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A New Order, New Powers

The war in Iraq as a turning point in history

12.04.2003 · Werner Weidenfeld


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Future historians will characterize the time period between the attack on the World Trade Center to the war against Iraq as the beginning of a new era in the history of the world. They will see the end of the East - West conflict as an incubation period for a turning point in history, the full consequences of which were not reducible to one concept by its contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, the world political response is erratic and confused, as is the intellectual commentary on such responses. The war has manifestly exposed this lack of orientation. Whereas it was once fashionable to speak of a paradigm change, one now soberly acknowledges paradigm atrophy.

The demands of our era are too high; too much must be resolved in too many places and too many previously legitimate assumptions appear to have become irrelevant. Almost everything which seemed to lend world politics the image of a reasonably reliable order is no longer valid.

The war presents seven consequences for the future of international politics:

1. In the beginning there was terror. This is not to say that everything is a consequence of terrorism, but the attacks on September 11 released forces, triggered traumas and made us look into the abyss of serious dangers previously left in the distance, where they were more or less ignored. The end of the Cold War, the dissipation of communist ideology and its goals of world domination - they unleashed smoldering conflicts in the background. Phenomena like religious fundamentalism, the explosion of ethnic tensions, and heated nationalism had been contained within the vise grips of bipolarity. Then they were set free. The new aggressiveness seen in many parts of the world surprised the world public - from the Balkans to the Caucasus, Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq to Indonesia and Malaysia.

2. Terrorism has undermined the premises of our previous security. The basic principle has always been that of deterrence. An enemy state was to be deterred from attacking by the threat of a counter-attack resulting in destruction or at least defeat. Every actor's move was based on the rationally calculated risk of a counter-attack. These considerations ensured peace in the Cold War world for decades. However, the global professional network of terrorism does not act according to this principle. Global terrorism's calculations are not based upon this traditional sense of risk, as divine promises are made.
Terrorism is also no longer the classic foreign enemy. It lies both within and beyond the borders of an attacked country. Terrorist networks boast a high level of professional training and are well equipped with high-tech capabilities, which are linked often to a transcendence-oriented conviction to bring a new cultural horizon to designated victims. Terrorism has nested itself in many countries, effectively rescinding the traditional distinction between domestic and foreign security. Western societies, particularly America, have therefore replaced deterrence with the active search for protection. In recent years alone, some 90,000 terrorists worldwide have been trained. The nightmare of September 11th was, against the backdrop of this information, just the beginning of the beginning. Western civilization is looking into the abyss of threats to its existence.

3. Terrorism has struck the USA at the heart of its existence. Rendered vulnerable for the first time on its own territory, practically defenseless against unpredictable attacks-the American self-conception must take up the war against terrorism because it considers the survival of the nation to be threatened. This is why the war against Iraq is not to be seen as a singular event. It is one stone in a large mosaic of security and stability. Many more stones need to be put in place to complete the mosaic: after Afghanistan came Iraq. Afterwards, other areas will follow. North Korea, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan-wherever the roots of threats are to be found, America will seek to protect its national existence. Should organizations such as the UN or NATO wish to be of help, Washington will welcome them; should the solidarity of international organizations not bear support for the USA, Washington will manage to go it alone. The same goes for international law: when useful, it will be called upon-when not, one can go without appealing to its legitimacy. The vital interest of securing America's existence

4. Europe and America's respective basic perceptions and images of risks and threats are drifting further apart. This continental drift could lead at some point to a rupture in transatlantic culture. To be sure, the common roots of an enlightened society, principles of freedom and reason have not simply withered. A close transatlantic economic relationship and social interconnection continues also to be important. But all of this is strained more and more by dissent over the use of military force, the questions of peace and war, life and death. America guaranteed its European allies the illusion of a pseudo-pacifist sanctuary, which soothed the European soul wounded by two world wars. When two societies respond so differently to key challenges to their basic security-as is the case with Europe and America-then their partnership erodes from within. It is only a question of time before their relationship collapses. The end of the old Atlantic community is at hand.

5. As for its perception of the rest of the world, the world's only remaining superpower is prepared to fully realize its hegemonic status. A natural reflex to this has been the attempt to build coalitions temporarily that can relativize and curb American hegemony. Only this could explain the current curious alliance of France, Germany, Russia and China. Within this alliance, each partner has its own specific interests:

  • France sees a chance here to bring itself back into the circle of world powers. It is realistic enough to recognize that its strength alone is not enough. France needs partners-even if that means working with an estranged Germany, who can only be considered a junior partner in world political affairs at best.

  • Germany senses the need to avert the danger of a German Sonderweg. For historical reasons, Germany needs the anchor of friendly relations more so than other nations. After having estranged itself from old partners, in particular the USA, Germany needs to forge new alliances. Working together with France, Russia and China, Germany can combine the current moods and attitudes of multilateralism, pacifism and anti-Americanism to its advantage at the voting booth.

  • Russia is trapped in ambivalent behavior. On the one hand wounded by the loss of its world-power status with the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia seeks to benefit from a close relationship with the USA. On the other hand, too close a relationship to Washington threatens to destroy what remains of Russia's weight in world political affairs. Russia's claims of solidarity with America were a welcome diversion of domestic attention to Chechnya. However, when core elements of national pride and world political interests are at stake, Moscow knows how to define and claim its own position.

  • China is the only power that in the mid-term could meet America eye-to-eye. However, it needs a prudent policy which keeps its neighbors from becoming ticking time bombs through US actions. The aggravation of the Indian-Pakistan conflict is one such example. This applies as well to a policy towards North Korea, which could force Japan to become a nuclear power.

Considered together, all four partners together share the interest of deflating the world's only superpower's magnetism, albeit for different reasons. The USA's hegemony is to be tamed through the alliance of a counter power.

6. America responds to this change in the constellation with a cooperation strategy á la carte. It seeks out specific countries, attracting them with the alluring promises of business and prestige-even at the risk of damaging international organizations that were of use yesterday. This is the case with NATO, the European Union and the United Nations. With the EU, the classic strategy of "divide and conquer" has been employed, the symbolic highlight thereof being the letter of solidarity with the USA signed by eight European states. This piece of paper became a document of the division of Europe. America will honor this document at best with wistful nostalgia, as its basic interests lie elsewhere: the main sources of energy supplies and the markets of the future lie beyond Europe. The most relevant and potentially dangerous nations with respect to questions of security are in Asia and the Middle East. The political arm of Islamic fundamentalism is based on the Arabian Peninsula. The threat of nuclear arms is an issue in the Indian-Pakistan conflict, in Iran, in the Middle East generally, in North Korea and in the possible reactions of its neighbors. The times in which America needed to protect its primary interests in Europe are gone.

7. America's behavior and the war against Iraq have deeply divided Europe. It would be naïve to assume that the historical successes of integration politics will continue. The model of European unity can also fail.
The war against Iraq has given rise to basic existential questions, to which European states have reacted with recourse to their diverse national dispositions. Europe has no common perception of war and peace. Too different are their historical traumas to permit such a shared basis. Europeans consistently pursue individual national courses alongside their respective relationships to the USA. This explains why Eastern and Central European states are giving in to the magnetism of America's market and power. This also explains why the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spain's José María Aznar compensate for their limited influence in continental Europe by positioning themselves at the shoulders of the USA and its world political and economic prowess.

In the long-term, and most importantly, trust amongst Europeans is being torn asunder. The letter signed by eight countries was an act prepared and carried out in the style of old-time secret diplomacy. Who should trust whom? Should Schroeder still trust Aznar, should Chirac continue to have faith in Blair, should France and Germany stand together against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in European politics? The virus of distrust threatens to corrode Europe internally.


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