The problem

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THE century gone by belonged to America. It was after all the key player in the second world war and brokered the two most audacious experiments in global cooperation – the short-lived League of Nations and subsequently, the more durable United Nations. It also oversaw the most ambitious reconstruction effort in history, the Marshall Plan, to help continental Europe recover from the ravages of World War II.

It is not as if its dominance went unchallenged. The simultaneous rise of the Soviet Union, the consolidation of a Communist bloc, the decolonisation of much of the Third World and the emergence of the non-aligned nations, all implied that global relations and the rules of engagement had to accommodate many players and work through multiple institutional actors. The exercise of power had to be modulated by involving others.

Is all this now a matter of the past? Ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent meltdown of the Soviet Union accompanied by the discrediting of Communism as an ideology, analysts have been predicting another American century, if not an end to history. The undoubted military superiority of the United States alongside its increased willingness to exercise force and induce regime change, despite opposition from many states as also civil society, expressed most starkly in Gulf War II and the ‘occupation’ of Iraq, seems to have convinced many that we are now in the throes of a new world order, one that will be primarily defined by the US.

There are, of course, other indicators. Power, after all, is a relative concept. On the surface it does appear that there is today no one to challenge the United States. The European states, despite forging a Union, have still to come to terms with their loss of vitality – ageing populations, diminished economic and technological edge, a burdensome social welfare system and, above all, reduced military capability. In addition, Europe faces serious internal schisms which come in the way of it acting as a counter-weight.

Russia, though vastly more focused under Putin, has still to transcend the baggage of its past. Japan remains caught up in a long recession and China too, despite impressive growth, remains trapped in an archaic political structure. As for the other potential heavyweights – South Africa, Brazil and India – they have a long way to go before they can be taken as serious contenders on the world stage.

There is, of course, the increasingly factored in challenge of terrorism, now assuming an alarming dimension. Despite the world coming together in a ‘global coalition against terror’ in the aftermath of 9/11, the dangers it represents not just to states and peoples but to norms and values that were slowly acquiring the status of common sense, is far from over. If coming to terms with US preponderance or hegemony represents one challenge to the way global order has been constructed, the fear of terrorism represents another.

History inevitably retains an ability to surprise. It is likely that many of the apprehensions currently being expressed about US hegemony, unilateralism and neo-colonialism – the construction of a new Empire – may prove to be unfounded. Not just because forces challenging the present configuration of power relations may be more robust than presumed, or that the US may once again swing away from its proclivity for interventionism and retreat into isolationism, but also because global diversity is too complex to be strait-jacketed in any narrow frame.

The ongoing imbroglio in Iraq wherein the Anglo-American coalition, despite an impressive and speedy victory against the Saddam regime, has got bogged down and is finding it difficult to both control resistance and rebuild the shattered society, does indicate that while unilateral military intervention can succeed, constructing durable peace demands both a multilateral involvement and legitimacy, elements currently missing. Even more troubling are the recent bomb attacks on the United Nations resulting in the tragic death of its interlocutor, proving once again that quick-fix solutions to vexed historical problems are foredoomed to failure.

Nevertheless, what the events of the last decade and a half demonstrate, most starkly in Iraq, is that we are now living in a changed world, one in which the earlier institutions, laws, procedures, even frameworks of understanding need serious revision. Without for a moment underplaying the implications of asymmetry in power relations, particularly military power, the intermeshing of different societies through capital and labour flows has created interdependencies that no country, no matter how powerful, can afford to ignore.

Much, for instance, is made of the supercilious disregard of the notion of sovereignty and how various countries have experienced intervention, including armed intervention, even when the aggressor party or parties are not directly threatened. NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo was justified, not because the participating countries faced any immediate threat, but to avert a potential genocide, on humanitarian grounds. Regime change in Afghanistan was effected not only because the Taliban regime hosted bin Laden and al Qaeda, ostensibly responsible for 9/11, but equally because the regime represented an affront to the ‘civilized world’. The case for the overthrow of the Saddam regime in Iraq too was made on multiple, often specious, grounds.

Nevertheless, to hold onto earlier notions of state sovereignty crafted in the aftermath of World War II, appears untenable. Not only because economics and ecology force each one of us to bear the consequences of actions by others, but equally because how regimes treat their citizens is now a matter of global concern. The new face of terrorism has made it incumbent on the global community of states to be willing to accept limitations if not forego sovereign rights to subserve larger interests.

This issue of Seminar engages with the troubling questions generated by a transforming world order, one in which the possibilities of shared benefit are being undercut by an escalation of conflict, both within and across state borders. It is possible that a desire for elusive peace might impel many into accepting the framework of a new order, even if hegemonistic, a new Empire. That, however, may be short-sighted.