Resisting an unconditioned pole: global politics in the aftermath of the Iraq war
By Benjamin Arditi

What is at stake in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq? We already know, or suspect it is not simply the overthrow of a corrupt and dangerous dictator, or the freedom of a people. The war is a symptom of something else. What is being played out in the desert battlefields is the reconfiguration of the international order. The U.S. has now a clear picture of the shape this order should have for the first time since the collapse of the certainties that guided strategic reasoning during the 50-odd years of the Cold War. It wants it to be the offspring of a single parent and to reflect the fact that this parent has become the sole remaining superpower.

It is a rather parochial worldview. The new internationalists in charge of foreign and security policy in the U.S. administration deem the American way of life to be both morally good and universally desirable, and are seeking its hegemony - by force, if necessary - just like the Comintern once tried to export the Soviet model of socialism. The basic premises of this worldview are outlined in the policy document titled 'The National Security Strategy of the United States of America', which can be downloaded from the White House web page ( President George W. Bush signed this document on 17 September 2002; it reads like a blueprint for a pax Americana. Some highlights:

  • In agreement with Fukuyama, the Bush team believes that history has come to a halt in the aftermath of the Cold War, as 'The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom-and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise'. The decisive victors are the U.S. and its allies and friends.
  • Security, presented as the defence of a way of life, becomes the overriding concern of nation states. The threat and the named enemies are no longer Communism, or the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union, but terrorism and the states that sponsor, fund, or protect them. 'We make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them'. The qualifier 'knowingly' is vague enough to include mere suspicion of harbouring or aiding terrorists.

  • Pre-emption replaces the old doctrine of containment in the understanding that the best defence is an offence. This is justified by a legal precedent in international law, the existence of an 'imminent threat', but given the nature of the current enemy, the concept must be adapted to go beyond 'the visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack'. In this adaptation, the concept of 'imminent threat' becomes a matter of discretionary interpretation.
  • Despite occasional assurances to the contrary, multilateralism leaves way to unilateralism. 'While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists'. This unilateralism, however, appears under the guise of ad-hoc 'coalitions of the willing', a term used no less than three times in the document. Such coalitions are intended to provide a multilateral veneer to what is in fact a policy where the partners play an accessory role to the U.S.

  • The equality of sovereign states under international law is being substituted by a novel two-tier system of legitimate and rogue states - the allocation into one or the other category being the prerogative of the superpower - and by the affirmation of special privileges for a special state. Indeed, taken at face value, the White House document affirms that the military and political status of the U.S. in the new world order cannot be disputed, ever. It is very explicit on this point. The U.S. occupies the place of the hegemon in a unipolar setting: 'Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States'. Presumably, France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China are included among those barred from 'hopes of surpassing or equalling the power of the United States'. Like the inscription at the entrance of Dante's inferno, lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate!, the Bush administration warns all those who dare to compete militarily with the U.S. to abandon all hope.

  • The special privileges for a very special state are reiterated in another passage concerning the International Criminal Court. 'We will take the actions necessary to ensure that our efforts to meet our global security commitments and protect Americans are not impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept. We will work together with other nations to avoid complications in our military operations and cooperation, through such mechanisms as multilateral and bilateral agreements that will protect U.S. nationals from the ICC'.

    One is tempted to see here a return to a Hobbesian world of sovereign states, with its emphasis on security and on the absence of an instance above them. But this return has an Orwellian twist reminiscent of Animal Farm, for while the old Westphalian sovereignty established a formal equality among states even if in practice inequality ruled, in the new world order one state is more equal than the rest, both formally and in practice. This is also a very un-liberal view of the world where the principle of juridical equality is replaced by special dispensations for one and obedience of the law by the rest. The post-war scenario seems to confirm this. Despite achieving the avowed goal of regime change, what matters is the shape of things to come.

    Whether they know it or not, two mayor losers will be Israel and Saudi Arabia. With the U.S. having its own foothold in the Middle East, the importance of Israel as a strategic ally will necessarily wane, making it more difficult for this country to maintain its extraordinary influence over U.S. foreign policy in the region. Its facility to extract military and economic aid at the levels it has been accustomed will not remain unchanged either. Perhaps this demotion of Israel from best actor to best supporting actor will in turn make it more sensitive to international pressure to reach a settlement with the Palestinian National Authority - notably on the issue of a sovereign Palestinian state.

    The status of Saudi Arabia, or rather, the dominance of the Al-Saud monarchy, will probably follow a similar path. The U.S. has conveniently refused to raise questions about its medieval political structure or its record on gender discrimination and human rights in general, at least in public. In exchange, it gets a guaranteed supply of oil and the right to set up military bases in the country. Iraq, which sits on top of the world's second largest oil deposit, offers both, with the added advantage of U.S. military occupation and a decisive voice in shaping the will and resolve of its future government. Bases, and not only oil, are at stake here. The National Security Council document mentioned earlier states this unambiguously: in the war on terror, 'the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. forces.' Kuwait, another oil superpower, is already within the U.S. sphere of influence and provides ready access for its troops. This does not cancel the strategic weight of Saudi Arabia, the single largest oil producer, but it places the country within a wider league of U.S. allies. Egypt, the other major friend of the U.S. in the Arab world, might not fare much better. After having claimed Iraq and undermined the position of the Al-Saud, what can this poverty-stricken, largely undemocratic country offer to the victorious forces except for the Suez Canal, which the new hegemon could take anyway?

    Strategically, this leaves the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with less room for manoeuvre. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait possess together 55% of the planet's proven crude oil reserves. This will probably provide the U.S. with sufficient leverage in negotiations for setting OPEC production quotas - and therefore, indirectly, for influencing the international price of crude oil. Saudi Arabia led the OPEC decision to keep production at a level aimed at maintaining the price of 25 U$ dollars per barrel. It seems unlikely to remain as high if a post-war Iraq is forced to increases its production above its current ceiling of 3.5 million barrels per day allowed under the oil-for-food programme to pay the international contractors that will rebuild the country and its oil industry. Less revenue for the oil producing countries of OPEC means more disposable income for U.S. and European households, as heating and transportation costs will decrease. Presumably this will also stimulate the economies of the G-7 countries, especially in the U.S., which needs ways to partly compensate the expected government deficit resulting from tax cuts implemented by the Bush administration and aggravated by its current war effort. Yet it also means that Iraq will require more time (or more barrels of crude) to generate the resources to pay for its own reconstruction, and that the income gap between industrial and developing nations - or at least the oil-producing ones - will deepen.

    Russia and France, two countries that had hoped to cash in on their contracts in Iraq, also seem poised to lose. According to The Guardian (2 October 2002), Russia's LUKoil had a pending 20 billion U.S. dollar contract for extracting crude from the West Qurna oil field, which the Iraqis cancelled in December due to the expected U.S. invasion. The country still owes Russia some 7 U$ billion for arms purchased to the now defunct Soviet Union. Similarly, Global Exchange (10 February 2003) reports that TotalFinaElf of France has development rights to roughly 25% of total Iraqi reserves, and other sources claim it has exclusive exploration contracts worth 60-70 billion to develop the Majnoon and Bin Umar oilfields in southern Iraq. Exiled Iraqi leaders have said that all such contracts signed by Saddam Hussein's government will be revised.

    The losses are not only economic. The prospects for a European Union foreign policy have been rolled back with the decision of the UK and Spain - and to a lesser extent Italy - to back a U.S. takeover of Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council. The resulting division among the member countries of the EU has sidelined the efforts of Javier Solana, the EU foreign minister, to push for a single European voice in world forums. Clearly, for the UK, Spain and Italy, the perceived short-term advantages of siding with the U.S. outweighed that goal. The UN has also been weakened as a potential forum for multilateral decisions. The U.S. decided to go to war without a UN mandate in order to avoid the risk of a sure defeat in the Security Council. Admittedly, the U.S. currently provides most of the UN funding, and its military might is needed to back peacekeeping missions, but this should not be used as an alibi for its unilateralism.

    The UN itself has contributed to reinforce this, although grudgingly and under duress. On 1 July 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute became effective, but on 22 July 2002, the Security Council voted in favour of resolution 1422 requesting the ICC to grant immunity to peacekeepers from non-signatory countries for a 12-month period. From a pragmatic standpoint, resolution 1422 circumvented the danger posed by the U.S. threat to veto or to refrain from participating in future peacekeeping operations. From an institutional perspective, it only reconfirmed the UN dependence of the U.S. and sent an alarming signal to the rest of the world concerning the relevance of the ICC, the principle of equality before the law, and the very possibility of enforcing international laws.

    This also affects us, understanding by 'us' all those who are in favour of a more democratic international order, a more just distribution of wealth among nations, and a broader view of security that includes the possibility of speaking out without having to worry about the consequences of offending the sole remaining superpower. The war effort will certainly have an impact on domestic spending on health and education in the U.S., and possibly in Britain too, and will leave political representatives with little inclination to increase foreign aid in the face of stricter spending ceilings. The recipients of aid are not members of their electoral constituencies. One is also unsure whether the war will end in Iraq or will soon spread to Syria too, perhaps even Iran, or to any of the remaining countries that make up what the current U.S. administration calls 'the axis of evil'. This is a very bleak scenario indeed.

    Progressive forces striving to modify the rhythm and the direction of globalisation, and to replace the current unilateral reshaping of the world order with a multilateral approach, must resist this state of affairs. Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire that 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past'. The Bush administration wishes to operate under conditions of its own choosing, but it is up to us to thwart that wish by acting now. To this effect, let us agree on a few basic things.

    'Pre-emption' and its twin concept of 'imminent threat' are neither new nor necessarily bad; many wish that the European powers had invoked them as an option in 1939 instead of the shortsighted and futile policy of appeasement to contain Hitler. However, pre-emption cannot be confused with a blank cheque or accepted without hesitation as the default option. Neither can one allow for 'imminent threat' to be summoned whenever it suits the hegemon in the absence of compelling evidence to support its case. The U.S. is abusing both simply because it thinks it is in a position to either cajole or coerce the world to submission at will.

    The opposition to the war is political in the conventional Schmittian sense of the expression. It establishes a distinction between a certain 'us' and a 'them', and identifies the object of dispute that sets the gap between one and the other. The U.S. government has made it clear that its enemies are terrorism and the so-called rogue states. Those who resist the bellicose stand of the superpower and its effort to impose a pax Americana are sympathetic to the need to fight terror. They also agree that every state should comply with the UN human rights charter and respect civil liberties, but they see enmity - and the object of dispute - in different terms.

    What are those terms, and who are the 'us' that participates in this fray? The political nature of the opposition is not reducible to the espousal of a pacifist stand. All wars are bad, be they international, civil or revolutionary, but some might be unavoidable and even necessary. It is not only a question of stopping a war but of having a say about the type of global order that is now taking shape. The opposition to this war has to do with the realisation that the maxim adopted by the World Social Forum and its European counterpart, 'Another world is possible', can be and has been hijacked by a project antithetical to peace, social justice, and solidarity with those who suffer. We are resisting a rather un-liberal, conservative messianic drive of a nation and its minor allies who are subverting the very possibility of multilateralism in world politics in the name of liberal and democratic values. To say 'not in our name' is to come out publicly against the war in order to resist the unilateral imposition of a world order and the emergence of an unconditioned pole within it. Resistance has no guarantee of success, but those who enter the fray believe that instead of abandoning all hope, to shut up now is to renounce the very possibility that things will be different.

    This difference has nothing to do with nostalgia for the pre-war status quo, which would be shortsighted and misleading, as it suggests that things were fine until the outbreak of hostilities. Times of crises are confusing yet also open up a chance to push for political change. In the face of worldwide protests, which show that talk about political apathy is at least exaggerated, one should accept the challenge of a carpe diem in at least two areas. On the one hand, recipients of international aid do not vote in the U.S. or in the other countries that support its war effort, but those who are participating in the ongoing mobilisations against it certainly do. These protests can and should be transformed into an electoral defeat of representatives who acquiesced to the emerging unipolar order by failing to raise their voice against it. In this respect, one would imagine that a limited yet not minor goal in this campaign of resistance is to prevent the use of the war and its aftermath as a pillar of Bush's re-election. We should turn it into an instrument for securing his and his associates' early exit from the White House. Of course, this is not a risk-free wager, as nothing guarantees that the new occupants will move away from the path opened by their predecessors, yet its demonstration effect over elected officials everywhere is not negligible.

    On the other hand, David Held and other advocates of cosmopolitan democracy have long argued that the expansion of politics into a global field requires strengthening and reforming the UN and regional forums. For example, the veto power granted to only five countries in the Security Council reflects the situation in the aftermath of Second World War, but the military and economic decline experience by some of the so-called 'great powers', particularly France and the UK, seems to disqualify them as members of that league. A unified Germany and an economic heavyweight like Japan are claiming permanent seats for themselves, and so are emerging powers like India, Brazil and South Africa. Yet, it is not simply a question of the number of permanent seats. The re-foundation of this organisation focuses primarily on the role of the Security Council and of the UN as a multilateral stage where the international order has to be played out and the pretensions of the hegemon can be challenged.

    By Benjamin Arditi