Gulliver goes to war

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the US has morphed in public perception as a giant waking up in a hostile, Hobbesian world. Gulliver has broken his unilateral ties and treats the rest as irritating Lilliputians. However, Washington’s penchant for unchecked global power play could well backfire. For US world leadership to be smooth and effective it must rest on two feet: a strong economy and firepower, on the one side, and the consent of the others, on the other. These days, however, Captain America seems to be leaning more over to one side. Consent for US policies has plunged while Washington’s global leadership seems to rest solely on economic and military might. The days of the worldwide outpouring of sympathy and support for the US after September 11 were quickly succeeded by public rebukes and anti-US demonstrations. Even the governments that have fallen in behind America for a showdown against Iraq do not seem to have public majorities with the US. America’s lone-wolf record on issues like global warming, arms control, the making and testing of nuclear weapons, and the international war crimes tribunal have squandered the worldwide support engendered by the terrorist blitz in the US. America is seen as the bully boy that scraps the inconvenient rules of the game. Or even makes new ones. US President George W. Bush’s authorization of pre-emptive action against any state perceived as a threat to American leadership has, in the eyes even of US allies, substituted America’s image of the legitimate custodian with that of the unaccountable superpower. As a hegemon, Washington has lost consent. For a dominant power to be truly hegemonic, it must stabilize the international political economy to the benefit of everyone participating in it, including itself. It must do so through the supply of collective goods, that means non-excludable and non-exhaustible goods such as free trade and security. The hegemon takes the lead in supplying these goods because it can afford to do so and has enough power and influence to get the others to follow. The hegemon must lead, not dominate. Consent fades when the hegemon exploits its might, when its actions are perceived as self-serving or detrimental to other states’ interests; in short, when it behaves like an emperor. The Europe that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scorned as «old Europe» may show a European aversion to heavy-handed tactics but this does not mean that European states do not have their own agenda and legitimate interests that they wish to defend. Washington’s pugnacious strategies alienate its friends and ultimately undermine the very interests that the Bush administration ought to protect. These are nothing but safety and stability, the sine qua non of a global free market economy on which much of US leadership depends. The US has to realize that arrogance breeds resentment. And resentment, as the terrorist attacks showed, brings instability – now on a global scale. Above all, the US has to realize that being a hegemon is not what it used to be. America can no longer shoulder the burden of international stability alone. This is not so much because of the relative decline in the power of its economy. America is still the world’s largest economy and, no doubt, by far the fastest gun around. It’s just that the world has changed. Again, as the events of September 11 demonstrated, globalization and the information revolution have strengthened the hand of non-state actors, like Al Qaeda, and effectively brought distant enemies to our doorstep. The US cannot go it alone in this new landscape. It needs allies and the backing of international institutions. The United Nations should not be treated as a fig leaf for US foreign policy but as a necessary tool in upholding international law – for all. Washington must listen to its friends. For its part, and instead of grumbling, Europe must raise its game and provide Washington with a partner it cannot afford to ignore. The best way to influence global developments is to have a strong say in their making. It is essential that Europe acquires a single voice in security policy so that it can more effectively promote European priorities and values, backed by a strong army to defend them if necessary. European tut-tuts over Iraq are not necessarily a sign of continental stagnation or a longing to free-ride on American hegemony. It may simply be that European leaders are right. Deterrence and containment are better weapons in dealing with Baghdad. New York Times commentator Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote that «in today’s globalized world, if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you.» Maybe. But bombing a nasty neighborhood may just spread the poison further. US impatience to attack Saddam stocks anti-US sentiment in the Arab world, it further radicalizes Islamic radicalism, and America effectively creates the incubators of tomorrow’s terrorists. This does not mean that we must not safeguard our Western values. In fact, we should do everything to protect these values – even go to war if required. But war must always be the last resort. The US must realize that its real power lies not with its «smart» bombs and high-tech but with its so-called soft power – democracy, economic and political freedom, and the growing appeal of these values across the globe. It is on these values that the European Union is being built; an expanding family of liberal democratic states which is based on consent rather than force. For all its shortcomings, the EU is a community that all neighboring countries, including the former captive states of the Soviet Union, want to join. Some nasty anachronisms may never be wiped off the map – perhaps it’s an illusion to try to eliminate all paradox from human affairs. But as this momentum of free democratic nations grows bigger and stronger, the Saddams of this world will feel more and more out of place. Time is on our side so long as we act prudently. For every terrorist plotting murder in the West, thousands of his compatriots are trying every day to sneak into those same countries in pursuit of a better life.