FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
November 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Meet Ukraine: America’s Newest “Strategic Ally”
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Frankenstein Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Ukraine in the Membrane
Jonathan Steele
The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors
Kathleen Wallace
A Gangster for Capitalism: Next Up, Bolivia
Andrew Levine
Get Trump First, But Then…
Thomas Knapp
Trump’s Democratic Critics Want it Both Ways on Biden, Clinton
Ipek S. Burnett
The United States Needs Citizens Like You, Dreamer
Michael Welton
Fundamentalism as Speechlessness
David Rosen
A Century of Prohibition
Nino Pagliccia
Morales: Bolivia Suffers an Assault on the Power of the People
Dave Lindorff
When an Elected Government Falls in South America, as in Bolivia, Look For a US Role
John Grant
Drones, Guns and Abject Heroes in America
Clark T. Scott
Bolivia and the Loud Silence
Manuel García, Jr.
The Truthiest Reality of Global Warming
Ramzy Baroud
A Lesson for the Palestinian Leadership: Real Reasons behind Israel’s Arrest and Release of Labadi, Mi’ri
Charles McKelvey
The USA “Defends” Its Blockade, and Cuba Responds
Louis Proyect
Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend
John W. Whitehead
Casualties of War: Military Veterans Have Become America’s Walking Wounded
Patrick Bond
As Brazil’s ex-President Lula is Set Free and BRICS Leaders Summit, What Lessons From the Workers Party for Fighting Global Neoliberalism?
Alexandra Early
Labor Opponents of Single Payer Don’t  Speak For Low Wage Union Members
Pete Dolack
Resisting Misleading Narratives About Pacifica Radio
Edward Hunt
It’s Still Not Too Late for Rojava
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Why Aren’t Americans Rising up Like the People of Chile and Lebanon?
Nicolas Lalaguna
Voting on the Future of Life on Earth
Jill Richardson
The EPA’s War on Science Continues
Lawrence Davidson
The Problem of Localized Ethics
Richard Hardigan
Europe’s Shameful Treatment of Refugees: Fire in Greek Camp Highlights Appalling Conditions
Judith Deutsch
Permanent War: the Drive to Emasculate
David Swanson
Why War Deaths Increase After Wars
Raouf Halaby
94 Well-Lived Years and the $27 Traffic Fine
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Coups-for-Green-Energy Added to Wars-For-Oil
Andrea Flynn
What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Health Care
Negin Owliaei
Time for a Billionaire Ban
Binoy Kampmark
Business as Usual: Evo Morales and the Coup Condition
Bernard Marszalek
Toward a Counterculture of Rebellion
Brian Horejsi
The Benefits of Environmental Citizenship
Brian Cloughley
All That Gunsmoke
Graham Peebles
Why is there so Much Wrong in Our Society?
Jonah Raskin
Black, Blue, Jazzy and Beat Down to His Bones: Being Bob Kaufman
John Kendall Hawkins
Treason as a Lifestyle: I’ll Drink to That
Manuel García, Jr.
Heartrending Antiwar Songs
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
Poetry and Political Struggle: The Dialectics of Rhyme
Ben Terrall
The Rise of Silicon Valley
David Yearsley
Performance Anxiety
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail