Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the balance of power swayed in favour of the United States. While the ruling elite of the United States seem to have benefited from this change in fortune, the rest of the world has had mixed consequences since the end of the Cold War. Political commentators agree that the demise of the Soviet Union heralded a new world order which held promise and threat to global harmony and prosperity. The rest of the essay will foray into the deeper implications of this new world order for allies and enemy states alike.
To begin with, let us consider the very first act of military intervention that the United States undertook as the sole superpower – the Gulf War of 1991. While the pentagon could muster a justification for sending troops over to the Persian Gulf, the war’s aftermath proved to be a public relations disaster and diminished the stature of the United States in global diplomacy.
This also provides for an interesting case study on the motives, ethics and modus operandi of government agencies and media organizations within the United States. Critics have pointed out how commercial interests of American Corporations have hijacked a supposedly democratic mission. In other words, it is an open secret that the middle-east region is of strategic importance. Any country with aspirations to dominate the world will have to have “control” over the region’s resources (read oil) and governments. The United States, the only superpower at the time, was not above this ambition.
Noted American intellectual Noam Chomsky points to glaring misinformation released by the White House in his book “What Uncle Sam Really Wants”. In Chomsky’s own words,
“The US wasn’t upholding any high principle in the Gulf, nor was any other state. The reason for the unprecedented response to Saddam Hussein wasn’t his brutal aggression — it was because he stepped on the wrong toes. Saddam Hussein is a murderous gangster — exactly as he was before the Gulf War, when he was our friend and favoured trading partner. His invasion of Kuwait was certainly an atrocity, but well within the range of many similar crimes conducted by the US and its allies, and nowhere near as terrible as some.” (Chomsky, 1993, p.48)
Following this inauspicious start as the centre of a uni-polar world, the reputation of the United States steadily declined ever since. The sentiments of people outside of the United States in this debate are understandable. For example, there are widespread concerns regarding American hegemony in general and its foreign policies in particular. The adoption of a philosophy of unilateral action made the concerns all the more real. American policies tended to focus heavily on its security. The rationale was that if the only superpower in the world were to be secure, world security as such will advance. This sounds reasonable at a theoretical level. But the actual results tell a different story (Allen, 2003, p.25).
This unilateral decision making framework almost all American governments since the end of the Cold War has made a mockery of the United Nations and its attempts to bring world peace. Let us consider the legality of the recent intervention in Iraq on the premises of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The meaning of Article 51 of the UN Charter is of relevance in determining the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. Most legal professionals and civil law experts agree that the words “armed attack” mentioned in Article 51 of the 1945 edition must be read literally. In other words, there must have been material damages suffered by the affected nation before there can be a legitimate military response against the instigator. But there is a problem with such an interpretation. The weaponry and military systems of now are far more advanced than the ones used in 1945. Similarly, international consensus, as provided by the United Nations, was absent during the Second World War. With the acquisition of nuclear technology, a country can annihilate its target with the push of a button. All it takes is a few seconds and there is virtually no time to defend or respond. The judiciary is now gaining an understanding of this new reality and hence has come to accept “pre-emptive or anticipatory military action” as a lawful one. Without such proactive actions international peace and security will be jeopardized. So, if the U.N. Charter were to be read literally, the Iraq war is illegitimate. But, when it is placed in the context of advances in military technology and interpreted more broadly, the Iraq war may be declared a lawful one. Yet, what is more important is the fact that most other nations view American interventions with suspicion. So, the UN finds itself subservient and impotent against the decisions made in Washington in the post Cold War world. (Allen, 2003, p.25)
The international consensus is that while the United States does not engage in blatant imperialistic projects of a by-gone age, it still bullies, threatens and controls its interests worldwide. Viewed in this light, the post Cold War American foreign policy framework is one of economic imperialism, which is a sophisticated form of militaristic imperialism of yester-centuries. It was not simply a matter of plundering wealth, but of preserving long-standing systemic conditions for retaining power and privilege within the neo-imperialist society. Though masked in the rhetoric of aversion to old-fashioned imperialism and its hopes for world peace, the centrepiece of its strategy remains economic expansionism. And, to execute that strategy the imperialist government will do all it can in “pushing and holding open doors in all parts of the world with all the engines of government ranging from polite coercion to the use of arms”. With such a tarnished recent history, the United States has lost its credibility across the rest of the world (Anderson, 2005, p.21).
Richard Jackson, in his scholarly work “Writing, The War on Terror” points out how the mainstream American media colludes with the government in carrying out favourable propaganda campaigns and indoctrination. In particular, the author analyses “the role of language and discourse in the construction of the “war on terrorism”‘. According to the author, language, in this context is used to “normalize the practice of war” on terrorism (Jackson, 2005, p.69). The book is also an exposition on how the political elite of the United States use language as a medium of public deception. The power wielded by the political elites of the country, the author argues, is so ubiquitous that even legislations are subject to manipulations. An interesting case in point is the “Patriots’ Act” (a euphemism). By delving into the labyrinth of official rhetoric over the last few years, the author comes up with impressive essays on the nature of American hegemony and its quest for global dominance. In Richard Jackson’s own words, “the language of anti-terrorists actually prevents rather than facilitates the search for solutions to political violence; that it actually encourages terrorism” (Jackson, 2005, p.120).
The events of 9/11 were followed by calamities in the United Kingdom and Spain. The latter terror attacks were no less brutal when compared to the former, yet the reactions to these catastrophes in the respective parts of the world has been disproportionate. While the anger and indignation expressed by the American public representatives is quite vocal and well known, the reactions of their British and Spanish counterparts has been rather subdued – if not in rhetoric, surely in actions. Jackson alludes to a salient point when he tries to explain this discrepancy. This is mainly because other nations are regularly subject to acts of terror, but for Americans, a one-off event such as 9/11 had set off such melodrama and popular outcry that the American populace is surely out of touch with the realities of the outside world. This is also an indication of the “insular” nature of the post Cold War American society, which makes it difficult for their public representatives to understand and cooperate with alien leaders of state (Nye, 2006, p.139).
A recent addition to the list of grievances against the world’s only super power is its handling of foreign nationals. The Guantanamo Bay detainment centre had gained notoriety for the way its inmates are treated. And to top it all, the Bush Administration attracted criticism for torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. If photographs of prisoner treatment in Abu Ghraib is anything to go by (the photos showed Iraqi prisoners blinded by hoods and slung over prison railings, tied to leashes as animals and piled naked one upon another in heaps). Susan Sontag poignantly compares them to lynching of black Americans when pictures of corpses decorated postcards and souvenir albums. When defenceless, non-resistant prisoners were mercilessly tortured and killed, the very fundamentals of martial law are being breached. In Vietnam insurgents were named disparagingly as “gooks” and “slants”. In Iraq they are disdainfully termed “terrorists” and “thugs” without paying attention to their genuine grievances and interests. Reverend Jesse Jackson aptly describes this war as “without moral, legal or military legitimacy.” Hopefully, American citizens will demand an overhaul of American foreign policy, so that the neoconservative craving for power is not allowed to thrive (Hope, 2004, p.810).