Triumphant, feared, despised, shocking, and awesome — in the flush of victory in Iraq, George W. Bush’s America stands almost alone, a colossus astride the world, apparently vindicated in its righteous might and mighty righteousness. Washington’s motto: Nothing succeeds like success. Far more smoothly than most critics expected, the White House got where it wanted to go — Baghdad — and emerged flushed with confidence that, despite obstacles, its message had been delivered to actual and potential enemies. Officials proceeded to gloat about their refusal to gloat, half concealing their smirks.
So the Bush administration does not pause to regret riding roughshod over the United Nations or our European allies, for they were (in its eyes) impotent and irrelevant in the first place. The U. N. Security Council was always a silly theater for operetta performances — as silly now as it was beside the point during the Vietnam war and most of the Cold War. Even as the Iraqi aftermath bumps along as a less-than-brilliant success, the administration is encouraged to think that legitimacy will follow facts on the ground. Iraq may not be wholly pacified, they say, but give it time.
Success — however partial, however short-term — is hard to argue with. But the crowing is decidedly premature, just as the petulance is petty. The need for a longer view will not disappear simply because the administration believes that it can overpower everyone in sight, with occasional help from stapled-together “coalitions of the willing.” The United States — however wealthy, however mighty — can’t be safe enough on its own. Bush may think he can walk away from the international system, but the international system won’t walk away from him — or us.
A triumphalist moment might seem the poorest of times for thinking constructively about a working international system, one in which power would be deployed and responsibility shared in behalf of human rights, democracy, and development. Not necessarily so. The millions who marched against war have much more work to do now. It’s a time to widen and deepen debate about the shape of the world to come: empire, its discontents, and the alternatives. To think that all would be well in the world if the U. S. simply retracted its power is so nave as to be hallucinatory.
Start with a matter of pressing self-interest: Stopping terrorism. Al-Qaeda is nothing if not international. It must be policed and destroyed across borders. There are far more al-Qaeda operatives in Europe than there ever were in Iraq. If they have moved operations to Chechnya and Georgia, as many believe, Russian help is obviously indispensable. To prevent new terror attacks, the U. S. must engage in full-blooded cooperation — with all the delicate negotiations this entails among police, intelligence, border and other authorities. Memo to Washington: Put yourself in their place. How cooperative would you feel if the notorious French, the Germans, or anyone else were laying claim to running the world?
Take nation-building, once scorned, then backhandedly endorsed, now neglected. In Afghanistan, Bush lost interest. Iraq called. When postwar Iraq started to burn before the eyes of the world, the US fiddled and took its sweet time. The ugly American and the quiet American were joined by the chintzy American. Postwar Iraq, left to fester, is hardly a model for the young who may hate the autocratic regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, et al., but are also inclined to believe the worst of the United States of America.
The point is that this would be a terrible time to give up on internationalism. The simple fact that the US proved victorious in Iraq does not alter the following chain of truths: To push the world toward democratic rights, power must be legitimate; it is only legitimate if it is held to be legitimate; it is very unlikely to be legitimate if it is unilateral or close to unilateral; and the wider the base of power, the more likely it is to appear legitimate. Bush may have no doubt that American armed force in the Middle East is legitimate, and right now Americans may agree, but that won’t do.
Common sense alone should tell us not to overreach. Even with the best intentions in the world — which hundreds of millions doubt — the United States is simply not up to the global mission that the Bush administration embraces. This nation hasn’t the staying power, the economic strength, the knowledge, the wisdom, or the legitimacy to command the continents. It is sheerest delusion to think otherwise.
Meanwhile, it is an irony of the recent past that as the United States has lost prestige, the United Nations has gained it — at least outside our borders. For all its demonstrable flaws, it retains some credibility — no small thing in a world growing more anarchic. Even the U. N.’s sharpest critics concede that it learns from its mistakes. Having failed miserably to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda, it started talking about the need to keep constabulary forces at the ready. Having been assigned much of the world’s dirty work — peacekeeping, public health, refugee and humanitarian aid — its institutions accumulate the lore of experience. Resolution 1441, which the Security Council passed unanimously last year, might even be interpreted, strange to say, as a step forward in the enforcement of international law, for if the U. S. had been more adroit and patient diplomatically, the French and others could have been nudged into signing onto limited force a few months hence. In the end, the organization failed to prevent war, but its hopes have never been more necessary, its resurrection more indispensable.
If internationalism is toothless, right now, that’s not an argument against internationalist principle; it’s an argument for implanting teeth. If what’s left on the East River is nothing but a clunky hulk, there was still enough prestige left in the hulk that George W. Bush, master unilateralist, felt impelled to dally with the Security Council — however reluctantly, however deceptively — for months. No less a figure than his father’s consigliore and former Secretary of State James W. Baker urged that course upon the president last summer. Going the Security Council route was the tribute George W. Bush paid to internationalism — before underscoring his contempt for it by going to war on his own schedule.
This is not the first time an international assembly of nation-states has failed abjectly to prove its mettle. Indeed, in 1945, the UN itself was built atop the site of an earlier breakdown. The rubble of the collapsed League of Nations, which had failed to arrest blatant aggression by Italy, Japan, and Germany, had to be cleared away before the UN could rise from the ashes.
Yet rise it did. And people were inspired — and frightened — by it. Even as a spectral presence, the UN was substantial enough to arouse right-wingers to put up billboards urging the US to flee its clutches. Recently, George W. Bush fondly remembered those signs, conspicuous around Midland, Texas, during his early years. To Midland’s America Firsters, the U. N. had a reputation as demonic as it was, to this writer, benign. In the General Assembly building, which my friends and I frequented in high school, the ceiling was left unfinished — to signal, we were told, that world peace was unfinished. What if the symbolism was indeed a pointer toward a different order of things?
It is not always easy to tell the difference between dead symbols and promising ones. Push came to shove, and the UN was mainly an intimation — at most an inspiration. Neither as peacemaker nor peacekeeper was it the world government-in-the-making that some desired and others feared. It was a force in Korea only because the Russians agreed not to play. It was useless in Vietnam. During the endless Israel-Palestine war, it has been bootless. In the 1990s, it failed miserably to stop Serb aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo. It stood by during the Rwandan genocide, too, though its own military commander on the scene, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, pleaded desperately for UN reinforcements. You can see why realists like to smirk and claim it’s hopelessly idealistic to think that the UN could ever amount to anything more than a debating society whose main achievement has been to reserve a lot of Manhattan parking spots.
Interestingly, Dallaire, who was shattered by UN failure in Rwanda, does not sneer. In retirement, he continues campaigning to strengthen world governance. “You can’t on one side, say the UN is screwing it up and we’re going to go to war, and on other side not give the UN the resources,” he said recently. “It is not the UN that failed [in Iraq]. But it is the permanent five [members of the Security Council] in particular. If they don’t want the UN to be effective, it won’t be.” Pause with this elementary observation a moment. The reasons for the UN’s weakness are several, but not the least is that — no surprise here — the most powerful nations want it weak. They like the principle of national sovereignty, and then some, as the recent war amply demonstrates. It will take a long, steady, popular campaign to override the inhibitions.
Campaigners might start by underscoring some modest successes. For all the impediments thrown in its way — and not only by the US — the UN has done constructive work. It helped restore decent governments in Cambodia, East Timor, and Bosnia. It helps keep the peace on the Golan Heights. On a thousand unnoticed fronts, it daily comes to the aid of refugees, the sick, the malnourished. A top UN official recently told me that Secretary General Kofi Annan was inches away from a partition-ending deal in long-suffering Cyprus, only to lose momentum with the distraction of the Bush-Saddam confrontation. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we need not less of the UN, but much more — more efficient, better led, better funded. Rebuild The Destroyed Nations: Now there’s an agenda for a peace movement.
But much of the global movement that sprang up to oppose the Iraq war proceeded to subside into easy chants of “US Out” — an analogue to the right wing’s “US Out of the UN.” This sort of short-circuit unilateralism begs the tough questions about the uses (as well as abuses) of international intervention. “US Out” resounds more ringingly if you refrain from thinking about what actual Afghans and actual Iraqis need — constitutional rights, law enforcement, infrastructure. Protest has its time and place, but what’s needed now is politics — politics to plan the unilateralists’ exit from office, combined with practical pressure, here and now, to solve practical problems. We must not permit ourselves to retreat noisily into protest’s good night.
Most of all, internationalism needs more than a nudge here and there — it needs a jump-start, a riveting proof that multilateral action can change facts on the ground. Here’s one idea: What if the UN and Europe decided to take on the toughest assignment? There is no more stringent test for internationalism’s future than what seems the world’s most intractable trauma: The endless Israel-Palestine war, which has outlasted a thousand manifestos, plans, meetings about meetings. The new postwar situation might just be promising, the Bush administration just possibly susceptible to pressure. Practical, peace-seeking Jews and Palestinians ought to get in on the pressure; so should Europeans looking for payback, not least Tony Blair.
And we ought to be thinking of a practical role for a UN, or joint UN-NATO constabulary. As Tony Klug of Britain’s Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue has pointed out on openDemocracy.net, the two bloodied, intertwined, myopic peoples need far more than a road map: they need enforcement. Klug’s idea is an international protectorate for the West Bank and Gaza. Some combination of the UN, NATO, and various national forces would play various parts. The point would be to supplant the Israeli occupation, relieve the immediate suffering, and guarantee secure borders.
Such a scheme would seem to have taken leave of this earth. The U. S. won’t permit it….Sharon won’t permit it….The Europeans won’t pay for it….The Israelis won’t trust the UN, or the Palestinians, who won’t trust the Israeli. But what is the alternative? More living nightmares? Occupation and massacre in perpetuity?
Military enforcement on a global scale has been left to ad hoc coalitions — sometimes with blue helmets, sometimes not. That won’t do. To put human rights on the ground, avert genocides to come, and — not incidentally — help protect the United States from the more vengeful of empire’s resentful subjects (funny, their not understanding how good our power is for them), we need a more muscular global authority — including a global constabulary. Imagine, say, a flexible force permitted to commit, say, 10,000 troops if a simple majority, eight members, of the Security Council signed on, but expandable to 50,000 if the vote were unanimous. Wouldn’t Europe have been in a stronger position to avert Bush’s war if such a force had been in readiness to enforce resolutions of the Security Council? A wise superpower would know it needs to share responsibility — which entails sharing the force that makes responsibility real.
Of course such a denouement is scarcely around the corner, nor is there any guarantee that it is destined to come at all. Like the abolition of slavery, or the unity of Europe, it surely will not come without pain or error, nor will it be the work of a single generation. But again, what is the alternative? Tyranny and unilateralism; hubris and mile-high resentment. In the world as it is, effective moral force cannot preclude military force. If internationalists don’t press more strongly for international law and multilateralist order, one thing is certain: we shall be left with protests, playing catch-up forever, waiting for “told you so” moments. “No” is not a foreign policy. Coupled with the properly skeptical “no” must be the transformative “yes” — not a grudging, perfunctory afterthought, but international law with enforcers; not empire, but human rights with guns.