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An effective superpower shares power

By Suzanne Nossel / September 8, 2003



NEW YORK

The Bush administration's handling of negotiations over its proposed UN resolution to expand the organization's role in Iraq is an important test case. France, Germany, Russia, India, and others say they may be willing to help shoulder military and financial burdens of reconstructing Iraq, but only in exchange for some input over decisionmaking. The decision to accept their contributions and share some power in return would not only strengthen the mission in Iraq, but would also represent an important turning point, rendering the US a more effective superpower in a world where no single country can call the shots.

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The administration's dilemma over how much control to cede reflects a wider tension between a world system that is becoming more participatory and a superpower that prefers to wield power single-handedly. A globe once characterized by a tenuous balance among "great powers" and then by a bi-polar standoff is giving way to one where a broad swath of countries, none superpowers by any stretch, have a role to play in major geopolitical debates and initiatives. Rather than try to suppress this trend and reassert its superpower prerogative, the US should smartly refashion its leadership style to suit a world in which other nations will increasingly insist on being both seen and heard.

The world system will never be a democracy, but it is exhibiting more democratic features. This year's conflict over military intervention in Iraq underscored the new dynamic. When the US first urged the UN to disarm Saddam Hussein by force, though many opposed the idea, most expected that - given American political and economic power - the US would eventually get its way. But France, Germany, and Russia caught the administration off guard with their firm resolve. Countries the US had taken for granted as allies - like Turkey, Mexico, and Chile - publicly debated where to stand, reaching independent decisions based more on local political pressures than US entreaties. What some observers had dubbed America's "unipolar moment" ended in multipolar cacophony. Galvanizing the resistance were perceptions of President Bush as bent on having his way no matter what anyone else thought.

Diverse capitals are making themselves heard on other issues, too, playing key roles, for example, in the talks on North Korea and reconstruction of Afghanistan.

After 50 years in which the portion of the world population living in democracies has more than doubled, citizens in these countries are quite logically demanding a more participatory international system. Schooled - often by the US - in the virtues of self-determination, representative government, and constraints on power, these populations naturally seek to apply these principles in international relations. Why should democratic leaders, accountable to their electorates, answer to Mr. Bush on foreign affairs?

In Iraq now, the Bush administration, as often before with respect to international treaties and organizations, shows a natural temptation to check the democratizing forces in the international system, keeping control in American hands. Part of its concern is legitimate: A more polyphonous world may enhance the influence of anti-West, anti-Israel elements, or pious, pacifist Westerners who shrink from threats.

While the international community's behavior sometimes warrants disdain or even contempt, the administration's inclination to ignore or override it is misguided. First, America's own history shows that peoples' drive to gain a say over policies that affect them is a powerful force. Now tasting greater autonomy and influence on the world stage, secondary powers - and their peoples - will not give it up easily. The administration turned down the UN membership's request to be more involved in Iraq in April and May, and again in July. If they fail to reach an agreement now, they'll face the same demand again in an Iraq donor's conference in October. Stiff-arming the UN again will delay, not resolve, the problem.

Second, the participatory international system in question is one of America's own design. If the US puts a portion of the Iraq mission in UN hands, the countries that will play roles aren't dictatorships or troublemakers but a constellation of mostly liberal societies. And Security Council oversight means the US would enjoy a veto over developments it doesn't like.

Third, Americans will instinctively reject a US policy focused on keeping democratizing forces off the international stage. While plenty of Americans are drawn to the administration's cowboy attitude, a growing number now see the cost of antagonizing allies. The conflict between the administration's professed dedication to freedom and a foreign policy that shows contempt for differing viewpoints is becoming a prominent Democratic campaign theme.

Rather than cling to total control in Iraq, the US should accept the right of other contributors to play a meaningful role on major decisions. While military chains of command must be kept efficient - though not necessarily all American - key strategic issues shouldn't be beyond discussion.

In a command structure for Iraq, US know-how, technology, and resources will multiply the authority it holds; even if control is shared, the US will get its way most of the time. The only thing holding the US from effectively leading a joint operation is its continued resistance to the idea of deigning to share control. If it can get over that feeling, the political and military advantages in Iraq and elsewhere will be great.

Suzanne Nossel was deputy to the ambassador for UN management and reform at the US mission to the UN during the Clinton administration.

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