3 – The America Problem (Dec 08)

    We should face it: There exists an America Problem. Many Americans have gradually come to that conclusion in the past eight years. Elsewhere in the world, politically attentive people have become aware of it in degrees. But in Europe hesitations born of wishful thinking and fear of the unfamiliar, as well as fear for negative domestic response, have meant that few people come out and say so openly. The America Problem has had some time to develop, but it came into full view for those who cared to notice on the 1st of June in 2002 when the man who by common cliche is known as the most powerful man in the world announced a radical change to his position within it. This drained the meaning from the idea of “The West”. His changed objectives made a peacetime alliance with the United States impossible in all but name. Very few in Europe or elsewhere were prepared for this. In one fell swoop the president of the United States dumped the America Problem in the world’s lap by declaring that he has the right to attack any country that he chooses to name as an enemy. No UN Charter, no treaty, no incipient international law, no principles established by warcrimes trials, no international custom would stand in his way.
     The full significance of what George W. Bush had said before the graduating class of Westpoint Military Academy was at first hardly noticed, as it was delivered within a porridge of nationalist rhetoric to be expected from an American president encouraging his newly minted officers. The rhetoric was already sharpened with a new belligerency that was seen as normal in a reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and so the crucial lines – “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” America will take “preemptive action when necessary”, “containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies” – did not draw the attention they deserved. But when a few days later a reporter asked him whether dealing with Iraq had become less of a priority, given the existence of more urgent trouble elsewhere, Bush told him that he should have listened to his Westpoint speech. Spelling it all out 3 1/2 months later, fully and elaborately, the National Security Strategy of the United States clarified that by “preemptive” he meant “preventive”. That document justifies in advance aggressive war waged by the United States to nip any future challenge to its world dominance in the bud. And with that the United States cancelled all post-World-War-II conventions that had ruled matters of war, renounced the founding document of the UN for which Washington had provided cardinal support at its creation, and permitted what had explicitly been repudiated by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. That court had, under American control, concluded that to “initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
     George W. Bush demonstrated that he had not been joking when, ten months after his speech, he commanded the United States military forces to take over Iraq. What followed has been history as laid out in the famous first draft of it, albeit a far more censored first draft than most newspaper readers have had occasion to understand.
Will the America Problem be lifted under President Obama? It will certainly undergo a significant cosmetic make-over. But the announced resolve to “win” in Afghanistan, and the apparent eagerness with which a new foreign policy apparatus is being prepared for continuation of the project to deal with “fragile states” and spread democracy in the world, albeit in a friendlier manner than we have seen in the past seven years does not augur well.
     The year 2008 has seen a proliferation of recipes for a new world order, mostly penned by Americans; recipes for a new American foreign policy to create one. They have tended to skirt around the fact that there was once a relatively stable and relatively peaceful world order; the one that has been destroyed by that same United States. There remains a great reticence to say what I did in the first line of this jotting, but the world is saddled at the moment not with a China problem, or a Russia problem or a Venezuela problem, not even an Iran or Middle East problem. It is saddled with an America Problem. We may have reason to begin thinking differently if the Obama-Hillary Clinton team manages to make Israel realize that some two-state arrangement is the only way for it to survive in reasonable comfort, if it demonstrates respect for Russian anxieties of having a potentially hostile alliance, smack dab against Russian borders, and if room is made in its world-ordering efforts for unconditional Chinese participation.
     An amazing phenomenon in Europe is the stream of suggestions penned by European commentators about what Obama ought to do once he is president. They are no doubt much influenced by the ubiquitous American commentary they must have read. But the amazing part is the absence of a European dimension to all that advice.
     President Obama is not at all served by scared and sycophantic vassals. What he will need instead is fearless input from former allies who wish to regain the best aspects of a post-World-War-II world order committed to international law; an order of which the United States itself was the main architect. That means first and foremost the forceful rejection of preventive war as a policy tool. Such rejection is the minimum that European officials also owe the citizens of the Union’s member countries, if an integrated Europe is to remain true to its original purpose of abolishing war.
    In the current recipes for a desirable world order the assumption that there is such a thing as “The West” goes unquestioned. But this is where an intellectual breakthrough cannot come too soon. American authors deciphering clues about the future routinely express the wish that their government “treat its allies with respect”, and some European designers of geopolitical harmony take for granted that a renewed or indeed newly minted Atlanticism is an urgent necessity, since there may not be many years left for “The West” to set the agenda of world politics. Such advocacy reflects a dangerous and possibly fatal temptation. “The West” in a cultural and historical sense is obviously a given. But a “West” in the politically significant sense of the term was a post-World-War-II creation, and derived its meaning from a transatlantic agreement to contain possible Soviet expansion. It lost that political significance very visibly when the American president who is spending his last month in the White House broke with an elementary understanding as it violated the UN Charter and put his country on a strategic path where most of Europe does not want to follow.
     Hammering on the need to preserve something that no longer exists will keep Europe confused and strategically working against itself. To escape what no rational human being in Europe, or for that matter anywhere else, would want, we ought to drop the very notion that there is a “West”, in anything other than its historical and cultural meaning. A rational Europe would be one in which what has become the delusion of “The West” in a political sense is clearly seen as the single biggest hindrance to its best possible future, as well as a hindrance — because of the implied political division — for a world harmonious enough to eschew big wars.