Published in Hindustan Times January 10, 2007
Last month, at a seminar at the Indian Council for World Affairs in New Delhi, discussion centred around the United States and its role as the global hegemon. In a paper on ‘Great Powers’ read out by Varun Sahni, professor at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there was a reference to the system-shaping capabilities of such powers. In response, Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu observed that in recent years, one such power had actually been playing a system-destructive role. To use a cliché, the truth lies somewhere in between. While we may point to the US disdain for the United Nations, climate change treaties and the like today, it is undeniable that it played a great role in shaping the global institutions and rules that define the world we live in today.
Just what the US means to the international system is evident from European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson’s comment on Monday that global trade talks could only be saved by the intervention of President Bush. You could ditto that on the climate change agenda, energy security, non-proliferation, or combating HIV/Aids. The US remains the key power that determines the success or failure of global efforts and agreements.
In the wake of World War II, the US helped create the UN, whose key emphasis was on banning war, the world monetary system, an international bank for reconstruction and development and virtually every significant global agreement thereafter. The US did not intend to become the sole hegemon of the international system that it has become today. That is why it put up four other powers, who were so only in name in 1945, as pillars of the world order — France, Britain, Russia and China. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and notwithstanding the rise of China, the military distance between the US and any other power has widened to the point that the US capabilities are greater than that of any combination of the other Great Powers of the world.
The US has played, and continues to play, the role of a system shaper, but given its huge power, it is also capable of destroying what it has itself helped create. Like any Great Power in history, it has relied on realpolitik to protect and further its interests, even if the process undermined the very institutions it helped create, and the principles it articulated.
The long trail that realpolitik tends to leave behind is evident from the relations between the US and Iran. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and reinforce the rule of the Shah of Iran. Thereafter, with the view of controlling the oil-rich Persian Gulf, the US underwrote the Shah’s tyranny as well as his progressive megalomania. By the Seventies, the latter had proclaimed himself Shahenshah (King of Kings) and the former had begun transferring to him advanced weapons systems, sometimes even before they had reached the US arsenal.
The Shah’s downfall had a spectacular fallout, but the US didn’t give up. In the Eighties, it backed another wannabe local hegemon — Saddam Hussein — to take out Iran and we know what the consequences of that action have been. Today, the US and Iran remain locked at a new and higher stage of confrontation.
The US cannot be blamed for everything that went wrong in that relationship, and it also cannot be attacked for all the wrongs of the international system. The rise of the Soviet Union and its self-proclaimed rivalry towards the US played a great system-destructive role in the international system. The Non-Aligned Movement, which often bemoans the US role, too, on occasion, played a negative role. The near-blind support that it gave the erstwhile Soviet Union was a fact used by Republican Party ideologues in the US to attack all policies aimed at helping the poorer countries of the world to get on their feet. The ‘Zionism-as-racism’ resolution in the UN General Assembly only served to reinforce the US tilt in favour of Israel.
There were expectations that the Soviet collapse would act as a corrective and re-establish the primacy of international organisations and law. The UN-US duet in Somalia, Bosnia and Kuwait in the Nineties provided some promise of the re-establishment of a rule-based international system. Yet, they also provided a reminder that minus the US, the UN would be ineffective and incapable of action against flagrant violations of international law. The challenge of the Nineties was to institutionalise the experience of this period by strengthening the UN and getting the International Criminal Court going. But this did not happen for two reasons, both linked to the US.
Trends in US politics, rooted in an ideological conflict that goes back decades, succeeded in skewing the American consensus on foreign and security policy issues. The root of the problem lay in ideological wars fought by the Republican Right-wing against the moderate segments of their own party and the Democrats. Led by religious revivalists, its domestic agenda was social — opposition to abortion, feminism and gays, rejection of the separation of the Church and State. In other words, all aspects of liberal democracy. Its foreign policy manifestation was an unrelenting hatred for communism and unflinching support for Israel. George H.W. Bush’s presidency and his efforts to shape a new world order foundered on his inability to get the support of this segment of his party. The Clinton presidency, too, was hobbled by the intense dislike of the Republican Party, dominated by its Right-wing, for the Democratic President, who was seen as being the exemplar of everything they opposed.
The second reason was the George W. Bush presidency and 9/11. Ideologically, Bush Jr saw himself as heir to Reagan and went out of his way to cultivate the Republican Right. Even before he came to power, he had made clear his intention of ignoring the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that stood in the way of that Reagan favourite — the Ballistic Missile Defence Programme. He disdained the agenda of the environmentalists and rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming. But then came 9/11 and the global war against terror that helped Bush rally the US, invade Afghanistan and Iraq and win the 2004 elections with a huge majority.
Since 2000, the US has gone on a system-destruction drive, such as one never seen before. Bush’s declaration that the US would pursue ‘preemptive war’ against its enemies is a doctrine that violates the basic principles of the UN Charter. Later, the UN was bypassed and Iraq was invaded for reasons that we now know were spurious. Instead of upholding the developing trend of trying international war crimes through the ICC, the US threw out all the laws, even some in its own books, to indefinitely detain and torture suspects from anywhere in the world.
There is every indication that the US will continue to be the globally hegemonic power for the foreseeable future, despite its profligate economic and military policies. It remains in the interest of the world community to get the US back on the system-shaping track. The agenda here is already getting crowded. Climate change and energy security are no longer a theoretical proposition. Nuclear proliferation remains a major headache, as do problems like Darfur and Somalia. UN reform is stuck and the world trade system desperately needs another boost. In each of these areas, the world needs US cooperation and perhaps even leadership, and it needs it fast.