Alternative Vision of a New Global Order

Choices the US faces

The relentless truth-seeking Habermas begins his reflections on an alternate vision of a new global order with this question: “A U-turn in US policy on international law after September 11?” (in “Part IV: the Kantian project and the divided West” [2006]) (p. 179). Rather bluntly he states that the “United States does not need to develop the capacity to operate at the global level—it already has. As the only global player of its kind, the superpower can escape international legal obligations without fear of sanction” (ibid.).

However, Habermas points out, the cosmopolitan world order project will be unrealized if the US opts out. Fifteen years after Habermas wrote this text, it appears to have, indeed, opted out. Rapier-like, Habermas slices to the heart of the matter. The US, he stated unequivocally, has two choices: play the game of international relations by the rules or “marginalize and instrumentalize international law and take things into its own hands” (ibid.).

The Bush administration signalled all too plainly that it was not going to play by the international rules, They refused to recognize the International Criminal Court in The Hague (although recently Senator Lindsey Graham had no qualms about calling for the trying of Vladimer Putin as “war criminal” at the ICC). Unilaterally, they “forced through” the Iraq invasion of Iraq and, if one recalls the acerbic John Bolton’s attacks on the UN while he was Bush’s ambassador, cast aspersion on the UN. Martha Nussbaum (The cosmopolitan tradition: a noble but flawed ideal [1997] reinforces Habermas’ sense of the US’s turning away from acting to build the structures of a cosmopolitan world order. Look at America, she says, and “see an indifference to the well-being of the whole world that would make them [Cicero, Kant or Marcus Aurelius] think of America as one of the cut-off limbs of the world body that Marcus was so fond of describing in scathing and mordant language” (p. 50).

Unipolarity under threat

Zhao Huasheng (“The pendulum of history: thirty years after the Soviet Union” [2022]) believes that the “unipolar system is becoming more and more difficult to sustain, and a new bipolar structure is emerging.”   The US continues to have little concern about the world’s well-being, but they are apoplectic about China’s emergence as a threat to the grand recklessness of the 1990s – with the Soviet Union in shambles and the US doing almost anything it wanted to entrench its hegemonic dominance. In fact, Washington has acted “war-like” in its attack on China: crafting and fomenting human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, carrying out provocative activities against China in the South China Sea—using it as “pretext for building regional and international coalitions against China.” And as eminent Russian scholar, the late Stephen Cohen, has pointed out – “Preposterously, having for two decades steadily moved NATO’s military presence from Berlin to Russia’s borders, and now escalating it, Washington and Brussels accuse Moscow of ‘provocations’ against NATO. But who is ‘provoking’—‘aggressing’ against-whom? The NATO buildup can only stir in Russians memories of the Nazi German invasion in 1941, the  last time such hostile military forces mobilized on the country’s frontier” (War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate [2022], pp. 45-46).

Habermas stops himself in his own tracks. Isn’t the label “U-turn” only really applicable if the United States had behaved differently in the 1990s? In fact, during the early post-war years the US did not “exhibit unswerving commitment to the internationalism of the early post-war years.” They pursued a “double agenda”: they threw their considerable weight behind the “liberalization of trade relations and financial markets, the expansion of GATT to the World Trade Organization, the protections of intellectual property, and so forth” (p.p. 179-180). Roland Paris’ clear-headed book, At war’s end: building peace after conflict [2004], demonstrates the calamitous consequences of the imposition of free elections and market-based development strategies in a host of countries—the second item on the agenda.

The GDP rose and the gap between rich and poor increased, plunging countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala into the hellish misery of gangs, drugs, and endless hardship. Nothing much trickled down to the poor and vulnerable. What did, was a trickle indeed as wages declined and taxes were not increased for the urban middle classes and corporate and financial elites. Structural adjustment—cut public services, privatize anything one can, de-regulate production, lower taxes for the wealthy and diminish wages—and the problem of war, civil or otherwise, will be solved. Some wars may have stopped; but UN strategies of peacekeeping did not get to the root of most social conflicts: appalling and grievous inequities of distribution of goods necessary to live reasonably well and safely.

If America refuses

Habermas states unequivocally that, if America refused to join various initiatives, the cosmopolitan order will not get off the ground. Without American intervention, “conventions on landmines and chemical weapons, the expansion of the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and even the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court—would never have got off the ground. On the other hand, the American government either failed  to ratify many treaties or rejected them out of hand, in particular, treaties in the areas of arms control, human rights, the prosecution of international crimes, and environmental protection” (p. 180).

The US refused to “sign the nuclear test-ban treaty, the right of individuals to submit petitions to the UN Commission on Human Rights, the convention on biological weapons and the unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty—the Kyoto Protocol and the Statute of the ICC. As a general rule, the USA ratified a considerably smaller proportion of the multilateral treaties passed by the General Assembly than did the other G7 countries” (ibid.).

No escape from the hard things of the world

These US actions look very much like the actions of a unipolar imperial power. In an article, “’No escape from the hard things of the world” (2003), I argued that the “trauma of 11 September provided the USA with a marvellous opportunity to constitute itself as Rome, DC” (p. 636). They seized this opportunity to run the world according to the dictums of the imperial state. International legal norms, Habermas reminds us, muck up scopes for action. Once an empire attempts to become (and continue to be the ruling hegemon), everything they touch is tainted. Humanitarian interventions, military deployments and accusations of human rights breaches acquire a “thoroughly ambivalent significance. What from one angle appears to be progress on the path to the constitutionalization of international law, from another appears to be the successful imposition of imperial law” (ibid., see Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian imperialism: using human rights to sell war [2006] for a sharp critique of humanitarianism).

Some authors view the “internationalist orientation of US policy on international law” as the “attempt to replace international law with national law” (p. 181). For Habermas, George W. Bush seems to be the heir of Wilsonian idealism and Jeffersonian warnings of “entangled alliances.” “With a clear conscience, this President unilaterally imposes US national and security interests in the name of the ethos of a new liberal global order that he regards as a reflection of American values. However, once the globalization of a particular ethos has replaced the law of the international community, whatever is then dressed up as international law is in fact imperial law” (p. 181).

Habermas thinks that the existing “asymmetrical distribution of power in a global society” represents a “highly ambivalent constellation….” (ibid.). Provocatively, Habermas asserts that, counterfactually, even if a superpower believed it was at the forefront of constitutionalization of international law”—respecting “established procedures” while “mindful of its own interests”—we would not be able to “determine directly whether asymmetries of power were still lurking behind specific hegemonic acts that promote the juridification of international relations” (pp. 181-2). Many of us are, in fact, deeply suspicious about the ”rule-based order” sold to us by the leading politicians in the US and Canada. The hegemon sets the rules; the rest of us submit, eyes to the ground, awaiting marching orders.

Habermas wants to convince us that those “who locate the unilateralism of the Bush administration within a historical pattern of consistent imperialistic behaviour trivialize the importance of what is in fact an abrupt reversal in policy. In September 2002, the US president announced a new security doctrine in which he reserves a self-defined discretionary right to launch pre-emptive strikes. In his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, he solemnly declared that if the Security Council did not ultimately agree to military action against Iraq, however this was justified, he would, if necessary, act contrary to the prohibition on the use of violence of the UN Charter (‘The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others’” (p. 182).

Whatever hesitations one may have about seeing little but the actions of an imperial power (at least from the time of Teddy Roosevelt in American history), Habermas sees Bush’s actions as “alarming indicators of an unprecedented rupture with a legal tradition that no previous government had ever explicitly questioned. They express contempt for one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. The words and actions of this President do not admit any other conclusion than that he wants to replace the civilizing ethos of universalistic legal procedures with the particular American ethos armed with a claim to universality” (p. 182). This contempt, in my view, has continued into our portentous era of the New Cold War.

Habermas acknowledges that the US is the “oldest democracy” in the world and could embrace a “completely different approach from that of hegemonic unilateralism—one oriented to the global expansion of democracy and human rights” (ibid.). However, the “hegemonic liberal vision differs from the Kantian project of promoting a cosmopolitan order both in the path that is supposed to lead to this goal and the concrete form the goal is supposed to take” (ibid.). That an “ethically grounded unilateralism is no longer bound by established procedures in international law” scarcely even registers in Canadian political discourse. Moreover, with regard to the concrete form of the new global order, hegemonic liberalism does not aim at a law-governed, politically constituted world society, but an international order of formally independent states” (ibid.).

In our fragile unipolar global disorder, the imperial power secures the peace, interfering in every conceivable territory. Vehemently, Habermas rejects the unipolar liberal hegemonic model because it cannot meet the various needs of nation-states in an interdependent and multipolar world and the complexities of our world can “no longer be mastered from one center” (ibid.). At this historical turning-point, the claim to dominance of the US is under assault: the attraction of liberal internationalism has profoundly eroded (many critics speak these  days of the emergence of post-liberal societies) and the king is no longer wearing robes. Habermas hopes dearly that: “Citizens of a democratic political community sooner or later will become aware of cognitive dissonances if universalistic claims cannot be squared with the particularistic character of the obvious driving interests” (ibid.). It had better be sooner.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.