FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hyperpower in a Sinkhole

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.

August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omaorosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
Dean Baker
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Medicare-for-All
Weekend Edition
August 10, 2018
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Militarizing Space: Starship Troopers, Same As It Ever Was
Andrew Levine
No Attack on Iran, Yet
Melvin Goodman
The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Grifter’s Lament
Aidan O'Brien
In Italy, There are 12,000 American Soldiers and 500,000 African Refugees: Connect the Dots 
Robert Fantina
Pity the Democrats and Republicans
Ishmael Reed
Am I More Nordic Than Members of the Alt Right?
Kristine Mattis
Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: a Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
James Munson
The Upside of Defeat
Brian Cloughley
Pentagon Spending Funds the Politicians
Pavel Kozhevnikov
Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail