Accessibility links

US Foreign Policy Takes New Course Following 2001 Attacks - 2003-02-25

September 11 may have marked the end of the age of geopolitics, defined by containment and balance of power. It also signaled the advent of a new age, the era of global politics, primarily focused on global threats. It has become a demarcation point for U.S. foreign policy, now rooted in the two new phenomena of the times: catastrophic terrorism and American uni-polar power.

Although America's pre-eminence began with the collapse of the Soviet Union over a decade ago, until September 11 the United States did not see itself as a global policeman. "The 2001 terrorist attacks made it clear the United States had enemies capable and willing to inflict substantial damage to its interests at home and abroad," said Gary Schmitt Executive Director of the Project for a New American Century. "Before September 11 you saw a country that had the opportunity for what some people call Pax Americana, but I think in the absence of a real threat, the country was not taking up that opportunity," he said. 'Since September 11 there is this threat of certain regimes, matched up with certain kind of weapons, matched up with terrorist groups that have transformed the country's perception of its international role."

Analysts say these new threats to U.S. and global security necessitate a rethinking of the organizing principles of international order. But America's new assertiveness in setting standards, determining threats, and using force many find harmful to the fabric of the international community and political partnerships.

Benjamin Barber an International Law Professor at the University of Maryland, and author of an upcoming book Eagles and Owls - Preventive War in an Age of Interdependence, argues that although blueprints have not been made, nor Yalta-style summits convened, actions are afoot which seem to be altering the order that the United States has built with its partners since the 1940’s.

Professor Barber says new U.S. policies could put the United States outside the international system. "This new preventative doctrine negates the sovereignty of other nations by insisting on the right of the US to interdict other nations in advance of an act of aggression committed against us," he said. "With these policies the United States is doing serious damage to the international legal order. An orderly law-like world in which nations cooperate is a safer place than an anarchic world where everybody made law for themselves."

He says America's new doctrine of preemptive action provides a risky precedent for other nations to follow. "The doctrine announced by the U.S. is in effect based on perception, possibilities, something that might happen or could happen. It announces the right of a nation to take up arms against another, and that is a deeply dangerous precedent. So for example, Pakistan may feel it has the preemptive right against India before India strikes against it in Kashmir. Or China may argue it has the right to strike Taiwan before it strikes it," he said.

Other experts admit the notion of imminent threat is much broader today than before. Weapons can be delivered in seconds, goods and people move quickly and threats are not necessarily tied to territories and states.

With that in mind, the United Nations Security Council on September 12, 2001 adopted a French resolution declaring international terrorism an act of war. It also provides for the use of force against nations that equip, train or offer safe havens and funds to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.

Some believe this new Security Council resolution permits preventative action in defense of a nation.

Gary Schmitt notes states have never abandoned the right of preemption, nor have proponents of multilateralism always acted under the framework of the United Nations. "It is only very recently that anyone has claimed the United Nations was the sole legitimator of international action," he said. "Obviously, some of our European partners disagree now, but they did not disagree several years ago when the United States and NATO acted in Kosovo without a U.N. sanction. The United States if it does take action against Iraq, will do so in concert with other democratic allies."

Andrew Bacevich, Political Science Professor Boston University and author of the recently published book American Empire, cautions that America is paramount, but not omnipotent. As bitter divisions over Iraq indicate, a key policy tool for states confronting a unilateral America is to withhold cooperation. "Many theorists would argue that if you have one great, enormous power that throws its weight around, the result will be to provide an incentive for other powers to gather together to check the hegemon, which we are. We have China as a rising power. We have at least the possibility of Russia making some sort of resurgence. In the realm of power politics there could be a response that we may inadvertently trigger," he said.

Emilio Viano, Professor of Law, Justice and Society at American University in Washington, argues that imposing peace on U.S. terms, as in the Middle East, carries economic and political uncertainties for the region. "One scenario, which is quite realistic in my opinion, is that Iraq will break up," he said. "The Kurds won't be happy once they see the Americans and maybe the Turks taking over the oil fields in northern Iraq that they need to sustain autonomy. The Shiites in the south of Iraq also would like to secede and join Iran. So it will be quite a balancing act to maintain the unity of Iraq and do the nation building that is desperately needed in the country." Professor Viano says the cost of rebuilding Iraq could reach $400 billion.

Another concern is the antagonism stemming from apparent U.S. pro-Israeli policies as well as cultural differences between America and the Arab Middle East. Analysts point out that Osama bin Laden organized his terrorists partly in protest against the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War, although it was relatively small and confined. Possible U.S. military occupation of Iraq could ignite further extreme anti-Americanism in the region and beyond.

To avert such developments, U.S. policies should go beyond an almost exclusive focus on achieving security through force, says James O'Brien of The Albright Group, a global strategy firm. "America has always stood by people who want greater freedom and has a similar opportunity today in the Middle East. The idea that a regime change in a single country will ignite democracy across the region strains credulity," he said. "We need a policy that is rooted in what do we do to foster political reforms. Then you address the security issue within a broader policy."

Recent public opinion surveys found there is an overwhelming support in the Middle East for what are termed "American values" - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to move and to work. These sentiments seemed to be mirrored in reforms already started in the Middle East.

Proponents of current policy say such reforms are now taking place only because America is showing its determination to achieve global security goals backed by force. Others say by siding with reform-minded people in those societies and avoiding military action wherever possible, America and the world will be safer.