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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.