Wednesday, August 07, 2002

And Then What?

Writing in the London Times, Tim Haines makes the argument that the “And then what?” philosophy is not a reason to refrain from an invasion of Iraq. His point, well argued, is that all the details of the outcome of a war can never be know. Furthermore, this defeatist ideology leads to both dangerous appeasement in the short-term while only delaying action to a later date giving the enemy time to improve his military capacity.

Haines’ article deals nicely with the objections of the “And then what” crowd. His concern is primarily to address the immediate impact of military action on the Middle East. But what might be the results of American action farther afield and in the longer term? While we don’t have a crystal ball, there is potential for far-reaching changes throughout the world. Of course potential is rarely fully actualized, but should the US be successful in its attempts to alter the prevailing political situation in Iraq and the broader Middle East, the implications for the rest of the world could be tremendous. In this post, I’ll deal with the UN and humanitarian agencies. In later posts, I’ll discuss the possible impact on Europe, the third world, the US, and beyond.

The UN and the Humanitarian Agenda

The Cold War was won primarily by American resolve to face down the Soviet Union. But in victory, there was also defeat. Though the US emerged from its long stand-off with the Soviets as the most powerful nation on the planet, the “New World Order” that succeeded the Cold War was not simply a matter of pax americana. In fact, the new international dispensation quickly turned hostile to the now victorious Americans, with many calling for a counterweight to the mighty US.

One candidate for the job was the whole panoply of international humanitarian organizations, headed by the United Nations, with international law as the weapon of choice. That there is a fundamental conflict today between the humanitarian agenda and the values espoused by the US can no longer be denied. When the United Nations was founded it was seen as a vehicle for advancing the modern liberal democratic values of western civilization. While its ultimate goal may have been “world peace” it was clear that this implied an order dominated by the democratic tradition. In this regard, even UN personnel were drawn almost exclusively from western democracies.

Today, this situation no longer holds. The United Nations has exploded from an organization for promoting modern western democracy into a massive post-modern bureaucratic network. Where once it was seen as a vehicle of democracy, it quickly developed into a propaganda stage for aggressive communist states and third world dictators hostile to liberal democracy.

At the same time, the UN structural apparatus mushroomed. As the democratic political imperative declined, ideologies of social and economic development took over. Attacked by the Soviet Union, post-colonial governments and numerous western intellectuals for its economic imperialism, the West capitulated as the UN morphed into a massive development agency spinning off endless new branches and organizations responsible for a range of initiatives. Not surprisingly, these initiatives often served only to funnel money to corrupt dictators or advance ideological causes throughout the third world.

But more significant than economic development was the notion of standardization, now referred to as global governance. Apart from its new role as custodian of international development, UN orgnaizations assumed a mandate to formulate and impose standards across a wide domain of human activity. Presumed experts took over functions previously left to national legislatures. International bureaucratic normalization replaced national political deliberation.

When the Cold War ended, the push for global governance and international regulation through treaties and world bodies such as the International Criminal Court experienced a boom. While the Cold War was on, the international humanitarian agenda often took a back seat to the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, to the consternation of many in the international community, the international organizations took over its role, both strategically and philosophically. Certainly, the humanitarians could never match the Soviet’s former military might, but they could use the pressure of the international community and international law to counter the US in order to assure a hearing for their post-modern agenda.

Historically, the end of World War II was seen by many as the dawn of a new order. Ideologically, fascism was a reaction against modern liberal democracy. Its destruction in Germany and Italy was seen as a decisive step forward for a global democratic order. The only problem was the Soviet Union, which, like its fascist cousins, also hated liberal democracy. In their naivete a large number of western diplomats and politicians believed they could deal with the Soviets, their recent allies against Hitler, through the United Nations and the Security Council. This hope was quickly squashed as the Soviet Union entrenched itself in Eastern Europe, oppressing the very same nations previously under the Nazi boot. As the Cold War developed the Soviet Union spread its anti-western ideology to the third world, usually with help from fellow-travellers in the West.

In this atmosphere, the UN and humanitarian organizations became a central battleground. An important element in the battle was personnel policy. With its transformation from proponent of liberal democracy to post-modern bureaucracy, the personnel emphasis went from hiring the best (usually western) to ensuring diversity and equitable regional representation. As a result, anti-western states could place their cronies in posts throughout the UN system.

The result is that today’s UN is institutionally hostile to the US. Relying on international censure, it seeks to take over the role previously played by the Soviet Union, countering the US. Similarly, the entire international humanitarian structure operates largely on this assumption. The “new world order” of the post-Cold War period, like the Soviet Union of the post World War II era, has positioned itself as the newest critic of western liberal democracy.

As I’ve noted, the main weapon here is international law, and unlike national laws drawn up by politically accountable legislators, those who write the international laws are free from the whims of electorates. Since the Cold War’s end, humanitarian organizations, along with many governments, have rallied around international law as indispensable to the maintenance of international security. Until now, the US, under George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton more or less recognized the importance of obtaining international approval for retaliatory military action.

Increasingly, however, two key problems with the internationalist dogma are coming to light. First there’s the simple fact that international law has no teeth, and often serves only to constrain the just while giving free reign to the wicked. Ultimately a national power must act on behalf of civilized norms and today that power is the United States. This leads to the second problem. Much international law is itself incompatible with the very virtues and principles that allow the US to act internationally. Indeed, contemporary international law is largely conceived as an ideological challenge to the US itself and the notion that justice can only be exercised within a political framework. Without this framework, justice becomes little more than the rhetorical toy of ideology.

With this in mind, we can rightfully ask what might be the long-term effects of a successful American invasion in Iraq and the region as regards humanitarianism and international law? Ultimately, assuming the US attacks without obtaining approval from the United Nations, the result could be a definitive blow against the internationalist dogma that assumes security can only come through international organizations, treaties and negotiations. If the US, along with some allies, can effectively put an end to Saddam Hussein while supporting moderates in Iran and eventually bringing renewed stability to a most unstable part of the world, the moral capital could be substantial.

Of course this assumes a great deal. It’s difficult to predict the extent of change in the Middle East. Questions abound: How difficult will it be to overthrow Saddam? What will replace him? Will the “Muslim Street” rise up? What’s the future for the Iranian government, the Syrian government, the Saudis? Will a new order in the Middle East be welcomed by its citizens? And how will this impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It will take some time before we have the definitive answers to these questions, perhaps decades. But if the Americans are relatively successful in bringing about some positive change, it could well result in increased prestige for the US while putting the lie to the notion that international organizations and laws are more effective than military action in bringing about positive change. At the least, it would suggest that national power, not international bureaucracy is a far more reliable source of political stability.

Does this mean the UN itself might fall? We should be so lucky! Realistically it would give the US a strong hand in demanding some very needed reforms from the UN. Even better, it could mean a substantially diminished role for international organizations and a more prudent approach to both the extent and limits of international law than we have today. Perhaps most important might be the opportunity for a change in the guiding anti-western, anti-liberal democratic bias that currently pervades the international humanitarian mindset.

In the end, it will be a while yet before any of this might come to pass. Still, successful actions in the Middle East could provide those who prefer moderate liberal democracy to extreme post-modern ideology with a chance to alter the internationalist dialogue. Let’s hope all goes well and someone takes the initiative asking, “And then what?” with a critical eye on international law and humanitarian organizations.


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