All Writings
February 23, 2003

The Price Of Unilateralism

The Bush administration's decision to wage war against Iraq unilaterally under the cover of the so-called "coalition of the willing," that is, without the explicit approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has damaged, if not seriously crippled, the very institutions (the UN, and to a lesser extent, NATO) established to safeguard international security. In the aftermath of the war, the administration must reassess its developing posture of unilateralism not just to save these institutions from becoming completely irrelevant to international security but to safeguard our own national interests.

The recent events in Iraq may be only incidental to the global geopolitical realignment following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The European community, led by France and Germany, no longer feels the need for the security blanket we provided that justified our predominance in its affairs during the fifty years of the Cold War. Although opposition to the rise of a single hegemon is not new to European political circles, it came into a sharper focus after the removal of the Soviet threat and America's subsequent emergence as the sole superpower. As early as 1990, when President Chirac was mayor of Paris, he suggested to close associates, including his foreign policy advisor Pierre Lellouch, that France should strive for a "multipolar world in which Europe is the counterweight." In fact, "any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions." At the time Mr. Chirac was not hesitant in indicating that France must take the lead in any such "counterattack." Ten years later, Germany's foreign minister Joschka Fisher echoed these sentiments when he remarked, "The core concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the hegemonic ambitions of individual states." And as recently as February 2003, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder reiterated these sentiments by saying, "I do not feel obliged to other governments." Although playing to public sentiments against the war in Iraq as part of his reelection campaign, Mr. Schroder's position was also a byproduct of the profound and growing German consensus against American unipolarity.

In the European community, France and Germany especially want to have their own unique voice while assuming a greater role in determining Europe's destiny. France under Chirac, in particular, continues to see Europe as a counterweight to American economic and military power. The conflict over Iraq, among other things, has provided a platform for this vision. From the French and German perspective, American dominance threatens Europe's cohesiveness and possibly their own national interests. Raising the stakes higher for both nations is the expansion of the EU to include ten former East-European nations, whose ties to the US (because of its steadfast opposition to communism and their fears of France and Germany having a hidden agenda to dominate Europe) seem stronger than their ties to Western Europe. This situation explains President Chirac's irrate retort to those East European countries seeking European Union membership after their voicing support of the US position on Iraq. As Mr. Chirac famously scolded, their leaders had "missed a good opportunity to remain silent."

These more prominent concerns have coincided with the absence of any present threat to Europe's security and growing U.S. strategic and economic interests in the Middle East and Asia, which in turn are causing us to shift our focus away from Europe. The Bush administration, apparently oblivious to the domestic difficulties a possible invasion of Iraq presented to Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroder, did not try to provide political cover for either as it did for Prime Minister Tony Blair. The peoples of all three countries were against the war. The French government, in particular, with a vocal minority of 5 million Muslims to contend with, was especially concerned about the fallout from a war. Still, Iraq was not the only crisis that has stained the old alliances. Other recent events, such as Western Europe's limited military role in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, have been proof to this administration of Europe's reduced military and strategic importance. In addition, the events of 9/11 widened the divide. Both France and Germany failed to comprehend its impact on the U.S. psyche. Our government's response broke sharply with the pattern established by previous governments in dealing with virtually every conflict since World War II. The administration, already skeptical of international institutions, now made no secret of its disdain of the UN. In all its post-9/11 actions, it was determined not to let any state or institution stand in its way in the battle against terrorism.

The French and the German challenge to US unilateralism may have also missed the mark because of the way it was pursued, including the choice of a venue. This is where the French, armed with the power of veto in the SC, may have overplayed their hand. Neither institutionally nor culturally is the SC a suitable forum for open-ended public arguments or negotiations. Although the SC's weight as an institution in charge of international security can be brought to bear during an international crisis, it has never been effective when the targeted state also possesses veto power. In the present situation, the SC had even less power in inhibiting America, with its unique position in the community of nations. The French repeatedly erred in challenging the United States and threatening to use its veto power to prevent the world's remaining superpower from acting unilaterally. France also underestimated the administration's resolve to act against Saddam Hussein and its determination not to allow any institution, including the SC, to force it to change course and thereby appear in the eyes of the world to have wilted. The US push to pass a new UNSC resolution to authorize the use of force (subsequently withdrawn) and the public threats by France to veto any such new resolution have done equal violence to the entire notion of diplomacy. Despite such tensions inside and outside the SC, France and Germany view it as the indispensable global institution for checking American predominance and unilateralism.

Russia was more circumspect in opposing the administration's position. It waved the veto flag only once and toward the end of the diplomatic maneuvers, letting France take the brunt of American criticism and disdain. In the end, the SC's failure to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means was the fault of the French and the Americans. Because France wanted to use the SC as a whip to stop the US from acting as it saw fit, the administration was not simply willing but able to dismiss the SC as ineffectual and even irrelevant.

The French and German opposition to unilateralism (as well as that of other nations) then is not simply a matter of principle. Of course a superpower must sometimes act unilaterally, taking the lead when it appears absolutely necessary, as for example, when its national security is threatened. In the case of Iraq, the question is whether multilateralism, as exemplified in the efforts of the SC, had been exhausted, especially since the administration failed to prove conclusively that Iraq posed a present or imminent danger to us. Yet many countries have gone to war for far fewer compelling reasons. Saddam Hussein, after all, violated virtually every international norm of conduct. And countries such as India, Pakistan, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea and South Korea has waged war (as have the French against Algeria) without first securing multilateral permission. The issue is not whether these wars or the invasion of Iraq were justified. Rather, it is whether the United States, as the world's only superpower, should be held to a much higher standard. My position is that a superpower has a unique responsibility not to misuse its enormous military and economic superiority.

Certainly, the worldwide protests against unilateral action against Iraq would have been muted if the Bush administration established the existence of imminent danger and that the failure to act would result in an inevitable attack by Saddam Hussein against the US, probably including the use of WMD. Unfortunately, the evidence the administration presented by administration officials in and outside the SC was not compelling enough to convince the unconvinced. Hans Blix, the chairman of the UN inspection team, complained in the late April that the US provided him with shady intelligence of no use in the search for WMD. The administration, attempting to beat Mr. Blix to the punch, showed no interest in his progress and viewed any extension of the inspection period as an obstacle to its cherished plans to oust Saddam Hussein. The administration was also unable to produce credible evidence that Mr. Hussein was aiding or cooperating with named or unnamed terrorist organizations such Al Qaeda to attack American targets. And to date nothing has been found to indicate the former Iraqi leader would have provided WMD to these terrorist groups to use against us.

None of these omissions stopped the US from invading Iraq. But the negative fallout from this course of action is that we have probably given other nations a pretext to act preemptively against adversaries. By what authority, for example, can we now persuade India from invading the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir "to prevent Muslim terrorists from attacking Indian targets" or from attempting to take over the entire region under the pretext of responding to "imminent danger?" Attacking Iraq preemptively has created a precedent that may come to haunt us and other countries as well. These are the realistic concerns that other members of the SC, even though several, especially France, may have wanted to appear as if they acted altruistically on the basis of principles alone. This is a compelling reason why whatever low esteem the Bush administration may regard the SC, this organization must continue to have the ultimate responsibility for Nonproliferation of WMD–a responsibility that cannot be left to the prerogative of any single nation. By lowering the bar for what constitutes imminent danger and then initiating military action based on this new standard, we have provided a license for other nations to protect their national interests as they deem necessary, a prospect with far-reaching repercussions to the international system.

The other organization that may be adversely affected even more so than the SC and in which the US has long had traditional strategic interests, is NATO. At present there are growing rumblings about the dominant military role of the US, and some reorganization may be overdue. Nonetheless, NATO remains critically important not only for keeping the peace on the European continent but for playing a direct role in our fight against international terrorism. Because France and Germany are leading members of NATO, they can be essential to its revitalization. For obvious reasons, especially the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO's role and the means of realizing its goals have dramatically changed. Unlike the United States, the other members have not changed in response to the changing world. The complaints of European nations about American dominance ring hollow in the face of their inability to muster the political will to match their desire to assume a more prominent part in their own defense. In essence, the other NATO members have not always backed up their words with actions. For example, for more than six years, the European community led by France, Britain, and Germany talked about the need to create an all-European rapid deployment force (RDF) of 60,000 troops to operate independently of NATO. Most of the plans for such a force remain in the planing stage. Even though Mr. Bush was not enthusiastic about the idea, Europe's inability to act was noted by his administration. In addition, the debacle over Iraq in the SC was inadvertently carried into NATO corridors, further weakening it in their eyes.

The result for now is that the administration is seriously thinking of ways to punish the French for their public refusal to support our designs against Iraq. Proposed punishments include the possibility of sidelining France in NATO and downgrading its position in international conferences. Although such punitive actions may quench some of the administration's anger, they will also further erode the effectiveness of the alliance, to the detriment of all member states. However skeptical we may be of NATO's future usefulness as an organization that contributes to world peace, it can become a potent force for stability within and outside the European continent. But NATO must first modernize itself. For example, with combined contributions to it by European members equaling around half of the defense outlay of the United States, NATO's capabilities to conduct modern warfare are weak. To demonstrate the huge gap in capabilities between America and Europe, the US in response to 9/11 was able to project its military power in many different places simultaneously, and without much difficulty increase military expenditure by at least $50 billion. As historian Paul Kennedy observed: "Being number one at a great cost is one thing; being the world single superpower on the cheap is astonishing." Although all NATO members should equally shoulder the responsibility for its modernization, as a start we should consider withdrawing up to half of our troops from Europe. The large huge savings (in the vicinity of $ 15 billion) can be used to help update NATO technologically.

As much as NATO needs to modernize technologically, it also must adjust psychologically to the new security requirements in the wake of September 11th. NATO is the sole defensive arm of the transatlantic community and the most natural institution, as Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently argued, for meeting the challenges of terrorism and the proliferation and use of WMD. In assessing NATO's future role, its former commander General Wellesley Clark agreed, recently stating that it can be the most potent organization to deal with terrorism. I support this view. In the final analysis, whether NATO has been weakened because it could not muster the political will to modernize or because of the changing geopolitical dynamic after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it remains vital to America's national security. A strong US commitment to NATO is critical because it is still the most reliable existing military organization for conducting multilateral operations, especially now as its domain includes East European states. In this context, NATO should eventually integrate Russia into its security apparatus while focusing on peacekeeping in and around the continent. The conflict over Iraq has widened the growing gulf among the Europeans nations themselves and between the United States and its old allies. In this new world, the SC and NATO continue to be absolutely indispensable to international security. However flawed the SC, it is the sole legitimate body in charge of international security. No matter how skeptically the Bush administration regards the SC. It must not abandon ships. In fact, if Mr. Bush believes the SC to be important enough to turn to in seeking legitimacy for the use force against Iraq or in containing North Korea, then how can he discard it if its members refuse to abide by his wishes? Besides the fact that the SC provides political cover for reluctant allies to join us in our war efforts, we must work with other veto-bearing members such as Russia and China. We will need their support sooner rather than later to resolve other international crises such as North Korea's increasing belligerence or the dangerous India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir.

Finally, the strength or weakness of the SC is the sum of the efforts and commitment member states invest in it. Once we dismiss the SC as irrelevant, we, perhaps more than any other country (because of our global strategic interests), will feel the adverse effects of its impotence. The only way we can prolong the period of our unipolarity is by working with other powers and supporting the international institutions that enhance world security. As political scientist Joseph Nye recently observed, if the United States "handles its hard power in an overbearing, unilateral manner," it will be only a matter of time before we provoke other nations into forming counter-balancing coalitions. The conflicts that have arisen between the United States and the SC, on the one hand, and the United States and NATO, on the other, have the potential to shape the future of international security for decades. The choice is ours. How the administration deals with Iraq in the aftermath of the war and resolves other international conflicts will either make these institutions totally irrelevant or strengthen their powers by reshaping them to deal with the coming grave threats to international security. We can work with our European allies, both new and old, and decide what sort of relationship we want according to our and their evolving needs. In the process we can maintain our traditional ties, for their own sake and also to preserve and strengthen critical global institutions and alliances that enhance our national security. Or we can squander an unparalleled opportunity to lead with moral authority, provoking other powers to gang up against us because of their fear of our unilateralism.