in Iraq, especially those in Baghdad, are hostages to Sunni extremists, Shia militias, and, eventually, Iranian intervention.
A withdrawal of most American forces from Iraq would achieve several objectives. It would staunch the hemorrhaging of American blood and treasure. It would greatly increase our military’s readiness for other theatres and, therefore, its credible deterrent power. It would deprive al-Qaeda of its cause célèbre and incentivize local Sunnis to turn on these nihilists. It would deprive Iran of tens of thousands of targets in the event of a confrontation over its nuclear program.
The United States will never, and must never, totally withdraw from Iraq. As noted above, 9/11 proved that a state’s internal behavior is directly related to American interests and security. Iraq has become a magnet of jihadists, who have received far more effective training and experience than they did in Afghanistan. The United States must keep an eye on Iraq, especially the areas such as al-Anbar province which are infested by radical Islamists. We must, however, move away from the idea that Iraq’s civil war is the most pressing national security issue for the United States at the present.
The two greatest beneficiaries of the American invasion of Iraq have been al-Qaeda and Iran. American policy towards Iran must be firm but much more realistic. Iran is going to be the regional power of the Middle East. If American policy is to treat this inevitability as a threat, then war is inevitable. The next president of the United States must open full diplomatic relations with Iran.
We must be honest; war with Iran in the next few years is a distinct possibility. Open war with Iran would make Iraq look like a cakewalk. Preventing war with Iran is the most important task for this nation in the next few years. As such, we must do everything we can to avoid war, which could just as easily begin with a miscommunication or a technical malfunction as with an open attack.
For all of our incessant talk about war being “the last option”, how can we dare to say such a thing when we refuse even to talk to our adversary? How can we look the mother of a fallen soldier in the eye and tell her we did everything we could to prevent the loss of her son when we refused even to communicate before the war? Communication is to be cut off during war, not before. If establishing open dialogue with Tehran decreases the chance of a miscommunication spiraling out of control, we must do it. If talking means making war one percent less likely, we must talk.
Al-Qaeda is a much different threat now that it was before 9/11. It is more of an ideology now than an organization. The one place where it still operates openly as a physical organization, of course, is Iraq. As noted above, I believe than an American withdrawal from Iraq would deprive local Sunnis of their sole motivation in harboring these nihilists. Al-Qaeda was allowed refuge in Afghanistan only because it paid the destitute Taliban government. Iraq, on the other hand, does not need al-Qaeda’s money; Iraq has money under its sands. The danger is not that al-Qaeda will be given a safe haven in Iraq. The danger, rather, is the inevitable dispersion of these hardened, disciplined, and well trained soldiers throughout the world.
This dispersion must be braced for and combated by American intelligence and whatever foreign allies we can recruit to help us. Intelligence gathering always has been and always will be the most important aspect of the war on terror; all the bombs in the world are useless if you don’t know where to aim them,
The first rule is battling al-Qaeda must be to do no harm. Invading Iraq did harm, to say the least. The current administration asserts that the unprecedented flood of suicide bombings serves as proof that we are luring the terrorists to a place where we can kill them. I see the situation as evidence that the invasion of Iraq did harm to the war on terror by creating thousands upon thousands of new terrorists. Al-Qaeda type terrorism is not a finite problem that can be solved by killing a certain number of people. It is a fluid problem to which the most important step is to not create more terrorists than there were in the first place.
Al-Qaeda is simply one result of globalization. As noted above, old ideas about the sanctity and sovereignty of states need drastic revision. Capitalism has seen to it, for better or for worse, that international borders mean less than they ever have, having been lowered and riddled with holes to allow for the constant deluge of goods, services, people, and information that defines life in the 21st century.
Since corporations, airlines, diseases, radio and television signals, and, increasingly, people have little or no regard for international boundaries, we can no longer afford to define our foreign policy from a paradigm in which borders were inviolable and states were the preeminent, indeed the only, international actors of note.
Globalization entails great sacrifices, and one of these sacrifices is the traditional notion of sovereignty and independence. How many nations on earth today are truly independent, in terms of being self-sustainable? What nation would not be utterly devastated if oil were to disappear tomorrow? What nation could implode upon itself without dragging its neighbors down with it? This degree of interdependence is unprecedented, and it must be met head on with a new paradigm.
Americans are traditionally very wary of ceding any degree of sovereignty to international institutions, and for very good reasons. What we must understand, however, is that the global economy has already seen to it that America’s sovereignty is compromised. We are economically dependent on foreign nations, and our diplomacy must reflect a willingness to work it concert with other nations. Once we embrace this necessity, we can choose what nations we will associate with. We will start with the established democracies, perhaps forty or fifty of them, and then expand the group as nations gradually come to meet the established standards. Nations failing to meet the standards would not be isolated or abandoned; they would be aggressively recruited. One of the possible benefits of globalization is that it may afford us the opportunity to spread democracy across the earth by way of example rather than by force.
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