Iraq: Awaiting the verdict of history

Debating the merits and demerits of an invasion against Iraq appears somewhat futile, given that it may be a «matter of weeks, not months» before it occurs. Perhaps a last-minute coup, a decision by Saddam to step into exile voluntarily, or a genuine change of heart toward the UN inspectors by Baghdad could still postpone invasion plans. However, with the Second Gulf War all but certain, it is worth speculating about its impact on the structures and processes of the international system. The first and most important change in a post-Iraq war setting (assuming America’s best-case scenario materializes) will be the consolidation of US global primacy. Militarily, America will be unrivaled and the gap with other states will continue widening. These days, the US military budget exceeds the combined budgets of the next 15 countries. Economically, the US remains a powerhouse, with a sustained tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship, especially in the crucial areas of new technologies. «Soft power» is also a strong component of American might. It entails prestige gained by America’s overall strength and its victory in the Cold War, a popular culture with worldwide appeal, as well as dominance in most multilateral organizations. Despite regrettable unilateral decisions that ultimately diminish the American allure, the US retains unparalleled opportunities to influence the world’s habits, interests, preferences and agenda. Paradoxically, however, it is becoming apparent that the US is not merely interested in remaining the No. 1 country in the world. Given existing trends and the global distribution of capabilities among states, a conservative set of policies in favor of the status quo suffices to keep the US in the position of primus inter pares for some decades. Yet the neo-conservative Bush administration appears to be abandoning status quo-type policies. The new US security doctrine aims at the preponderance of American power (qualitatively very different from wishing to simply remain the leading state in the world) and also sanctifies the right of unilateral pre-emptive strikes against perceived enemy threats. Taken together, these policy «innovations» will allow the US to challenge many aspects of the contemporary international order. Since September 11, the US has exhibited an unswerving determination to hunt down and ultimately eliminate terrorist threats. But it is also energy-conscious, aiming to secure energy supplies in both Central Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, Washington appears set to address the root cause of 9/11: backwardness and repression in the Arab world that feeds resentment and breeds religious fundamentalism (see for example the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report). Washington’s thinking goes something like this: Regime change in Iraq and a democratizing state in the midst of Arab autocracies could push the Arab peoples toward the attainment of freedom, democracy and economic development. Yet the risks are immense. An invasion of Iraq could produce the opposite results by inflaming instead of modernizing the Arab world; and it could also drive Saddam Hussein (who has so far been successfully contained – as was the Soviet Union for decades), to use biological or chemical weapons as a last resort. Still, the point to underscore is that in a putative post-Westphalian world order, tyrants will simply not be able to hide behind the notion of sovereignty (or even regional stability) should they incur the wrath of the US. Witness Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and the Taleban in Afghanistan. Saddam will merely be the next upstart to tumble. The status of the UN is also likely to be affected adversely in the event of a US-led invasion of Iraq which will enjoy only the support of a coalition of the willing, but not UN Security Council authorization. The recent debate concerning the necessity of a second Security Council resolution prior to the invasion of Iraq, underscores the question as to whether the UN remains the ultimate (and perhaps the only) world organization that can confer legitimacy to humanitarian intervention. The role of the EU in a post-Iraq war world order seems uncertain as well. Economically, Europe will be able to match the US and act as a global source of growth and reform. Politically, though, the EU will more likely remain weak and indecisive. Some time will have to elapse before a cohesive European entity emerges. The recent Franco-German proposals on Iraq, the «letter of the Eight,» and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s unilateral positions during his re-election campaign, all suggest that a meaningful common foreign, security and defense policy is far from being actualized. However, the potential role of the EU in a new world order should not be underestimated, especially if an institutionalized «hard core» emerges among the 25. Given that Iraq’s reconstruction will require many years and given the unwillingness of the American people for costly, long-term overseas commitments, the EU might also find a significant role in Iraq, though after the storm. As we move closer toward an invasion of Iraq, we could conclude, paraphrasing the French analyst Dominique Moisi, that the division of labor in the new world order will be as follows: The US fights, the EU funds and the UN feeds. (1) Professor Theodore Couloumbis is general director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer of international relations at the University of Piraeus and research fellow at ELIAMEP.