FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hyperpower in a Sinkhole

by VIRGINIA TILLEY

As thousands of mourning Shia’as fill the streets of Najaf, and as political analysts try to forecast the consequences of Ayatollah al-Hakim’s assassination for Iraq’s future, a basic question still burns for many who still cling to values of international cooperation: can the present mess in Iraq somehow be mitigated through greater involvement by the (damaged and discredited) United Nations and the broader international community? The outlook is certainly gloomy. But if genuine multilateral participation in this case is indeed difficult or impossible, we actually face worse implications than the political sinkhole of Iraq.

The prospects for mulilateral action in Iraq are dismal for obvious reasons. Sinking over its hips in the muck of occupation, the US needs help of every kind: moral, political, military, and financial. To get this help, the US clearly needs the UN both for its resources (experienced staff and relevant aid agencies) and for its unique legitimacy in peacekeeping that can usher in other powerful allies and their own resources. Even denuded of any semblence of independence, the UN retains enough of this legitimacy to allow the French and other major powers, as well as NGOs, to help rebuild Iraq–but only if the UN is formally granted authority over the occupation. Will the US grant that authority? Doing so would compromise the three goals which drove the US invasion: unilateral US leverage over the world oil supply; unassailable US hegemony over western and central Asia; and fabulously lucrative contracts to its crony capitalists. With these glorious goals seemingly in their hands, will the neoconservatives running US foreign policy sacrifice them by inviting rival states to share in them, for the sake of Iraqi welfare and reconstruction? Unimaginable.

Given that answer, a cluster of urgent related questions arrive at the same gloomy conclusion. Without the UN stamp to legitimize their participation, will Syria and Iran risk looking like US pawns by joining a vitally-needed multilateral discussion regarding Iraq’s stability and reconstruction? Hardly likely. Will the most principled democratically-minded Iraqis be willing to look like–and perhaps turn into–US stooges in order to participate in forming a new civil government? Less likely every day.

Yet in worrying about all these urgent questions, we risk missing a bigger one. Iraq is the forestage, the drama unfolding. But backstage, the UN’s functional collapse signals that everything about the international system is under reconstruction, in ways that underlie all our most urgent pragmatic questions about Iraq… and Korea, and central Africa, and India, and Colombia, and a host of other crises.

Ever since World War II, a complex framework of international agreements has shaped the expectations shared among states about each other’s behavior: especially, the UN consultative mechanism, shared rules about just war, the illegitimacy of any pre-emptive military strike, collective security (unanimous action among states to ensure peace by collectively sanctioning any offender), and bans on nuclear weapons and testing. True, that order was always manipulated by superpowers, and was always frayed and fragile. Yet, for half-a-century, those rules and norms shaped decision-making by state leaderships throughout the world in fairly predictable ways, and a certain reliable pattern of international manners (and cheating) prevailed.

Now, with a torrent of verbal abuse, the US has swept that entire thick document of rules and manners off the table and is scissoring out bits at will, throwing whole sections in the garbage. The UN mechanism is now illegitimate and obsolete; it’s fine to attack a country pre-emptively out of fear (real or fabricated) of possible eventual threat; collective security is a luxury to be ignored at will; treaties on nuclear weapons are dead letters. Week by week, the US is tearing apart, like outmoded contracts, the international order everyone has known. So what will we have to work with, when the day is over?

In watching the Iraq debacle, we therefore witness not simply a hyperpower seizing the reins of the international system but that system’s redesign into entirely unpredictable patterns, with implications far beyond Iraq. For example, in a world with no clear rules and no legitimate coordinating authority, what clear consequences, incentives and penalties now steer the choices of North Korea? What leverage can this newly frazzled international “community,” which is no longer clearly a community, bring on the brutal Burmese regime? Will Colombia’s slide into civil war extend to destabilization and remilitarization of the entire Central American Isthmus?

All these questions return us to the basic question of international order: without an effective UN mechanism, can the international community effectively debate such questions, and offer help or coordinate action on any conflict? And is the US likely to reverse direction to help it do so? Again, not likely. Even a hyperpower can’t, selectively and cyclically, break apart and put Humpty together again. In crafting a stable and peaceful future, much will indeed depend on the drama unfolding in Iraq with its far-reaching ramifications for the region and the world. But our collective fate lies as much in the international system itself, including the UN, as in Iraqi society and infrastructure–and what order we can reconstruct from the recent wreckage of both.

 

More articles by:

VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail