24 April 2007

A willing suspension of disbelief

Forget about Iran, North Korea, and terrorism, the principal security challenge of our time is how to restrain the U.S. from pursuing policies that promote conflict and undermine international stability. Europe and India know this, yet do nothing about it.

24 April 2007
The Hindu

A willing suspension of disbelief

Forget about Iran, North Korea, and terrorism, the principal security challenge of our time is how to restrain the U.S. from pursuing policies that promote conflict and undermine international stability. Europe and India know this, yet do nothing about it.

By Siddharth Varadarajan

WITH THE shadow of conflict in Iran looming large, Indian and Italian editors and commentators held a seminar last week in Venice to ask whether the "inverted priorities" the United States, Europe, and India seem to have on many international issues could be resolved in a positive way. To cut a long story short, both sides were pessimistic about Washington. The prevailing mood of gloom was best summed up by Giuliano Amato, Interior Minister and former Prime Minister of Italy. "If the U.S. is for disorder, then there will be no order in the world," he told the closing session. He added that there was little India or Europe could do to convince America not to take recourse to military means. "The Americans have to convince themselves. It has to be self-restraint."

The problem, of course, is that restraint is the last thing on anyone's mind in Washington. The good folks in Peoria may be sick of Iraq but that's not stopping Beltway zealots from planning their next military adventure. When Congress voted supplementary funds for the Iraq war in March, it agreed at the last minute to delete a key clause directing the President to seek prior Congressional approval for any attack on Iran. There could not be a more clear-cut sign that another disastrous war might soon be upon us. And yet the willing suspension of disbelief continues the world over.

New threats, old threats

As the bitter debate over the invasion of Iraq recedes into distant memory, American foreign policy ideologues have once again succeeded in constructing a picture of world order in which "new threats" like terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and pandemics are more dangerous than the doctrines of pre-emptive war and regime change.

In a major speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the U.N.'s 60th anniversary in 2005, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that the emergence of new threats had shifted "the very terrain of international politics ... beneath our feet." In the old world, which began in 1945 and presumably ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, "the most serious threats to peace and security emerged between states and were largely defined by their borders." Today, however, "the greatest threats we face emerge within states and melt through their borders — transnational threats like terrorism and weapons proliferation, pandemic disease and trafficking in human beings."

Depending on their own individual concerns, American scholars tend to add on to the list of new threats problems such as climate change, genocide, and human rights violations. For the American establishment, however, these are not core threats. As the world's biggest polluter, Washington tends to take a highly instrumental view of global warming. Rather than setting its own house in order, it prefers to turn domestic and international concerns about climate change into new business opportunities for American companies. As for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations, the Bush administration's view on whether these constitute "threats" depends essentially on what is politically expedient at any moment in time.

Leaving aside the problem of what to include in the list, the discourse about "new threats" is problematic because it assumes the "old threats" to world order have either vanished or become less critical. In reality, the old threats have become more virulent and pose an even more fundamental challenge to the international system than their newer strains. Consider this list: The tendency for powerful countries to use force against smaller countries under one pretext or another; the nuclear arms race, which is now leading to the weaponisation of outer space as well as the search for smaller, "usable" nukes; the refusal to solve outstanding conflicts, especially in the Middle East, which is a major contributing factor to terrorism; the persistence of exclusion and poverty, which give rise to derivative "threats" like human trafficking and global pandemics.
Despite the ugly reality of Iraq, Dr. Rice declared in the same speech that the old threat of aggression was not the main cause of instability in the world. "In 1945, the fear was that strong, aggressive states — eager and able to expand their frontiers with force — would be the primary cause of international problems," she said. "Today, however, it is clear that weak and poorly governed states — unwilling or incapable of ruling their countries with justice — are the principal source of global crises — from civil war and genocide, to extreme poverty and humanitarian disaster."

This emphasis on "new threats," "weak states," and "rogue states" is an integral part of Washington's attempts to fashion new institutional arrangements at the global level that can more effectively deal with any present or future challenges to its hegemonic power. By selling its response to the 9/11 tragedy as part of a "Global War on Terrorism," the United States managed to receive unprecedented international backing for its projection of military power in the heartland of Asia. Of course, the U.S. suffered a setback when it invaded Iraq in open defiance of the international community and failed to find any weapons of mass destruction as a post facto fig leaf. The U.S. invasion was widely and rightly criticised at the time, but not always for the right reasons. In Europe, especially, critics decried the "unilateralism" of the Bush administration, as if Nato's "multilateral" aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Clinton administration was somehow a qualitatively better thing. The significance of the distinction was not lost on Washington.

New `multilateralism'

That is why, since 2003, the U.S. has sought to recover some diplomatic ground by using the "new threats" discourse as the springboard for a new hegemonic multilateralism. From climate change to the promotion of "democracy," to curbing proliferation and terrorism, the emphasis is on remoulding the United Nations and also creating ad-hoc institutional arrangements that the U.S. leads but which have enough of a multilateralist facade to flatter the egos of Europe and even Russia, India, and China.

To be sure, the U.S. has not always been successful in this endeavour. It managed to push through the creation of the new Human Rights Council at the U.N. but has not been able to dictate its agenda as it had hoped. In the case of North Korea, Chinese stewardship of the Six-Party process has not allowed Washington a free hand. But where it has succeeded to a considerable extent is in Iran as well as on the question of Palestine.

Despite the Palestinian people exercising their democratic right to elect Hamas, the U.S. used the Quartet's demand that Israel's "right to exist" be recognised as a pretext to subvert the election verdict and starve the people of Palestine into submission. At no point have the Palestinians been shown the external frontiers of the Israel whose right to exist they are supposed to "recognise." And yet the Europeans allowed themselves to be press-ganged into the blockade that Washington and Tel Aviv mounted against the Palestinian Authority.

On Iran, the U.S. has been successful in first subverting the European mediation effort and then using Europe's failure as a stepping stone to take Tehran's Iran dossier to the U.N. Security Council. Against their better judgment, the Europeans today find themselves caught in an escalatory sanctions process that can only end in Washington's dreaded "military option."

In the Indo-Italian seminar, Mr. Amato cited the decline of the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain — whose pro-Iraq war stance has run foul of the prevailing national mood in the U.S. — as proof that the American electorate would help the world avert another conflict. "We have to rely more on democracy than on external constraints," he said.

Mr. Amato is right in hoping the American electorate disciplines its leaders but he is wrong to underestimate what Italy, Europe, India, and others can do towards the same end.

European opposition to the illegal "renditions" the CIA ran throughout Europe forced the U.S. to reroute its torture flights. If, for example, Italy were now to insist that the U.S. extradite the CIA operatives who kidnapped Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr from a Milan street in 2003, it would certainly push the policy debate in the U.S. in the right direction. On Palestine, if Europe and India were to take a more forthright stand against Israel's illegal settlements and Apartheid Wall, that would surely make it more difficult for Tel Aviv to avoid reaching a just and honourable agreement with the Palestinians. On the proliferation front, India and Europe need to take the lead in opposing missile defence and space weaponisation, and pushing for a negotiated solution to the Iran crisis without preconditions. If only Europe and India would stop appeasing the Bush administration at every step, they would find there is plenty that they can do to push the U.S. towards more responsible international behaviour.

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