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Might Makes Right? Wrong
17 September 2002
The debate on a possible pre-emptive war by the United States against Iraq has so far centered on elaborate cost-benefit equations of how much it would cost in money, blood and geopolitical influence to topple Saddam Hussein - and who would replace him. What has not yet been discussed are the consequences for global governance if a pre-emptive strike is successful. Suppose everything goes right, democracy is restored and the Iraqi threat is removed at low cost (a tall order) - the American initiative will set an important precedent, one sure to be invoked by potential imitators.
The first, the widest and the most dangerous interpretation is that it would legitimate the proposition that whenever Country A believes, rightly or wrongly, that there is a "clear and present danger" from Country B, it is entitled to attack first. The 19th-century military historian Carl von Clausewitz claimed that war is a continuation of foreign policy by other means, and that attack is often the best defense. A successful U.S. pre-emptive strike against Iraq will, in effect, reinstate both Clausewitz propositions.
Under this doctrine, Pakistan could perceive a clear and present danger from India and attack first, or vice versa. Israel and the Arab states could use the same logic to launch quick first strikes; for that matter, Iraq could launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States, on the legitimate pretext that it perceives a clear and imminent threat from the latter. In fact, an immediate imitator is already manifest: Last week, Vladimir Putin invoked the Bush doctrine to threaten pre-emptive action against neighboring Georgia, which he accused of harboring Chechen rebels.
The 20th century has seen two world wars, plus countless regional wars. After 1945, the idea was to outlaw war as an instrument of policy and rely instead on collective security mechanisms. In addition, the mutually assured destruction theory of deterrence created a remarkable stability between the superpowers until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both parties renounced first strikes.
Legitimating unilateral pre-emptive war would set back the clock to pre-Second World War parameters and negate most of the advances in global governance achieved since then.
Let's consider a second, slightly milder interpretation: that unilateral pre-emptive strikes are fine as long as they are initiated by a strong power against a much weaker opponent. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union possessed frightening weapons of mass destruction. Russia still does and so does China. Should all these states be attacked pre-emptively? Pragmatic geopoliticians will answer no; let us just attack the weaker states. The stronger states can be allowed to get away with murder. The precedent then would be: It is fine to attack first as long as you are sure of winning. This notion is almost as dangerous as the first.
The third interpretation is that if the cause is good, pre-emptive strikes are justified. The "cause" may be restoring democracy, effecting "regime change" or whatever the attacking power believes in. We find ourselves on a very slippery slope - because the justice of the cause is a matter of subjective interpretation. It could be used by Islamic fundamentalists against the infidels, or by world revolutionaries against capitalism. Besides, citing "the restoration of democracy" in the case of Iraq carries the obvious flaw that the United States and others have never hesitated to back dictatorial regimes (including Saddam Hussein's in Iraq in the 1980s), if it is in their interest to do so.
The fourth interpretation is that pre-emptive strikes constitute a privilege that belongs only to the United States by virtue of its position as sole superpower and, therefore, world sheriff. This interpretation would be plausible if the United States were to accept intervening, like the Lone Ranger, to right all wrongs -- if all the injustices in the world could be corrected by American power.
As distasteful as that might be to third parties, this form of unilateralism would be at least internally consistent and might be accepted, if clear rules of engagement were made explicit.
But the current situation, where proposed interventions are not only unilateral but entirely conditioned and motivated by U.S. national interest (rather than global interests), is obviously not acceptable to either allies or foes of the United States. Rather than contributing to world order, American unilateralism will severely destabilize it.
In the end, it is the combination of "unilateral" and "pre-emptive" that is the dangerous mix. Unilateral defensive war is still quite acceptable, as when the United States responded to the unprovoked 9/11 attack originating in Afghanistan. Multilateral pre-emptive military interventions sanctioned by a legitimate world body to right obvious wrongs, stop genocides or for general humanitarian purposes are not only acceptable but desirable - much like police raids intended to nip in the bud terrorist or criminal activities. Prevention is a virtue. But unilateral pre-emptive war in the name of national interest opens up a Pandora's box much more dangerous that the problem it addresses.
The Westphalian World Order, born of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, entrusted the governance of this planet to the juxtaposition of a number of national sovereignties. This system is rapidly becoming obsolete and must be reformed in favor of some forms of supranationality - that is, the subordination of national sovereignty to higher global values.
The reform must involve new and improved versions of multilateralism, including better intergovernmental institutions. Until then, the use of force between nations must be sanctioned by a legitimate world body and cannot be left to the arbitrary self-interest of the current world heavyweight champion acting solely in its own self-interest.
To do otherwise is to let slip the dogs of war. And this could make the previous century, with its two world wars, look like a pacifist's dream.
Kimon Valaskakis was Canada's ambassador to the OECD from 1995 to 1999. He is currently the president of the Club of Athens, an international initiative involving world leaders interested in better global governance.