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  This Really is a New Century  

October, 2002
by Robert McGarvey

 
When terrorists slammed commercial jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, many people made claim that the world had changed. I'm not sure many realized at the time how significant or far reaching those changes could be. For almost the entirety of human existence the rule of force has dominated the relations between states and peoples.
 
Empires, the logical consequence of this power doctrine, have risen and fallen over the centuries as power shifted with the ebb and flow of historical fortune and chance. The legal tradition in international relations is much more recent and tenuous. The legal equality of states enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations after World War II was never a reflection of reality. It was an attempt to establish a principle that would, through time and precedent, change the historical cycle of violence, intimidation and war in global society.
 
American goals, in international relations throughout the 20th Century, were largely dedicated to eliminating the scourge of empire, a chronic source of violent instability according to successive American Presidents. Such idealistic principles were prominently displayed in President Wilson's 14 Points at the close of World War I, President Roosevelt's principles on the founding GATT and the role of United Nations during World War II, and more recently, President Reagan's crusade for freedom against Soviet Communism.
 
Throughout these difficult periods in history, American statesmen have consistently championed an international system based on the freedom of the individual rooted in the sovereignty of the state. Such a position was in many respects a civilizing mission that Americans carried forward, based upon their own experience as the first nation to free itself from colonial rule. More importantly, it was also a reflection of the deeply held belief that equality was the only principle that would sustain a just world order, breaking the tyranny of 'might is right.'
 
These American principles constituted a global ideological foundation, which underpinned 50 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the 20th century. Meanwhile, being the guardian of equality and law helped capture significant moral high ground for the United States and the Free World.
 
President Bush, in his recent addresses to the General Assembly of the United Nations and to the American electorate, challenges what he calls an 'unacceptable international status quo' that allows Iraq and other rogue states to pursue weapons of mass destruction. Vowing to put American security interests first, the President left no doubt that he would not be hampered by international conventions in pursuit of his goals: specifically, the disarming of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
 
Unfortunately, an international consensus is proving difficult to construct. Iraq, while certainly a rogue force, does not, at present, seem to many to present a credible and imminent threat to the United States. Furthermore, as a sovereign state, Iraq is protected from unwarranted assault by the very principles that the United States worked so hard to erect in the first place. Despite considerable pressure to support unilateral pre-emptive action by the United States, many voices have been raised in defence of international law and convention in dealing with this dangerous situation.
 
Enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolutions, within an international consensus, would provide any attack on Iraq with the legitimacy of law. In the absence of such legal sanction, the minute the United States launched a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq the moral high ground in international relations would be lost forever.
 
Such a pre-emptive strike against Iraq would be devastating to the United Nations and international rule of law. With that loss, the very foundations of the international system would be shaken to the core. For who then will have the will or the moral authority to stand for principal, to temper the naked rule of force in global politics?
 
Ironically, the United States in defense of its own security will have gone full circle, from the world's first and most passionate anti-colonial champion to Roman-like imperial policeman. A new international status quo will implicitly be defined by these actions. In the future, global security will increasingly rely upon the application of force, and as history tells clearly demonstrates, that's no security at all.
 
Robert McGarvey is Founder & Director of Beckett Advisors, Inc., a strategic marketing firm based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at robertm@beckettadvisors.com

 

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