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Monday | April 07, 2003

Last words

You may recall the story that not long after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush called up "the general" in Pakistan and told him, probably in just so many words: "You have a decision to make."

The choice, of course, was whether to continue backing the Taliban regime, or do a complete 180 and join the US side in the pending War in Afghanistan. An excruciating dilemma, with huge risks on either side. Piss off the world's only military superpower? Or enrage your own population, your own security service, and a sizable fraction of your own military?

We all know what choice President Musharraf made. But what about the rest of the world?

I ask this because it seems to me the unilateral US invasion of Iraq has left the other powers in a position somewhat analogous to the president of Pakistan, listening to an angry and imperious demand barked down the telephone line from Washington.

Do they accommodate the Bush Doctrine, which reserves to the US the right to strike at will at any perceived threat, anywhere in the world? Or do they oppose it, at the risk of damaging their commercial, political and military ties to the global hegemon?

The answer to that question, I suspect, won't be known quickly -- or conclusively. Unlike Musharraf, our allies (France, Germany, Japan and Canada), potential adversaries (Russia and China) and neutrals (India) still have some room to maneuver, and can obscure their intentions with contradictory statements and/or actions.

Given that these are all large, complex societies with multiple power centers, they may not even know what their true intentions are. They all have strong incentives not to commit to a decisive course of action -- particularly if that course would produce an irreconcilable break with the United States. Powerful interest groups within each country -- business interests, in particular -- will strive to head off such a break, since it would place them in a difficult, if not untenable, position. These conflicting pressures will take time to sort out.

And yet, the outcome of the UN Security Council debate over the second Iraq resolution certainly revealed the potential for at least a diplomatic anti-US coalition of the middle-weight powers: France, Germany, Russia and China. Whether this group can or will develop into a more coherent bloc probably will depend as much -- or more -- on future US actions as it will on their own actions.

The initial response of the Security Council opposition to the US invasion of Iraq suggested an open break might come sooner, rather than later. Despite the outbreak of war, France and Russia continued to throw roadblocks in the way of the American juggernaut, suggesting they would veto any future UN resolutions that would legitimate postwar US control of Iraq.

Then there were the US claims that Russian companies were continuing to equip and resupply the Iraqi Army -- allegations that were denied by the Putin government with only a moderate degree of plausibility. The Russian Duma got into the act by refusing to ratify the SORT nuclear arms control treaty. Putin's reaction was uncharacteristically muted, and he did not -- at first -- call on the Duma to reconsider its decision.

Germany, France, Belgium and little Luxembourg announced plans to hold defense talks later this month -- intimating that their goal would be to accelerate the creation of a common European defense force that did not include Britain. A leading member of Germany's Social Democratic Party even suggested US military action against Iran would mean the demise of NATO. This followed a warning from the President of the European Union that the divide between those EU countries that supported the US and those that opposed it could also threaten the EU itself.

Finally, there were hints that China, too, would try to use its opposition to the war to increase its influence in East Asia – at the expense of the United States.

Then, last week, a kind of counter-reaction seemed to set in. The French started to make more conciliatory noises about postwar cooperation in Iraq. Germany's Schroeder publicly called for the defeat of Saddam Hussein, reversing his previous ambiguity. A summit meeting of European Foreign Ministers was almost pathetically eager to accept a fairly modest olive branch -- olive twig, really -- offered by Colin Powell. The fact that Colin Powell seems to have about as much influence over US policy as they do was strategically ignored.

The Russians, too, have been backpedaling. Putin finally broke his silence and more or less ordered the Duma to ratify the SORT Treaty. And observers noted an abrupt easing of the previously neo-Cold War tone of the Russian state media's reporting of the war in Iraq.

Even China may have gotten into the reconciliation game, by cutting off the supply of oil to North Korea for a couple of days, perhaps to send a message to Kim Jung Il that he can't count on Chinese support in his confrontation with the United States.

So what's going on here?

A tough question, obviously. It may just be a natural step-back-from-brink reaction following the heat of the UN Security Council debate. We are dealing with human beings here, after all, and we can't totally discount the effect of pure emotional highs and lows. The resumed US offense in Iraq also may have made it obvious to everyone that Iraq is almost a done deal -- the game is no longer worth the candle. Time to move on, and look for leverage to use in the postwar wheeling and dealing.

Which of course, is what the neocons said would happen all along. Their mistake, however, may be in assuming that that will be the end of it -- and will also be the end of it if and when the US decides to take another swing at the Bush Doctrine in Iran, Syria or North Korea.

It may not be the case that policy elites in the other powers (their counterparts to our neocons) have not resigned themselves to the Bush Doctrine, but rather understand that it cannot be opposed head on, as during the UN Security Council debate. The costs are too high, and the need to cooperate with the United States on other issues is too great.

However, rather than submitting to a U.S foreign policy they regard as reckless and destructive, perhaps the middle powers are coming to the realization that they will need to fight a protracted struggle against it - in the UN, in the Islamic world and even inside their own countries.

Such tactics could, for example, make the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq considerably harder. For example, UN failure to recognize an interim Iraqi government might make it difficult or impossible to sell Iraqi oil on the world market, increasing the financial burden for the United States. And while a diplomatic harassing action might not prevent US aggression against Iran or Syria, it could make it more expensive, more dangerous and less sustainable over time.

Granted, the same could have been said of the war with Iraq. And yet the neocons were not deterred. But presumably, the cumulative weight of all this opposition eventually would have to be reflected in more cautious US policymaking -- or create the potential for a first-class policy disaster that conceivably could sweep the neocons out of power.

The final question is whether these trends might gradually evolve into something more alarming: a formal or informal military alliance against the United States. I think it could, and probably will, but only as a relatively long-run proposition. I say this for two reasons:

1.) I don't believe the Bush Doctrine is some kind of aberration that can be corrected by an election or two. I think it's increasingly inherent in the position the United States now holds in the world -- a military hegemon, but with an increasingly shaky economic base. The US simply can't afford to wage another prolonged Cold War with a rival superpower. With an army of 10 divisions, and without conscription, we also can't afford to garrison the world. So we will continue to rely on preemptive strikes -- and the destabilization of potential enemies -- to maintain hegemony while coping with the persistent threat of asymmetrical warfare (terrorism.)

This will be true no matter which party is in power. The Democrats may be able to put a more agreeable face on it (which is an advantage for any empire.) They may even repudiate the Bush Doctrine, formally. But informally, I don't think they will have any choice but to pursue a comparable policy. And the neocons, who after all now have their claws firmly inserted in both parties, will be there to prod them along if they show any signs of faltering.

Over time, this dynamic will have the fairly predictable consequence of forcing the other powers into an alliance against us -- a coalition of the insecure. Trying to prevent the creation of a rival bloc, we will create one. But how quickly that coalition emerges, and how hostile it becomes, will be determined by political forces far too subtle and too complex to predict. Which brings me to my second point:

2.) Internal opposition will slow, but will not stop, the evolution of an anti-American bloc. True, if you look at the polls, you would be very hard-pressed to find any sizable pockets of pro-American support in any part of the world. In that sense, the degree to which the neocons have managed to isolate us (and themselves) is just remarkable. However, popular opinion is just part of the equation. Not every member of the potential anti-US coalition is a democracy. And the democracies are much like our own -- highly leveraged by the rich and the powerful.

The reality is that America is the ideological motherland of capitalism -- just as the Soviet Union was the ideological motherland of Communism. This means that in every other country, the rich and the powerful look to the United States as a kind of patron state -- a home away from home (sometimes literally.) In a word: They have dual loyalties. They will oppose any program that produces conflict between their "native" and "adopted" countries.

These divided loyalties could fade, particularly as prolonged geopolitical conflict spills over into economic conflict, undermining the global trade and financial integration. But all this will take time -- time and the corrosive effect of popular opinion, which eventually can sway even the economic elites. Having spent some time watching the international corporate elite in action at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I can tell you that the process is already under way.

They say Nature abhors a vacuum, but she also hates its political opposite: overwhelming power. The end of the Cold War created a huge disequilibrium in the global order -- and 9/11 made it impossible to ignore, much to the neocons' glee. But the diplomatic reaction has already begun. If that is enough to bring the US back into tolerable balance with the rest of the world, so much the better. If not, then the reaction will continue to gather strength, and so will the risks to the stability of the entire system.

The 20th century ended. The Cold War ended. History didn't.

Billmon

Posted April 07, 2003 08:32 AM | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)