Healing the West’s wounds

Through the din of countless reports, analyses, commentaries and critiques surrounding the recent war against Saddam in Iraq, a proposition – shared by a number of pessimistic thinkers – is emerging: The world, after regime change in Iraq, is crossing the threshold of a radically transformed era. In this allegedly emerging «new global order,» the USA is expected to continue playing the role of a lone superpower that acts unilaterally, seeks ex post facto legitimization, and is highly impatient with the gridlocks of international institutions (such as the UN, NATO and the EU). Neoconservative thinking in the Bush administration is said to view the world in Hobbesian terms as gray, miserable, unpredictable and dangerous, with Islamist international terrorist networks heading the agenda of global threats. In such a «new system,» traditional concepts such as sovereignty and territorial integrity of states are being replaced by newly minted doctrines of «pre-emptive war» and «humanitarian intervention.» The proponents of «grand systemic change» refer to the «death» of the United Nations, to a «permanent» rift in the Euro-Atlantic community, and to the impending dissolution of an enlarging «Old Europe» that will not be able to withstand the tremors caused by the absorption of a post-communist «New Europe.» For the rest of the world, the pessimistic prognosis involves increasing marginalization of Russia, China and Japan, while the Arab world is expected to be facing mounting challenges that will place traditional monarchies and other authoritarian regimes high on the risk list. A new «domino theory,» made this time in the USA, is expected to result in a chain of pre-emptive invasions against «rogue states and governments» in the name of democratization, anti-terrorism and the neutralization of weapons of mass destruction. In our view, the changes that have taken place after Sept. 11, 2001 cannot be compared to the grand systemic change that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War. In the crucial years 1989-1991 we were escaping from a system of bipolarity and the balance of nuclear terror as well as from a cosmic confrontation of two incompatible ideologies, communism and capitalism. Even then, for a short while, some Cassandra-minded scholars predicted the birth of a neo-Westphalian «order» based on multipolarity, with tendencies toward the atrophy or fragmentation of post-World War II institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. These dire predictions were soon challenged by the flow of events: After the wars of Yugoslav succession and the rise of new risks (later to be upgraded to threats) such as international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and transnational criminal cartels, NATO reshaped itself into an alliance that, beyond collective defense and deterrence, would be assuming important functions of collective security (peacekeeping and peacemaking) while acting beyond its traditional area of operations. The USA was universally accepted as the uncontested global superpower, and multilateral structures (UN Security Council, NATO, Group of 7/8, the Bretton Woods institutions, the EU, etc.) markedly increased their regulatory responsibilities. The post-Cold War system (let us call it uni-multipolar) reached the apex of its functionality after the September 11 Twin Towers tragedy in New York. The USA, for the first time in its post-Civil War history, fell victim to the «bombardment» of its own territory and instantly secured the sympathy and solidarity of humankind. The French newspaper Le Monde did not accidentally use the front-page headline «We are all Americans.» The quick, efficient and relatively low-cost (in blood and treasure) operation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan secured also the support «or at least the acquiescence» of the majority of the planet’s governments. Unfortunately, however, the unquestionable success in effecting regime change in Afghanistan strengthened the hand of neoconservatives in the Bush administration, such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. Following its decision to attack Saddam without the authorization of a second UN Security Council resolution, the Bush administration has managed to squander the unconditional good will that the US had enjoyed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The fighting phase of Gulf War II appears to be over. Indeed it almost caused a major rupture in transatlantic and intra-European relations. But a great challenge lies ahead. It involves damage control, humanitarian assistance, postwar administration and state building in war-ravaged Iraq. In a paradoxical sense, winning the peace may give the Western world a grand opportunity to return to a status of interdependence, complementarity, cooperation and unity. In other words, it is high time to return to what was needed after the end of the Cold War: a global concert of powers. Looking to the future, we need to draw conclusions from the timeless lessons of history. Simply, the planet’s great powers (one could think in terms of the G-7/8/9 or the Quartet plus) have every interest in conserving a state of affairs that perpetuates their position of prominence. Together they can act as the guarantors and legitimizers of the earth’s regulatory mechanisms. Needless to say, «firefighting» is necessary but not sufficient. It needs to be supplemented by a global strategy of «fire prevention» that will address the key structural challenge of the 21st century: the growing gap separating the rich in the global north from the poor, hence conflict-prone, in the global south. For the EU, involved simultaneously in a deepening and widening process, rebuilding a system of global order with equity and economic sufficiency is both a challenge and an opportunity. We should all remember that whenever, over the centuries, great powers resorted to force in order to exert their influence, it was an early sign of their impending decline, if not their fall. (1) Theodore Couloumbis is professor emeritus at the University of Athens and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).