European Affairs

What is at issue, therefore, is not just the right to act preemptively against an identified threat, but also the U.S. claim to assess and act on that threat, preferably but not necessarily with the international community. The United States has already decided to act against Iraq.

The least contentious aspect of the new doctrine is probably the notion of preemptive attack. As the National Security Strategy says, for centuries international law has recognized that countries have the right to defend themselves against the danger of imminent attack.

The updating of this concept to cope with today's adversaries need not pose serious difficulty: recent precedent exists for a similar extension of international law. In the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the international community took military action against a country, in disregard of prevailing international principles, for what it was doing in its own territory.

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it in a speech in Chicago in April of that year, "non-interference (in others' internal affairs) has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readilyƒ But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter."

This extension of the right of armed intervention to humanitarian situations inside countries was controversial, particularly because there was no specific authorizing UN Security Council resolution - Russia and China would have vetoed one - although consciences were comforted by reference to previous Security Council resolutions.

But France, a permanent member of the Security Council, made clear at the time, and has done so again now, that such action involving the use of force could only be repeated with specific UN authority. That view is widely shared in the international community, including by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have indicated that they could go along with military action only if it were authorized by the Security Council.

Of course there may be cynical expectations that no military action will be authorized. That would raise the real issue of whether anyone can act if the United Nations cannot. But the notion of preemptive action, as such, is of less concern for Europeans and others. Precisely because preemptive action poses acute questions of evidence and judgment, its legitimacy and justification in any particular case are what matter.

In the case of Iraq, doubts remain widespread in Europe as to whether military action, preemptive or otherwise, is justified. Earlier doubts about the success of such an action look misplaced, but worries continue about the use of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, particularly if, with regime change as a war aim, he has no incentive for restraint.

Another concern is that little evidence has been produced of links between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or of his intention to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction or to use them himself, in the absence of an invasion of his country.

There has not been much cost/benefit analysis of conducting a war against Iraq. To set against the unquantified benefit of eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and (for President George Bush) of Saddam Hussein's regime, there has been little assessment of the effect on the world economy, the future governance of Iraq and the protection of its territorial integrity, or the impact on regional stability, especially if Israel were to participate in such a war.

Other factors that have not been fully considered include the wider Middle East situation, where a serious effort should be made to address the Arab-Israel crisis, which is poisoning so much else, including the fight against terrorism. There has been no explanation of what is so pressing that the UN inspection process may not be allowed the time to run its full course to success or, more likely, failure.

Nor, finally, are war aims clear: the elimination of weapons of mass destruction is an objective with which Saddam Hussein can be expected to comply, if forced to do so. Regime change is another matter. That aim has never featured on the multilateral agenda, and, by giving Saddam Hussein no way out, it risks making war the only way to secure it.

On the other hand, the British Government has belatedly demonstrated, on September 24, the reality of Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. And in his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Bush argued convincingly that Saddam Hussein's flagrant and serial defiance of Security Council resolutions itself threatened the credibility of the United Nations.

Moreover, although this has not been faced up to by many critics, it is probable that only the credible threat of force, implying its use if the threat fails, has any chance of getting Saddam Hussein to comply with the Security Council resolutions on weapons of mass destruction.

Given, however, the costs of intervention and the speculative nature so far of the threat, legitimate questions remain as to whether continuing Iraqi defiance is sufficient grounds for war. Conversely, if it really is too dangerous to allow continuing Iraqi work on weapons of mass destruction, or if it is worth paying the price of war to end Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations, who decides?

For Europeans, this issue of legitimacy, the rule of law and the future of the United Nations itself are the nub of the matter. Europeans may "have no foreign policyƒother than a generalized commitment to international law and multilateral solutions," as one American commentator has suggested.

But, as another American analyst, Robert Kagan, showed in his celebrated article in Policy Review in July, this is a natural reflection of their experience in two World Wars and the Cold War.

The creation of a world order after World War I through the League of Nations having failed because of U.S. withdrawal, the second attempt through the United Nations has had strong U.S. support. So much so that former President Jimmy Carter was moved in September to express "deep concern" about what he called the Administration's "radical departure" from 50 years of tradition by Republican and Democratic presidents.

The UN-based international order is still very far from perfect, but it establishes important ground rules. Europeans could not understand its being ditched unilaterally by the United States without proper discussion, or without any alternative other than U.S. hegemony. History would surely judge this harshly.

Europeans want to work within a rules-based system by dialogue, pressure, rewards and penalties, with force only as a last resort. Despite earlier chastening, indeed traumatic experiences in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, the United States, with its triumphant emergence in the decade after the Cold War as the world's single hyperpower, secure and confident in its own virtue, is impatient and bridles at the constraints of having to pay attention to others' views.

The United States prefers to rely on its own overwhelming military strength and, in a "can-do" (rather than "cowboy") tradition, to use its power and leadership to change from outside the parameters within which Europeans feel it necessary to work.

The National Security Strategy has no qualms in combining the assertion of unrivalled U.S. military power, which nobody will be allowed to challenge, with a welcome for the responsibility of leading "the great mission" of promoting global security and extending the benefits of freedom across the globe.

While on its face benign, this is a breath-taking assertion of Pax Americana, which is bound to give rise to concerns in a Europe with a (no doubt self-interested) commitment to international cooperation and shared power and decision-making within accepted international institutions.

From a position of weakness, the Europeans want a functioning international system in which they have a significant part not subject to the dictates or the "unilateralism" of the United States or anyone else. For Europeans, this makes the Security Council an indispensable forum, where two leading EU members, France and Britain, have permanent seats, vetoes and thus an important voice.

Contrariwise, from a position of strength, the United States just wants to call the shots. But unilateral shot-calling can only bestow the legitimacy of might, which is what the international community has been working to remove these past 60 years.

What indeed can be the legitimacy of actions in which the United States, however well intentioned, is the prosecutor, judge and jury in its own case? The United States may have overwhelming military strength, but overwhelming wisdom is granted to nobody, let alone to the overconfident.

If the United States can assert the right to act preemptively solely according to its own judgment, why should not others? Military power can achieve decisive battlefield results, but cannot sustain them without political authority and legitimacy and adjuncts like financial assistance, which can come only from the international community in some form.

Shifting coalitions of like-minded countries cannot be a lasting basis for stability or international restraint in the absence of rules and institutions to police them. Is there any alternative to the United Nations as a source of legitimacy for international action, let alone coercion, imperfect though the United Nations self-evidently is?

If that is a general European view, Europeans must also be able to deal with the question: what happens if the United Nations is deadlocked? The U.S. strategic doctrine answers the question to its own satisfaction: as President Bush put it in mid-September, "If the United Nations won't deal with the problem (of Iraq), the United States and some of our partners will."

The cost to the UN system would be very high. But, the United States might well ask, what is the alternative in the face of a serious security threat, one possibly recognized as such by all except one permanent member of the Security Council? Would it not be even more damaging to the United Nations, let alone to international security, to wait until the threat is implemented?

Faced with this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't question, the answer must be to prevent the question becoming a real one. It would be a serious failure of diplomacy, not least on the part of the United States, if it did. This requires a determined effort to confer legitimacy by agreement in the United Nations, normally by a specific Security Council resolution.

Although Kosovo raised important issues (first breach of the hitherto hallowed principle of non-intervention in internal affairs), it was possible to get away with reference to a pre-existing resolution. Doubts still remain about the legitimacy of that use of force, but Kosovo was ultimately a relatively local issue and damage to the United Nations was limited.

This will be much less the case in Iraq, where the argument has also been advanced that pre-existing Security Council resolutions legitimize the use of force, even though these resolutions were in the framework of liberating Kuwait. Be that as it may, in whatever form, it is decisions by the Security Council that confer legitimacy and avoid the awful dilemma that may arise if it is not brought in on the act.

President Bush's decision in mid-September, whether under pressure from a balking Congress or the influence of Prime Minister Blair, to go after all for a solution through the United Nations if possible was an important return to what should always have been normality.

History may yet show that it took U.S. determination to use force if necessary to dragoon the international community into effective UN action to deal with Saddam Hussein's defiance - although American-style shock therapy is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Sustained good faith efforts are needed to win agreement in the United Nations that, first, there needs to be, or (as in Iraq) already is, a UN objective and that, second, the objective justifies the threat and, if necessary, the use of force as a means to achieve it. The use of force must not be an end in itself.

If agreement cannot be reached because of, say, a single veto in the Security Council, the legitimacy of action outside the UN framework will certainly be dented. So will UN credibility. But, as in the case of Kosovo, it will doubtless survive.

If, on the other hand, preemptive military action were to follow total disagreement in the Security Council, the effect on the United Nations and international order and legitimacy would be devastating, the consequences far-reaching and the historical responsibility heavy.

With Security Council agreement, however, the legitimacy of the action would be secure, and, assuming the action succeeded, the authority of the United Nations would be strengthened for future use. For Europeans this is a crucial prize; it should be for the United States, too.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.