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The fate of the UN will determine the future following the War on Iraq

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 1 April 2003


As I write, the invasion of Iraq by the forces of the US, Britain and Australia has just begun. War is always tragic, no matter what justifications are made. In the end, two of the greatest military powers on earth, plus Australia, are invading a country the population of which is mostly women and children. For the next few weeks, months and perhaps years, their lives will be dominated by terror, pain and death. This is undeniably a bad thing, a simple tragedy for the people of Iraq and a setback for all humanity.

We all know that something has gone wrong on our planet. Horrific violence has become normal, ordinary people live with a sustained dread, and lies and hypocrisy run rampant. It is a hard time to be clear-eyed. But we must look beyond the veniality and tragedy, identify the underlying reasons why these things are happening and make some hard choices about our future. The people of Iraq are suffering directly because of the failure of our practices of international relations to deal with underlying changes in technology and the development of new weapons. They are also suffering because there are shifts occurring in global power relations that will have a radical impact on the progress of civilisation on Earth.

The most profound fear is that we will find ourselves back in an anarchic world with no rules, but with new, incredibly potent weapons. For most of history, and even modern history, the notion of a global order overseen by an authoritative body like the UN was a dream. After the horrors of the long war from 1914 to 1945, when industrial civilisation itself tottered and almost fell, we seemed to have eventually achieved something like a set of rules and appropriate structures. In the event, the core institution of this hoped-for global order, the UN, was always held hostage to the rivalry between the nuclear superpowers. But it was there.

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The fate of the UN is central to the fate of humanity. The world is just too dangerous a place for there to be no rule other than force or the threat of force. There are too many nuclear bombs in too many different hands. There are too many new kinds of chemical and biological weapons, and they are becoming so readily available, thanks to the march of technology, that soon almost anyone with access to basic resources will be able to possess them. We are an increasingly global economy, with a global infrastructure. Disruption of this infrastructure of communications and transport would severely undermine economic wellbeing - and we are increasingly linked in terms of health as jet planes transmit new diseases around the world in a matter of hours. These diseases, like AIDS or West Nile or the new SARS, which has people worried right now, can kill and maim many human beings. Others, carried in suitcases or in the bilge water of ships, attack indigenous species, including economically important ones.

Increased global interconnection and cooperation are the only answers if we are to maintain some kind of functional world system. How this global order is to work is exactly what the war in Iraq is really all about.

There is a range of options. The construction of a global order that consciously interconnects everyone in a sustained discourse on matters of common interest is one way. The necessary networks of people and experience for this to happen are in formation, and the required communications and transport infrastructure is available. For the first time in history, the potential for a genuine global society that functions for the common good is realisable.

On the other hand we have the prospect of a world order unilaterally imposed by the only hyperpower, which happens to be the US. There is now an argument emanating from core members of the Bush administration that the US is the only appropriate model for social development, and that the US has the right to impose that model on the rest of the world. What this actually means is not that other nations could be like the US so much as no other nation must challenge US supremacy. This supremacy is to be defended by everything up to and including nuclear weapons. There are some already identified "rogue" states who do supposedly threaten US supremacy, and who will presumably be dealt with after Iraq.
The US can impose its will because it is militarily so powerful. Right now, if the US went to war with the rest of the world it would probably win. It has leveraged its technological capacity to build the world's most effective military force, able to deliver vast firepower to anywhere on earth with remarkable precision.

But as things stand, this military hyperpower status has a use-by date. The US is no longer the largest economy, that position being taken over by the European Union. China, the sleeping giant of history that has apparently wakened, is in the ascendancy as well and explicitly looking to translate rapid economic growth into technological and military power. The US may not be able to maintain its technological advantage - and technology is increasingly the key to military power - because its underlying economic position is increasingly fragile.

The harsh realities of geopolitics differ greatly from the idealistic rhetoric of statesmanship. Geopolitics is about power, while the rhetoric is concerned with ideas of freedom, peace and justice. Nation states are primarily concerned with things like security, commerce, access to resources and new technology, not freedom, justice or peace. These are nice ideas but will not guarantee national survival. However, in the 19th century national leaders found that they needed the rhetoric of such great concepts to mobilise populations to work hard, endure suffering and fight for national survival or advantage.

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All national leaders and their advisers know this. Indeed, these harsh realities are taught in university courses on international relations and international political economy. But leaders must use the language of grand abstraction, with ideas like peace and justice and freedom, to justify the use of violence. They know that largely cowed or opportunistic academics will not openly criticise, and they know that the sensation-centric mass media will not ask too many questions. And so in the end, innocents, like the people of Iraq, will suffer.

In the final analysis the men, women and children of Iraq are sacrificial victims, ordained in this role by hard-headed men in Washington, London, Madrid and Canberra mulling over maps. Their fault is to be ruled over by a regime that does not agree with the new order demanded by the global hyperpower. But their sacrifice may well be in vain. Their experience of fear, injury and death may be just the prelude to much more suffering around the world as other "rogue" states are brought into line.

Or it may be, along with the casualties of the coalition forces, the example that forces a rethink of the whole trajectory of US policy and global development. Americans themselves are very uncomfortable about the whole thing because it weakens the very social and political basis of their revered republic. The price of supposed safety from terrorism is evidently the very freedoms that Americans claim make their nation so great. Americans will hopefully rethink their support for the Bush doctrine, and join the growing international opinion that it is just too risky. They can then choose a path that optimises the capacity of the hyperpower to initiate the establishment of a genuinely representative, democratic and stable new world order.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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