The sole remaining superpower acts unilaterally because it can get away with it. Europe, via Britain, must respondby RW Johnson / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The puzzle persists: why is the world not “ganging up” against “the last remaining superpower?” wrote Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, in June last year. History and theory alike, he claimed, showed that the international system abhors imbalance, that “great power will spawn counter-power.” When the Soviet collapse ended the cold war, the US-led coalition assembled to oppose the Soviet bloc should have broken up and a new alignment of power to balance the US should have emerged. Joffe argued that one reason this did not happen was that the US did not use its power to dominate territory in the traditional way, rather it relied heavily on “soft power,” its ubiquitously popular culture and technology. European intellectuals resented this and tried in various ways to suggest that the US was socially, morally and culturally retrograde, argued Joffe, but real balancing was left to three relatively minor arenas-Russian and Chinese attempts to maintain and build a military challenge, Europe’s implicit balancing through its rapid reaction force and a terrorist threat from Bin Laden and a few rogue Arab states.
For the US itself, the removal of the USSR and Warsaw Pact from the scene had such congenial results that it was difficult to see what policy could beat doing nothing. The US turned inward, acting-as Henry Kissinger lamented-as if it “needed no long-range foreign policy at all and could confine itself to a case-by-case response to challenges as they arise.” Kissinger pointed out that not only did opinion polls show American interest in foreign affairs at an all-time low, but that the 2000 presidential election “was the third in a row in which foreign policy was not seriously discussed by the candidates.” Such isolationist complacency clearly belongs, after 11th September, to a bygone age. But can we now see the outlines of the new political universe we seem to have entered? And if so, what are its characteristics?
The UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August last year was the last great international gathering held before 11th September. Attending the conference made you feel that Joffe had missed that the real counter-attack on the US was cultural rather than military, and came not from Europe but from the third world, with Muslims leading the charge. At Durban, 155 governments were represented and many times more NGOs and it was clear from the outset that there was a large anti-US majority. The ganging up was patent. Overtly, it hinged on two issues: the “criminal misbehaviour of the US client state, Israel” and the demand for an apology and compensation for the crimes of colonialism and slavery, for which America too was seen as principally responsible.
One of the more beguiling presences at the conference was Neturei Karta-Jews United Against Zionism-whose orthodox rabbis explained to all who would listen that the Torah had said the Jews should have no homeland and that the state of Israel should be dismantled. The NK spokesmen were gentlemen of deathly pallor wearing ringlets and full Hasidic gear despite the Durban heat, who inveighed against “the Zionist conspiracy.” But they often sounded like some of the saner voices at the conference. Unlike just about every other group, they had not come to argue that they should get more land, power or money. (Some of them displayed photographs of large NK rallies in Israel. But this had the opposite effect of that intended-illustrating Israel’s democratic pluralism. What would be the fate of a movement in most Arab countries which proclaimed the rights of Jews as another legitimate middle eastern tribe?)
The Americans were irritated at finding themselves the principal target of the campaign against slavery and colonialism. Didn’t anyone realise they too had fought against colonialism; that the US cabinet included slave-descendants such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; that however awful the Atlantic slave trade had been, there had also been a huge east African slave trade run by Arab Muslims; that at least 30 per cent of the entire African population at that time had been slaves; that African chiefs had sold their own people into slavery and that slavery continued today in several areas where the Muslim world intersects with black Africa? But the apology-for-slavery lobby was not interested in Africans enslaved today in Mauritania, the Sudan or the Gulf.
An even greater irrationality reigned in the “debate” over Zionism. Just because the US had succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to reverse its 1975 resolution-equating Zionism with racism-it assumed that there was nothing actually racist about Zionism. In fact, it is difficult to make such a claim about a creed which wishes to reserve full territorial and citizenship rights to a religiously exclusive group which is not only non-proselytising but which defines membership in terms of strict maternal descent. How can the law of return not be described as racially exclusive when it offers full and immediate Israeli citizenship to Jews who have never set foot in Israel, when no such rights are available to Palestinians who have always lived there? Clarity was equally lacking on the other side where genuine anti-semitism could easily be discerned. In effect, many of the Muslims were attacking Israel for being a theocracy-while themselves either belonging, or wishing to belong, to Muslim theocracies.
Similarly, the conference majority was loud in its championing of the rights of “indigenous peoples,” but it seemed convinced that, pace the Bible and a wealth of archaeological evidence, Jews were not indigenous to the middle east. Whites, it seemed, were indigenous nowhere. Indeed, Professor Manning Marable of Columbia University told us that whiteness was just a form of property. Proudhon had shown that all property was theft, and therefore whiteness was theft-which explained how whites had got involved in the rapacious business of slavery in the first place. This display of erudition vastly impressed many South African delegates.
Both the Africans and the Muslims tended to think in terms of the west as a single bloc and the US as its representative. Several elements went into this: a lingering anti-capitalism, a dislike of “the Coca-Cola culture” and a general feeling that not only had the west oppressed and colonised the third world but that its present-and unfair-wealth was still based on a systematically unjust set of relationships with the third world. Such groups wanted not only justice but historical justice, and were outraged that people who still had this historical injustice to pay off should presume to preach about democracy or anything else. (If one observed that far from the west’s wealth depending on exploitation of the third world, the real problem was that over 80 per cent of all trade and investment by developed countries flowed to other developed countries, leaving the third world out of the loop-one was met, at best, with a blank stare.)
The US took a look at what lay in store for it at the conference and, followed by Israel, withdrew. There was a roar of anger from their pursuers: their fox had gone home. American isolation was complete: not even Britain, Canada or Costa Rica supported her.
What is third world anti-Americanism based upon? Most ex-colonial states absorbed a good dose of Leninist anti-imperialism during their formative liberation struggles and this was sufficient to find themselves in sympathy, if only passively, with Soviet and Chinese tirades against “US imperialism.” But, by the end of the 20th century, the one truly recognisable “colony” left was Israel. Here white western settlers, equipped with the latest weaponry, were seen as dispossessing and oppressing a recognisably third world population. Just as the Algerian war ultimately led to bombs going off in the Paris metro and the Irish struggle led to bombs in London, so 11th September was understood in much of the third world in the same way: the struggle had simply reached the inevitable phase where the battle was brought back home to the metropole. This was the meaning of the frequent comments one heard in the wake of 11th September-both in Africa and sometimes on the European left-that America had “had it coming” and somehow deserved it.
South Africa was, as so often, a weathervane. By January, strong ANC pressure on Mandela forced the ex-president to recant publicly his previously unqualified support for US action, while Deputy President Zuma announced that the government no longer saw 11th September as a terrorist act but as a blow in a wider struggle-and went on to denounce Anglo-American action “against innocent Afghan civilians.”
Third world anti-Americanism would exist even if Israel did not exist. Throughout Africa, for example, one finds bitter resistance to “the Washington consensus.” In fact, Africa’s aid, trade and investment relationships are still predominantly with Europe, and collectively the EU states have a very large say in what the IMF and World Bank do. One might have expected resentment against the capitalist west to be primarily directed against the old European colonisers-but America is normally the preferred target.
The third world is not, of course, a single unvariegated bloc. The key dividing line is between those nations whose attempts to build states, develop their economies and modernise their societies have achieved at least some success-including not just small states such as Mauritius and the Asian tigers, but India and China-and those that haven’t. Until recently the polite fiction was maintained that all third world countries were going to succeed in such efforts. Now it is clear that state-building has failed and economies have gone backwards in a significant number; indeed, this is almost the norm in Africa.
The failed modernisers are not only African. Myanmar, North Korea, Afghanistan and a number of middle eastern states belong, at least potentially, to the group. But the difference is that when modernisation fails in these latter cases, there is a tendency to fall back upon older, pre-existing cultures-something not available to most of Africa-and to assert that one is better off refusing to enter the modernisation race altogether. This is where Islamic fundamentalism enters the picture and why it has such an appeal to groups doing badly out of modernisation.
The leaders of Muslim states are well aware of the dangers such fundamentalism poses. They would, in the main, prefer to emulate Kemal Atat?rk, leading their states to become more modern, secular, Islamic versions of the modernised, secularised but still recognisably Christian states they see in the west. They know that should Islamic fundamentalism succeed in capturing state power it will destroy all such hopes. The fear of such a fate explains the peculiar ferocity which many Muslim leaders have used to crush Islamic fundamentalism.
The complete collapse of modernisation which a fundamentalist takeover represents is, happily, not a common occurrence. But the fact is that the modernisation efforts of most Muslim states are sufficiently uncertain of success for fundamentalism to retain a major constituency, weighing more or less heavily on political leaders. This in turn is sufficient to define a consensus on many issues to which even the more successful oil-rich Gulf states will adhere, for reasons of Muslim solidarity, just as the few successfully developing African states will adhere to a consensus defined by the less successful majority. Moreover, radical Islam has increasingly replaced Leninist anti-imperialism as the central ideology of third world protest. Whereas the third world militants who fought US power in the 1950s and 1960s were North Korean, Chinese, Cuban and Indochinese communists, they have since been replaced by Libya, the Iranian ayatollahs, Iraq, the Taleban and a succession of Arab terrorist groups. Islam has no peer within the third world in its ability to link Arabs, Asians, many Africans and radical black Americans. This implicit Muslim leadership of the third world bloc is another reason for the heightened role the Palestinian cause has gained far beyond Muslim ranks.
A month after the feast of third world anti-Americanism in Durban came 11th September. Briefly it appeared that the whole world was on America’s side: even Saddam Hussein expressed sympathy with the victims. So great was the shock of the event, so overwhelming the feeling that great principles and great interests were at stake that it was as if the alignment seen in August had never existed. The question was, which of these two alignments, that of August or that of September, shed more light on the geopolitics of the 21st century?
The answer was quick in coming. The states which had offered armed support, Britain and Australia excepted, were relieved to discover that the US did not want them to do any fighting. Parts of the European left rediscovered how much it disliked armed action anywhere by anyone, especially the Americans. Anti-war marches were held. Commentators predicted that the US was about to get bogged down in another Vietnam. Meanwhile thousands of Muslims around the world protested against anyone taking up arms against other Muslims, no matter what they had done. Support for the US was fragile in the non-Muslim third world: it simply felt wrong to be watching US planes bombing another third world country. The critics were, in effect, demanding that the response to 11th September should be to do nothing-the one thing no US president could do.
Moreover, in the extraordinary situation created by 11th September, US strategy was of necessity far more open-ended than in any previous war. This in turn imposed the tactic of building opportunist coalitions into the indefinite future and set off ripples in all directions. Indian feared that Pakistan’s importance in the conflict would thereby gain it US support over Kashmir. The Turks, revalued upwards by their status as the sole Muslim member of Nato, moved troops up to the Iraqi border in anticipation of a US strike. Russia tried to grasp the opportunity of a special relationship with the US and sought its support against the Chechens. China, keen to gain US support against its own terrorists in Xinjiang, did the same.
The new international alignment created by 11th September was real enough, but it was like an element with a high atomic number and a very short half-life. It was created by a deep recognition that the US was the sole super-power, the hegemonic power on which the whole international system-economic as well as political-ultimately rested. The realisation of how vulnerable the hegemon could be was profoundly unsettling, even to its opponents. If the Afghanistan campaign had faltered badly, anti-American sentiment would have resurfaced everywhere more swiftly than it did. As it was, the speed and impact of the US response was enough to silence such voices, at least temporarily. But, as with Desert Storm a decade ago, its effect soon wore off. It was easier to resort to the old habit of resenting the hegemon, thus re-creating the more “natural” alignment seen in Durban. Both alignments were real, both rested on a recognition of the US as the hegemonic power and both could even briefly co-exist-but one was bound to decay quickly into the other.
America’s current temptation towards unilateral action begins with the fact that, as the sole super-power, it can get away with it. But it is also greatly encouraged by the recognition that in UN forums, where the worst it once had to fear was a Soviet veto, it is now likely to find itself denounced by a bloc of failed Muslim and African states which it regards, in Reagan’s phrase, as “looney tunes.” This group is often able to marshal a majority in UN forums. It has several times managed to elect to key positions people the US loathes, like Amadou M’Bow, former head of Unesco, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary-General. This is possible because voting power at the UN is asymmetrical (although as a permanent member of the security council the US has a veto over some top jobs). Africa alone has nearly 30 per cent of the votes in the General Assembly. As this situation has developed, the US has reacted increasingly by ignoring the UN and taking diplomatic and military action outside the UN framework. When al Qaida troops tried to bargain to be allowed to surrender to the UN, the US dismissed the notion.
To the consternation of its European allies, America’s estrangement from the UN was, in the post-cold war world, increasingly accompanied by other signs of isolationism and the rejection of international treaties and agreements which limited its independent action. The undermining of the Kyoto treaty and the international criminal court began with the Clinton administration. But the election of George W Bush seemed to bring the de-linking of Europe and America closer. In the wake of victory in Afghanistan-and the strengthening of the hawks in the US cabinet-European leaders have been further riled by Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
This means that a key role has fallen to Britain in mediating between US unilateralism and European sensibilities. The world has become accustomed to the sight of the two big English-speaking democracies going to war together. All the battles they have fought together since 1941 have been successful and conducted with a mix of firmness and restraint. The sight of the Anglo-American alliance in action once again is thus more reassuring than straightforwardly unilateral US action-but, at the same time, it allows for a greater unity of command than a Nato action would. (America was unhappy about French interference in daily targeting decisions on Serbia.) Most Britons are UN supporters and do not understand that one consequence of the new Anglo-American alliance-no doubt unintended on the part of the Blair government-is to cut the UN out of the picture.
This US-British alliance will be sternly tested, however, as the US faces its longer term options. America’s defence of Israel has made it natural for militant Muslims to try to polarise the whole Islamic world against the US. The US response to such pressures has consistently been more vigorous than those of the Europeans, who see the middle east as an adjacent region with which they have, for many centuries, tried to maintain close and amicable relations. Thus in 1973, Kissinger was so outraged at the impact of the first oil crisis that he refused to rule out the use of military means in reasserting US interests, an attitude from which Europe dissociated itself. Reagan organised military strikes against Libya in response to Gaddafi’s sponsorship of terrorism-something European countries, although they too had suffered from such terrorism, had never contemplated. Similarly, Clinton’s response to the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Africa-a few ineffectual cruise missiles lobbed at Sudan and Afghanistan-may now be viewed by most Americans as criminally negligent, but it went far beyond anything European countries wanted.
When one gets down to it, the only international organisation which enjoys full US consent is the WTO; even Nato could find itself sidelined-as it has been in response to 11th September. But Europe’s desire to bind America into a system of international law is unlikely to meet much success, unless it faces certain facts. First and foremost, any country which finds itself the sole superpower will have somewhat different interests to the other big powers. If you are called upon to be the world’s policeman then you will see the international criminal court in a different light to those who do not have their soldiers at risk. And a sole superpower is bound to be tempted into creating a chain of bilateral relationships with less powerful others. In the wake of 11th September, the US has been wooing the Russians, Indians and Chinese, all of whom face Muslim separatist/terrorist movements. These three states, after all, dominate Asia, account for nearly half the world’s population and, in contrast to the failed modernisers of Africa and the Muslim world, all are growing strongly economically and seem certain to play an important part in the high-tech new economy. Reinforced by such alliances, the US can face down or ignore hostility from the rest of the third world and leave the UN to wither. Europe, too, is easily dissoluble into another set of bilateral relationships: the US may have encouraged the integration of the EU, but it knows that its key relationships are with Berlin, Paris and London-not with Brussels.
It is all very well for Europe to boast that it now constitutes a larger market than Nafta. But for that to matter geopolitically it would have to achieve a degree of unity and military strength which currently looks distant. Bereft of such a possibility, Europeans are fond of claiming a cultural sophistication superior to that of the US, as well as a more developed human rights culture. What they need to understand is how they appear to many Americans-a tired and quarrelsome continent, so lacking in vigour that it is not even breeding to replace itself and so unnerved by its own history of conflict that it seems incapable of any sort of robust action, even against third world dictators in its own spheres of influence. (US policy on Zimbabwe has been more forthright than that of either Britain or the EU.)
If there is to be any restraint on American unilateralism it has to come from Europe and particularly from Britain-but it will not come merely as a result of preaching the righteousness of international law. Either Europe has to replace the USSR as the second superpower or, more likely, it has to make itself as indispensable in support of the US in the coming competition with China as it was in the old competition with Russia. Both the abrogation of Kyoto and the ABM treaty look more reasonable if you are focused on the fact that, at current growth rates, China’s economy will overtake America’s in a few decades. In such circumstances, the US is unlikely to accept that its own growth should be hobbled by environmental constraints that don’t apply to others, or that it should not do everything in its power to maintain a lead in Star Wars weapons over China.
There is little prospect that Europe will want to match US military spending-but what it does have to do, if it wishes to constrain US unilateralism, is to be more tough-minded itself, particularly in places such as Africa where it has both leverage and historical responsibility. Europe’s scramble out of Africa has had even more disastrous results than its initial scramble into it. The continent is not only home to most of the world’s failed states but to an increasing number of rogue states-Libya, Sudan, Somalia and now Zimbabwe, but with several more emerging. This is an ambience in which Bin Ladenism breeds and swarms. Europe has the means to address this situation-and most Africans long for a stronger European engagement. Such an engagement would, at relatively little cost, magnify Europe’s diplomatic power both with the US and others. When Tony Blair talks about moving the problem of Africa up the agenda, this is what he ought to have on his mind.