POWER WITHOUT WISDOM
The Australian Financial Review - 11/04/2003:
Despite its recent association with the war against Iraq, the United
States has been addicted to
"regime change" around the world since the end of World War II. From
Syria in 1948 to Afghanistan in
2002, the list of countries subject to various forms of intervention
by the US is staggeringly long
In the past, Washington's habitual interference in the affairs of
other states has rarely been
successful (eg Vietnam, Iran and Somalia), and has often been
disastrous for those who have felt its
full force (eg Indonesia, Angola and Nicaragua).
Although in recent years the pretexts have varied - humanitarian
crisis (Serbia, 1999), harbouring
terrorists (Afghanistan, 2001), weapons of mass destruction/links to
(Iraq, 2003) - the pattern is well established and certain to continue.
However, what is striking today is the rehabilitation of war as an
acceptable instrument of state
policy. The US "no longer views force as something to be used
reluctantly or as a last resort"
(Bacevich, 2003), but instead as the means to maintain its "full
spectrum dominance" - a determination
to rule the world by force and crush all challenges to this
domination. This policy has an ominous
trajectory and an uncertain destination.
Two events have encouraged Washington to favour force as the
preferred means of solving its global
problems by unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of other
states. The first was the collapse
of bipolarity at the end of the Cold War. The second was September 11, 2001.
The unipolar temptation For liberals, the end of Soviet communism in
the early 1990s was a cause of
celebration as the spread of democratic politics and market
capitalism no longer faced any serious
rivals or obstacles. Their long-held views about the pacifying
effects of liberal democracy and free
trade - unfashionable for the previous half-century - suddenly seemed
close to fruition.
However, the collapse of bipolarity at end of the Cold War was viewed
by neo-realists as a serious
concern, even though it was US power that was out of balance. This
more pessimistic group argued that
in the absence of effective countervailing pressures, the US was
likely to become increasingly
unilateral in seeking to secure its foreign policy interests. It
would also rely on its military
supremacy to realise its global vision.
The realists seemed vindicated when the US undersecretary of state
for Latin American affairs, Elliott
Abrams, acknowledged that the US invasion of Panama in December 1989
was the first occasion in which
Washington could act in this way without a Soviet counteraction.
The implication was that more interventions would follow.
According to Kenneth Waltz, "a country disposing of greater power
than others cannot long be expected
to behave with decency and moderation" (Waltz, 1991).
It becomes greedy, dangerous and threatening, especially to those
states which are not reflexively
obedient. Regardless of their domestic political complexion,
preponderant states tend to lead with
their strongest suit - force. This is why they generate such fear and
hostility across the
Charles Tilly has made a similarly depressing argument. "The central
tragic fact is simple: coercion
works; those who apply substantial force to their fellows get
compliance, and from that compliance draw
the multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, access to
pleasures denied to less powerful people"
(Tilly, 1990). Defined in narrow terms, "success" reinforces such
behaviour, no matter how resentful
rivals, competitors and victims become.
Despite the risks of political isolation, dominant powers will also
seek to define their interests as
those of "the international community" rather than of the UN, and
claim to set the standards others
should follow (Johnstone, 2002). This may be popular with close
allies but it can also be
counterproductive. As Hedley Bull warned in the 1980s, "particular
states or groups of states that set
themselves up as the authoritative judges of the world common good,
in disregard of the views of
others, are in fact a menace to international order" (Bull, 1984).
Inevitably the "menace", which can
no longer be trusted to behave with "decency and moderation", would
Bull and Waltz could have been writing about the US at the beginning
of the 21st century. Those
institutions of global order and common good, such as the UN and
international norms, were disregarded
by the US once they no longer served its interests in legitimating
"allied" intervention in Iraq. There
is no international rule of law for the world's superpower. Why
not-so-powerful states such as
Australia, disproportionately more dependent on the stabilising
features of international society than
their ally, should emulate such behaviour is not immediately obvious.
They have a greater interest in
defending the protection afforded by national sovereignty and
There is a conjunction between realist warnings about the dangers of
unbalanced power in a unipolar age
and longer-standing Marxist concerns about US foreign policy after
World War II. Even though realism is
an exogenous theory which stresses the conditioning effects of
anarchy on state behaviour and Marxism
is an endogenous approach which emphasises internal economic drives,
they agree about the threat that
Washington poses to the world.
For those on the left who have been critical of America's
"promiscuous, cynical interventionism" since
the 1950s, the danger signs were obvious during the Cold War.
According to historian Gabriel Kolko,
"after fifty years of intervention in the affairs of dozens of
nations on every continent,
interventions that varied from training police and armies to
supplying them with lethal equipment and
advisers to teach them how to use it, after two major wars involving
its own manpower for years,
America's sustained, intense and costly efforts have only culminated
in greater risks to itself".
Washington "does not leave stability in the wake of its
interventions" (Kolko, 2002).
A paradox of the modern era, argues Kolko, is that at a time when the
US has never been more militarily
powerful and undeterred, it has never felt less secure. "There is
more instability and violence in the
world than ever," he argues. Far from exploiting its natural
advantages, US foreign policy has pursued
a "vainglorious but irrational ambition to rule the world". It is
a policy which "is neither realistic nor ethical. It is a shambles of
confusions and contradictions,
pious, superficial morality combined with cynical adventurism, all of
which has undermined, not
strengthened, the safety of the American people and left the world
more dangerous than ever" (Kolko,
2002). For Kolko, Washington's greatest mistake has been its
recurrent failure to recognise the limits
of its own power. In this respect, the temptations of unipolarity
have brought with them new dangers.
Terrorism It was not politically or culturally motivated violence
that was inaugurated on September 11,
2001, as those with an intimate experience of such violence in
Turkey, Palestine, Nicaragua and
Columbia, to cite only a sample of targets of Western state
terrorism, can attest to. Rather, it was
the choice of victims that changed. As two observers noted, "the
subjects of the Empire had struck
back" (Ali, 2002) and "for the first time in modern history, Europe
and its offshoots were subjected,
on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they have routinely
carried out elsewhere" (Chomsky, 2002).
Despite official pronouncements that "everything had changed",
according to both Marxists and realists,
September 11 and subsequent attacks in Yemen, Bali and Kenya have had
negligible effects on both the
structure and the state of international politics.
If anything, these events have enhanced an existing trend.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that "the basic element to
understanding the present situation is
that 9/11 did not threaten the US. It was a terrible human tragedy
which humiliated the US, but in no
sense was it any weaker after those attacks. Three, four or five
attacks will not change the position
of the US or its relative power in the world" (Hobsbawm, 2002).
This view is identical to Waltz's claim that terrorists do not
challenge the continuities of
international politics. "Although terrorists can be terribly
bothersome," he says, "they hardly pose
threats to the fabric of a society or the security of the state.
Terrorism does not change the first
basic fact of international politics - the gross imbalance of world
power" in favour of the US.
"Instead, the effect of September 11 has been to enhance American
power and extend its military
presence in the world" (Waltz, 2002).
Nevertheless, the 9/11 atrocities have become a further stimulus to
US intervention under the guise of
fighting unilateral "pre-emptive" wars against rogue states and
global terrorism. Iraq has already been
attacked and Iran, Syria and North Korea feature on an extensive hit
list. This is despite widespread
concerns that these interventions "will only increase the threat of
terrorism and the development and
use of weapons of mass destruction, for revenge and deterrence"
(Chomsky, 2003). Waltz concurs, arguing
that "North Korea, Iraq, Iran and others know that the United States
can be held at bay only by
deterrence. Weapons of mass destruction are the only means by which
they can hope to deter the United
States. They cannot hope to do so by relying on conventional weapons"
Neither doctrinal changes such as the shift from deterrence to
pre-emption nor the use of force which
privileges a form of technological fetishism are sensible responses
to complex social and political
problems which are often the unintended consequences of earlier
interventions (Kolko, 2002; Johnstone,
2002). In the aftermath of 9/11 there was such an allergy to
introspection in Washington that few dared
acknowledge that its two latest targets - Osama bin Laden and Saddam
Hussein - had once been, like so
many before them, favoured allies and proxies. That the US was the
victim of "blowback" could not be
conceded without conducting a critical analysis of recent US foreign
policy which would ask
uncomfortable questions about US alliances with extreme Islamists and
secular mass murderers.
Conclusion For dependent allies such as Australia, a misguided belief
that "everything has changed" has
led to a steady departure from military self-reliance, geopolitical
independence and regional
engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington
has been sought in the belief
that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in
volatile and uncertain times. Largely
vicarious in nature, Canberra's policy is now a willing hostage to
forces it can neither match nor
The war against Iraq, where the most powerful military force in human
history assails a largely
defenceless enemy, takes US intervention into uncharted territory.
Allies and friends have been
sacrificed to "coalitions of convenience", NATO was sidestepped
because it is too structurally
consultative, and the UN's future is threatened because it failed to
endorse US ambitions.
The policies which incubated Washington's latest enemies remain
unexamined, billions of dollars are
diverted from the civilian to the military sector, and unconventional
and asymmetrical responses by
those who consider themselves invaded rather than liberated may yet
be met with even more extreme
violence. As an attempt to reduce the West's security fears, the war
in Iraq is already a political
defeat because it has galvanised fear and hatred throughout the Arab
and Islamic worlds. It may also
prove to be a military failure, even with the despatch of Saddam's
This "use of military force to eliminate an imagined or invented
threat" (Chomsky) may demonstrate yet
again that Washington has a limited understanding of the forces it is
unleashing through its
interventions. Perhaps this should not be surprising in an era of
liberal fascism - a description which
no longer seems oxymoronic. As Kolko has argued, it would appear that
the US has that most lethal of
combinations - "power without wisdom".
Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin
University's School of Social and
Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms (Verso, London, 2002).
Andrew J Bacevich, 'Force Has Emerged As the Preferred Instrument of
American Policy', Los Angeles
Times, March 20, 2003.
William Blum, Rogue State (second edition, Zed Books, London, 2002).
Hedley Bull, 1983 Hagey Lectures, University of Waterloo (Ontario, 1983).
Noam Chomsky, September 11 (revised edition, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002).
Chomsky, 'The big gun takes a pop-shot at peace', The Sydney Morning
Herald, March 29, 2003.
Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, The Observer (UK), September 22, 2002, see
Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American
Empire (second edition, Time Warner,
Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western
Delusions (Pluto Press, London, 2002).
Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (New Press, New York, 2002).
Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States (Blackwell, Oxford, 1990).
Kenneth Waltz, 'America as a Model for the World?', PS: Political
Science and Politics, Volume 24, No4,
Waltz, 'The Continuity of International Politics', in Ken Booth & Tim
Dunne(editors), Worlds in
Collision (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2002).
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