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The future of US foreign policy: a reply

I had hoped to provide an occasion for thoughtful debate with my essay “What next? US foreign policy after Bush” (12 February 2007), and am therefore pleased by the insightful responses from Mary Kaldor, Richard Falk, Sankaran Krishna, Mark Kingwell, Mark Luccarelli and David Rieff. What surprised me the most was the assumption on the part of several respondents that I was defending some sort of Realpolitik, when my purpose was in fact to propose an alternative United States strategy of defending liberal internationalism backed up by a great-power concert including, but not run by, the US.

To Richard Falk’s accusation that I suffer from “Westphalian myopia” I plead guilty. Liberal internationalism, as I understand it, is not an alternative to the Westphalian state system but a version of it. It differs from its predecessor in being global, rather than Eurocentric, and in being based on the self-determination of peoples or nations, rather than on dynastic legitimacy or right of imperial conquest.

Falk asserts that I ignore “the role played by non-state actors, financial markets, and transnational social forces and movements.” Similarly Mary Kaldor complains that I ignore “the role of the United Nations or the European Union as new multilateral actors” and that I am “unaware of the globalisation literature…” On the contrary, I know the literature well: I simply think most of it is bunk.

The state and collective security
Academics, from the “functionalists” of the 1950s to the “diasporic” theorists of today, have claimed that the system of territorial states is giving way to some sort of neo-medieval global order in which “social movements,” NGOs, and blocs like the European Union are as important as states. But like the Marxist Revolution, the Christian Millennium, and the Transhumanist Singularity, the neo-medieval Meltdown of the State is always approaching but never here.

If anything, the global state system is becoming more statist, not less, as countries tighten up their security in response to jihadism, and as the fading of the neo-liberal Washington consensus encourages more departures from laissez-faire economic orthodoxy around the world, if not yet in the US (sure, some poor or war-torn states may be weaker than some transnational economic and religious organisations, but that’s been the case for centuries.)

Nor is the alternative to the global state system necessarily attractive to those of us who believe in democracy. Liberal internationalism, based on the norm of popular sovereignty within a territorial state, does not guarantee democratic self-government, but it makes it possible by allowing discrete communities to debate among themselves without external interference.

In a kaleidoscopic world of overlapping allegiances and confused authority, republican self-government would be as impossible as it was in medieval Europe, outside of a few independent city-states. Why, moreover, are the non-state actors of “global civil society” more legitimate than organised political parties within sovereign states? Most NGOs are funded by a small number of wealthy people in north Atlantic nations. Why do they have any more right to meddle in the countries of the global south than did their missionary precursors?

State sovereignty in the service of popular self-determination, then, is a liberal internationalist concept, not a realist one. The concept of a concert of powers, too, has an impeccable liberal internationalist pedigree. Sankaran Krishna is mistaken when he writes that “Lind’s recommendations reflect the thinking of Henry Kissinger” in his first book, A World Restored.

Not only have I never read that book, but I derived my version of the concert-of-power strategy, in my essay and my book The American Way of Strategy, not from central European reactionaries like Metternich or Bismarck but rather from American progressives and new-deal liberals: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Edward House and Franklin Roosevelt. Their concert-of-power strategy was a variant of the collective security strategy in which liberal internationalists, for generations, have put their hopes for preventing large-scale war (though not all smaller conflicts).

The fact that the concert-of-power strategy that I endorse is that of 20th-century American progressives and liberals, not the 19th-century European concert, renders irrelevant Krishna’s observation that “the ‘hundred-years peace’ is a Eurocentric fiction: 1815-1914 was one of the bloodiest centuries ever, if one counts the millions slaughtered in colonial conquests and competition all over Asia and Africa by and among European powers.”

America’s liberal internationalists agreed, as do I. FDR in particular was disgusted by what he saw of the British empire during his visit to Africa. That’s why American liberal internationalists wanted to phase out colonialism by means of great-power mandates (Wilson), and later, after the British and French empires had abused the mandate system, by multi-power trusteeships (FDR). The end result would be a post-colonial constellation in which the outlawing of aggressive war prevented the formation of new colonial empires.

It is sometimes claimed that after 1945 formal imperialism was replaced by informal imperialism. But calling unfair trading practices “neo-colonialism”, or all military interventions by great powers “imperialism”, seems to me to sacrifice accuracy to shock value, like the description of marriage as “legalised prostitution.” Strictly speaking, the neo-conservative plan is one for US global hegemony, not US global empire, and the conceptual distinction between hegemony and empire ought to be preserved.

A realist illusion
If anyone in this debate is “Kissingerian”, it is David Rieff, who asserts that “multipolarity is by definition competitive. The idea that somehow the interests of great powers can be reconciled is no more reasonable today than it was in 1914, or, for that matter, in 1945 when those who created the UN had the preposterous fantasy that the great powers would somehow ensure world peace through a military committee in which Russians and Americans would somehow cooperate.” Rieff’s pessimism, I think, is based on a common misreading of history that attributes the world wars and the cold war to the external dynamics of multipolarity, rather than to the aggressive ambitions of particular regimes.

The fact is that German leaders in 1914, and again in 1939, sought war in order to turn Germany from a medium power into a superpower with a continental imperial base. Britain, France and Russia would have engaged in limited competition with Germany but they would not have launched a general European war. And a different Soviet leadership might have chosen a status-quo strategy of participating in a post-1945 concert with the US, Britain and other powers including nationalist China, instead of ruling and plundering east-central Europe for half a century, massively arming itself in the absence of any genuine threat and sponsoring communist revolutions around the world.

In denying the very possibility of cooperative multipolarity, Rieff agrees with American realists like John Mearsheimer, who wrongly predicted in the 1990s that without the cold war the European democracies would soon be at each other’s throats, and Christopher Layne, whose prediction in the same decade that the world’s great powers would inevitably ally themselves against the US to balance American power was wrong as well. Like other realists, Rieff cites Hobbes and Machiavelli, implicitly denying the possibility of a civilised “Grotian” society of states.

War, justice and America
Mark Luccarelli argues that domestic factors in the US, along with the reluctance of Russia and China, will prevent the US from undertaking a concert-of-power strategy in time to prevent a complete disaster in Iraq. He may be right. And in Mark Kingwell’s impassioned and eloquent critique of recent US foreign policy, I found little to disagree with, other than his endorsement of just-war theory.

The premise of just-war theory is that individual states have the power to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not to go to war, by a process of moral reasoning informed by concepts like jus ad bellum (the justice of choosing a war) and jus in bello (the just prosecution of a war). International law since 1945 has made just-war theory irrelevant, by expressly limiting legitimate wars and legitimate military means. The only legitimate wars under the UN charter are wars of self-defence (including collective self-defence) or wars for other purposes authorised by the UN Security Council. The only methods permissible in war are those detailed by international laws, such as the Geneva conventions. Either a war is legal under international law, or it is illegal; either tactics used in war are legal or they are not. If the law defines murder, manslaughter and justifiable homicide, then there is no point to “just-homicide theory.”

Because there was no new authorisation from the Security Council, the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq was clearly illegal (despite its being retroactively legalised by the Security Council). And US violations of human rights at Abu Ghraib, Guantànamo and elsewhere are clearly illegal under the laws of war. Inasmuch as the mid-20th century US sought to limit the causes of war and codify its legal methods, the Bush administration’s waging of an illegal war and use of illegal methods of torture is a repudiation of America’s own liberal internationalist tradition.

I’ll end with a caution to readers: do not mistake the Bush administration for America. The fact that opposition to the Iraq war led American voters to toss Bush’s party out of both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections of November 2006 should give pause to those who claim that the problem is not the Bush administration or neo-conservative ideology, but this or that malevolent force alleged to be deeply rooted in American culture and history. The US, like all political communities, is imperfect, but it is absurd to argue, as Sankaran Krishna does, that the US “is the true threat to the survival of the planet.” What some of us have always believed turns out to be true: America is not Bush country, after all.

Date: 12.03.2007

Author: Michael Lind (Michael Lind’s advocacy of a concert-of-power solution to the United States predicament in Iraq provoked a range of criticisms on openDemocracy. Here, he replies to his critics.)


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