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Is the Iraq War a Turning Point in History? - 2003-12-17

The US decision to attack Iraq without the United Nations approval and despite the opposition of many of its Western European allies has had a widely publicized impact on the transatlantic relationship.

Ronald Steel, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, says it also has been a major turning point in American foreign policy: “We’ve entered a new historical period. I think the historical period of the Cold War lasted from 1947, just after World War II, until 1991 with the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. And for the next ten years, 1991 to 2001, the United States, I think, was floundering around for some kind of a role to describe its interest in this period.”

When the Cold War ended, the United States became the world’s leading military and economic power and began to act as the organizer of a global system, says professor Steel. Its foreign policy has been increasingly based on self-reliance and global military dominance. In these circumstances, says Professor Steel, long-term alliances are not valued: “You pick up allies where you find them for specific tasks. And therefore, American security has been redefined. I think that in the future we are going to see a greater concern with bi-lateral relations, for example, with China. Other states or other groups of states will have geo-political interests that the United States will have to deal with.”

Professor Steel says the US friendship with Europe lasted as long as it did because of a stand-off with another superpower. He says it is not clear how long the current unilateralist strategy will last.

Not long, says David Calleo, director of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University, because the United States needs allies. During the past decade, it has accumulated a significant external debt, which is not likely to diminish as long as there are huge domestic budget deficits.

“We need now as before massive foreign credit – more than ever," says Professor Calleo. "And ominously, today that credit comes less and less in the form of investment in our own real economy, but increasingly from selling short-term treasury instruments to Chinese and Japanese central banks." He adds: "We are in danger of becoming yet another illustration in history’s great catalogs of cases where excessive power defeats itself.”

Observers note the end of the Cold War triggered changes worldwide. But Kendall Myers, a senior analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U-S Department of State, says some transitions began during the Cold War: “It was in a sense a great smoke screen that some countries used better than others to transform themselves, perhaps most notably China, but also India and Brazil are emerging as serious players on the world stage.”

Kendall Myers says the recent World Trade Organization summit in Cancun, Mexico, proved that these countries together can have a lot of leverage on global politics. Furthermore, he says, after more than a decade of painful transition, Russia is beginning to recover its global influence: “And it would be someone with a very short historical memory who would write off Russia because of its own internal problems. It will not be long before Russia is back on the stage again.” Mr. Myers says the Iraq War may have speeded up some of these changes, but the trends began much earlier.

Lanxin Xiang, a visiting scholar at the Library of Congress, disagrees. In his opinion, the war has had a profound effect, for example on China’s foreign policy: “My own feeling is that particularly since the Iraq war, China is beginning to think globally.”

Professor Xiang says until recently, China’s foreign policy was isolationist, and its strategic interest did not extend beyond its nearest neighbors. The United States tended to regard China as part of the Asia-Pacific region. In professor Xiang’s opinion, since the Iraq War, China has discovered that membership in regional and multi-national organizations is a useful tool for reducing US pressure. So Bejing, began to build a relationship with Moscow as well as the United States and is also looking into a possible partnership with Europe.

“China is not a superpower, but certainly more than a great power" says Professor Xiang." "The famous Soviet-American-Chinese triangle gave the Chinese the kind of illusion that they are actually far more powerful than they are. But with the Iraq War, China began to re-discover the Euro-Asian continent as a potential framework for China’s strategic thinking.” Professor Xiang says in terms of foreign policy, China has also learned not to take sides openly and make either close friends or strong enemies, but rather remain a little vague on its positions.

Arthur Waldon, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks U-S concentration on Iraq has given China and some other countries leeway to attempt to push their own agendas: “I think some Chinese – at least certain factions, I noticed it’s almost all generals – have seen this as a moment of American weakness in which it is possible, for instance, as is happening now, to attempt to pressurize the administration into make concessions on Taiwan.” Professor Waldron adds: “I don’t think it’s going to work, but this is a very standard operating procedure.”

He also notes that North Korea has become increasingly provocative toward Japan. And in his words, the United States has done too little to eliminate the North Korean threat. He says if Japan loses its faith in the U-S commitment to protect it, the country may take care of its own security. By choice, Japan is a purely defensive military power at present. But Professor Waldron says Asia’s foremost economic power is capable of becoming a leading military power within two or three years.

“And the crux here is the Korean issue,” says professor Waldron. “The No Dong missiles that North Korea has now can easily hit Japan. Japan has 53 nuclear power plants that would make nice targets. Obviously something has to be done and what has to be done is that the North Korean threat has to be eliminated. And if it’s not eliminated, then I think we can expect Japan to re-arm.”

Professor Waldron says the Iraq War is not a major historical turning point, but it has had some profound geopolitical implications, notably in the Muslim world.

“I think it is very important to recognize that even though you can’t pin the Islamic label on any great power, yet there is still a tremendous amount of ferment going on in the Islamic world and, I think, an increasing sense that, sort of, ‘we must all hang together or we are going to hang separately’(we must unite or perish),” says Professor Waldron.

American analysts may not agree on whether the Iraq War is a historical and geopolitical turning point, but they say the US action has had an effect on global developments. In the words of analyst Kendall Myers “In spite of our ‘unipolar’ ambitions, the United States faces the reality of a much more plural world, much more squirming complex world, than we have known in the past.”