The United States is challenging the system of conventions that has governed relations between the great powers since the Treaty
The year 2003 was a year defined by one war. It wasn’t the biggest war of the year (that honour would go to Sudan or Congo, though both those wars may now be ending), or the fastest-growing war (that prize certainly goes to Nepal), and it was certainly not the oldest (probably Colombia, though there have been intermittent ceasefires over the years).
It was a short, low-casualty war whose outcome was never in doubt, since the defence budget of one side was 240 times bigger than that of the other side. But 2003 was the year of the U.S.-Iraq war.
It was important because the United States is the greatest power in the world and everything it does is important. It was important because Iraq floats on an ocean of oil, and because it is an Arab and predominantly Muslim country: The spectre of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” haunts these events.
But above all, it was important because for the first time in almost 60 years a major country has mounted a deliberate challenge to the authority of the United Nations and the international rule of law.
Indeed, the United States is challenging the whole system of rules that has governed relations between the great powers since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, for it is declaring a doctrine of “limited sovereignty” far more sweeping than the one that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decreed for Soviet satellite regimes when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1970.
The Bush administration has made it clear that no nation which Washington suspects of backing terrorists or developing “weapons of mass destruction” is safe from American military intervention.
Washington will decide alone — and you don’t get your money back if it turns out afterward that there were no terrorists or WMD.
All of this was unleashed by the terrorist attacks on the United States 28 months ago. The actual level of terrorist activity around the world in 2003 remained low, and the deaths attributable to the Islamist terrorists associated with Al Qaeda very low indeed: fewer than 1,000 people killed in 12 months in a dozen different countries, none of them in the Western heartlands that are the terrorists’ prime targets. Compared to the 8,000 people a day who die from AIDS, this is an utterly insignificant number.
But since Osama bin Laden’s few thousand militants have managed to hijack both the U.S. and the international agendas, they must rank as the most successful terrorist operation of all time.
It is hard to imagine that they realized they were going to unleash an American drive for global hegemony, and even harder to believe that they saw the real danger in this. The truth of the matter, though few governments outside the United States are willing to admit it in public, is that most people around the world would be willing to live under a global American hegemony that guaranteed their security and prosperity if American citizens were really willing to pick up the tab for it. The problem is that hardly anybody outside the United States (and few experienced people inside it) believes that the U.S. has the resources and the will to impose the “Bush doctrine” around the world for decades to come.
The risk is rather that current American behaviour, epitomized by the unprovoked and illegal invasion of Iraq, will destroy the international system of multilateral co-operation that has been the goal of most statesmen since the founding of the United Nations. It made very significant progress in the decade between the end of the Cold War and 2001, but by the time the American public finally rebels against the costs and casualties of attempted global hegemony, there might be no multilateral system left.
Instead, the world would revert to the rival alliances and balance-of-power strategies that prevailed before World War I, which would be bad for everyone’s health.
That was the worst-case scenario at the beginning of 2003. The war turned out to be even easier than expected for the U.S. forces, which did not have to fight their way into Baghdad after all, but the aftermath has been much harder. At year’s end, despite the capture of the fugitive Saddam Hussein in December, the armed resistance to the U.S. occupation has become a serious political problem for the Bush administration. As a result, the outlook for the U.S. adventure in global hegemony is growing significantly darker, and the prospects for the survival of the multilateral system are improving. Good — but none of this would even be bothering us if not for the terrorist attacks that came out of the blue two years ago and knocked the world off track.
The potential for a U.S. drive for unilateral global power has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union 12 years ago removed Washington’s only serious rival, but it might never have happened without 9/11. We are living through the consequences of a rather remote contingency that has become our new reality.
But it may all go away again, in which case we get our old reality back. What has happened in the 95 per cent of the world that still lives most of the time in the old reality, where events are unfolding in ways that are, if not fully foreseen, at least familiar in their broad outlines?
Quite a lot, actually, and more good than bad.
In Asia, the most striking events were the passing of power to the next generation (or half-generation, anyway) in the Chinese Communist party, and the growing rapprochement between India and Pakistan, which included a ceasefire in disputed Kashmir in November. Neither of these events necessarily means real change in stubborn realities that have already lasted for decades, but there were those who found hope in them.
The game of bluff and double bluff continued between China and Taiwan, with no serious probability of ever spilling over into a war.
Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed finally retired in October (though it’s hard to believe that he is relinquishing all control over the country’s affairs after three decades in charge), and Philippines President Gloria Arroyo easily survived an attempted military mutiny in July.
Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi narrowly won re-election in November, ensuring (once again) that nothing much will change in Japan.
The overinflated crisis over North Korea’s supposed nuclear weapons lurched onward, never resolved but never getting closer to war. (Well, of course not: North Korea is an impoverished, starving state that lacks the strength to attack anybody, and the U.S. is afraid of the nuclear weapons that the North Koreans say they have.) In May, the generals in Burma massacred mobs of people who had come to hear pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who is now back under house arrest), but the only serious wars currently underway in a continent containing half the human race are the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and Indonesia’s war against separatist rebels in Aceh in northern Sumatra. The ceasefire in Sri Lanka’s long civil war was briefly endangered by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, opposed to the peace deal, who tried to wreck it with a declaration of national emergency in November, but it’s still on track.
Europe saw a major split between governments that backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq (Britain, Italy, Spain and some ex-Soviet satellites in eastern Europe) and those that did not (France, Germany, Russia and most of the rest). But the split was less deep than it seemed, in the sense that popular opinion opposed the invasion by large majorities in most countries on both sides of the divide, reaching close to 80 per cent in both Italy and Spain. Only in Britain was public opinion more or less evenly split, but a lengthy public inquiry into how Prime Minister Tony Blair had manipulated the truth in order to talk Britons into the war left his reputation badly tarnished.
The expansion of the European Union continues on schedule, with 10 candidate countries from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus completing final arrangements, including referenda in most cases, to join the EU next April. It was normally sleepy Sweden that provided the biggest shocks: Foreign minister Anna Lindh, widely tipped to be Sweden’s next prime minister and a future EU president, was killed in a Stockholm department store in September by a lone knife-wielding madman, and a week later Swedish voters roundly rejected membership in the euro, which aspires to be the EU’s common currency.
In March, the citizens of tiny Liechtenstein voted to give their hereditary ruler, Prince Hans-Adam, absolute power, and in August, Iceland resumed whaling after a 14-year break.
Russia drifted a bit further away from genuine democracy with a December parliamentary election in which almost everything was rigged except the vote itself, but even that was better than the “election” in rebellious Chechnya that supposedly legitimized a collaborationist regime there.
In the far southeastern corner of Europe, the great surprise was the non-violent democratic revolution in Georgia that overthrew long-ruling President Eduard Shevardnadze in November, which is to be followed by new elections next month. This was followed by popular demonstrations against unpopular regimes in Moldova and Ukraine, but the difficulties of getting genuine democracy up and running were illustrated by Serbia, which failed to elect a president in November for the third time in a year because too few people bothered to vote. Turkey managed to avoid getting involved in Iraq despite intense U.S. pressure and simultaneously opened the door to eventual EU membership by dropping anti-democratic elements of its constitution. Even long-divided Cyprus may be heading for reunification after last month’s election in the Turkish-occupied north of the island resulted in a draw between pro-reunification forces and the separatist supporters of long-ruling Rauf Denktash.
In the Americas, the most noteworthy changes were the advent of Brazil’s first socialist president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, in January, and the changing of the guard in Canada in December, with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien retiring after a decade in office to make way for the rival he always hated most, Paul Martin.
“Lula” got away with being a socialist by following rigorously orthodox fiscal policies in his first year in office.
In the United States, a largely jobless economic recovery failed to cancel out the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war, and credible Democratic contenders emerged to threaten the once-unchallengeable lead of President George W. Bush in next November’s presidential election.
Venezuelan populist president Hugo Chavez survived another turbulent year in office, but a recall petition signed by almost 30 per cent of the population was seriously threatening his presidency at year’s end.
In October, Bolivians ousted their 73-year-old president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, known as “El Gringo” for his closeness to the U.S., after a month of violent clashes in the streets. The most powerful man in the country now is peasant leader Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, who advocates socialism and indigenous autonomy and defends the right of Bolivian farmers to grow coca against the U.S.-backed “drug wars” attempts to eradicate the cocaine industry.
From Africa, there was more good news than bad for a change, with a fairly honest election in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, returning President Olusegun Obasanjo to office for a second term and Africa’s two biggest wars going into remission:
A shaky ceasefire held across most of Congo (former Zaire), and the three-decade-old civil war in Sudan seemed headed for a genuine peace settlement as negotiations reached a point of no return in late December.
Former dictator and genocidal monster Charles Taylor of Liberia was persuaded to go into exile, giving that devastated country a chance at recovery, and former president Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, only one year out of office, is facing trial on corruption charges over the fortune he amassed while in power, a fate hitherto unimaginable for Africa’s “big men.”
The 52-nation African Union, created last year to replace the largely discredited Organization for African Unity, elected its first president, Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, at a summit in Mozambique in July.
The AU may be as far away from real European Union-style insistence on the defence of human rights and democratic norms in Africa as its member states are from European levels of prosperity, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
And the South African cabinet at last forced President Thabo Mbeki to end his lethal opposition to making life-saving anti-retroviral drug treatments available to the country’s 5 million or more HIV-positive citizens and AIDS sufferers.
There remains the wilful destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy, free press and civil rights by aging President Robert Mugabe, the alarming signs that Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma is heading in the same direction, the long drought that has reduced parts of six countries in central Africa to near-famine, the signs of approaching famine in Ethiopia, and the quiet desperation in which at least half of the continent’s people lead their (increasingly foreshortened) lives.
But there are at least some tangible signs of hope.
And so, inevitably, to the Middle East, where pro-Western Arab regimes successfully rode out popular anger over the invasion of Iraq, but remain in a rather fragile condition as events there unfold.
Most precarious, probably, is the regime in Saudi Arabia, where shootouts between police and suspected terrorists have become almost weekly events, but neither Syria nor Egypt looks particularly stable.
On the other hand, Libya’s Col. Moammar Ghadafi has completed his long journey back into the West’s good graces with a much-ballyhooed renunciation of his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. (About as meaningful as Mozambique renouncing its space program, since he never really had any worth speaking of.)
In the Israel-Palestine arena, where political incompetence and sheer bloody-mindedness on both sides consigned the so-called “road map” to the same garbage dump as the Oslo accords, all the political posturing was overshadowed by the harsh fact of the new Berlin Wall being built in the West Bank.
Despite the ritualistic insistence by the Israeli authorities that it is only a temporary security fence, it has the look and feel of a permanent border that includes almost all the larger Israeli settlements on the West Bank, locks the Palestinians into easily controlled cantons, and obviates any real need to negotiate with them.
The prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace that would make Israel an accepted part of the Middle Eastern landscape, once seen as practically a done deal, is now drifting out of sight.
Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian journalist based in London whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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