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Campus forum: Steven Weber

These are the prepared remarks delivered by Steven Weber at a forum of UC Berkeley faculty experts convened at Zellerbach Hall on April 1, 2003, to discuss the war with Iraq. Weber is a political science professor and the director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley's Institute of International Studies. He has held academic fellowships with the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special consultant to the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, and worked with the U.S. State Department and other government agencies on foreign policy issues, risk analysis, and forecasting.

Thanks to the chancellor and Dean Leonard and Harry Kreisler from the Institute of International Studies for organizing this forum. I want to make a couple of very simple points.

Steven Weber
'Iraq is just a sideshow to the main event ... the leading edge of a much more radical foreign policy and world order project that the U.S. is now just beginning to engage.'
-Steven Weber

I am not going to take an explicit position for or against this particular war. But I am going to tell you that the stakes are higher, much higher, than anything that happens in Iraq in the next six months. In my view Iraq is just a sideshow to the main event. It’s important mainly because for the moment it is the most visible piece and the leading edge of a much more radical foreign policy and world order project that the U.S. is now just beginning to engage.

That project has three big components: the development of interstate cooperation to defeat transnational threats; second; implementing pre-emptive military doctrines that redefine the role of force in world politics, and third, remaking in a fundamental way the configuration of international and global institutions that we have been living with and reforming only at the margins since the end of World War II.

In a very real sense the attack on Iraq signals the end of what we called “the post-Cold War era”, which was really a kind of interregnum between the Cold War and something else that we didn’t know how to name. Now we are at the cusp of some new ordering principles for global politics. Ten years from now we will be able to give it a name. But I don’t think Iraq will figure prominently in that conceptualization. How we handle North Korea, and what we do with the detritus of NATO and the United Nations Security Council, will. Let me tell you why I think these things.

First Iraq. Let us say it out loud: this is a war about oil, and about the mistakes we made in 1991. We went to war in 1991 to make sure that 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves do not end up in the hands of a hostile state power. We are going to war in 2003 for exactly the same reason, combined with two failures: because we didn’t go all the way to regime change and get rid of that hostile state power when we risked a half million American troops and killed an unknown number of Iraqis in ‘91, and having made that mistake, we have done nothing substantial since to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

In my view we could have and should have solved this problem in several ways during the 1990s, but instead we ignored it for all practical purposes. We soothed ourselves by implementing a set of sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that did nothing to weaken Saddam, probably strengthened him in fact, and caused extraordinary amounts of suffering, truly unnecessary suffering, to innocent Iraqi civilians. When things got a little out of control we launched a few cruise missiles at Baghdad which similarly made us feel like we were doing something but in fact were a waste of money and lives. The Clinton administration left this mess for the Bush people to clean up.

And so I confess to feeling a great deal of sympathy with their view that the status quo was unacceptable – Saddam still in power, useless sanctions punishing exactly the wrong people, an ongoing risk of weapons of mass destruction proliferation in the region, and a sustained military threat to oil supplies that the U.S. was MORE dependent on in 2000 than it had been since before the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973. Whether or not you like what the Bush administration has chosen to do about this situation, you can understand why it is that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were able to get a sympathetic ear in the White House when they made the argument that things simply could not be allowed to go on as they were.

That argument was in place long before the attack on the World Trade Center. In one sense nothing changed on Sept. 11, 2001; there is simply no substantial evidence (at least no public evidence) that the regime in Iraq had anything to do with that event. But September 11 completely changed the domestic politics here in the U.S..

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More than anything, September 11 wiped away an embarrassing complacency about the global political environment, a complacency which had been facilitated by silly arguments like the end of history and the notion of a LONG BOOM that would bring never-ending prosperity to the entire world through technology… all of this was the naïve end of Cold War triumphalism, and on Sept. 12, the Bush administration saw itself with more than just a serious terrorist problem, it saw essentially a blank check to write an American foreign policy for the new era.

Paul Wolfowitz and the people around him, no more short on ambition and energy than George Kennan and the people around him were in 1947, jumped on that opportunity. Make no mistake about it: these people are Wilsonian idealists at heart, they have an activist and revolutionary vision for the world that would make George Kennan blush; they believe deeply in the efficacy and sustainability of overwhelming U.S. power; and they fear that if they don’t grasp the opportunity in front of them, the world will be a much less desirable place for America in 2010 than it is today.

As I said there are three major parts to this project.

The first is to build a collaboration of nation states to defeat a transnational force called terrorism. This is a familiar configuration in world politics, it’s basically an updated version of the early 1800s Concert of Europe, which was essentially a deal between the five great powers of the time to defend the ancien regime against different transnational forces, liberalism and later Marxism. Substitute Bin Laden for Rousseau in this equation and you can see why the logic of this collaboration is in fact quite strong for nation states, which would very much like to preserve the government–to–government bargaining games which they know how to play as the stuff of international relations.

Even as the French and the Americans spat at each other in the Security Council over Iraq, at the operational level cooperation between intelligence services and security forces on the terrorist issue is excellent and will remain excellent.

The risk here is not really a near-term breakup of the coalition against terrorism, it lies in the magnitude of the task that these states have taken on. Al-Qaida may be a few thousand extremists, but al-Qaida is just the beginning. The dirty little secret of world politics today is that there are 3 or perhaps 4 billion people on this planet who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have absolutely nothing to lose from the decline of the state system. The outcome of this battle IS uncertain; there is no rule that says states have to win.

The second piece of the Bush world order project is a shift to pre-emptive military strategies that redefine the role of force in world politics. This signals the end of the intellectual apparatus behind the containment doctrine. The National Security Strategy Document of September 2002 (which you must read, if you have not done so) says explicitly that the U.S. will act IN ANTICIPATION of the emergence of a threat, or of a center of power that could challenge U.S. predominance.

We could talk for a long time about the roots behind this shift; in fact there is a cottage industry in my field of IR that does this, but let me just point out quickly why states are historically pulled to these kinds of doctrines like iron filings to a magnet. The fact is, pre-emption shifts the initiative back to our side and lets us shape the battlefield of world politics, rather than respond to it. This works sometimes. The beauty of the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq over the last year is that it has created a consensus that Saddam is history. No one defends his regime, no one thinks he should remain in power; the arguments are over how to get rid of him, not whether he should go. That is a serious diplomatic achievement.

But it comes with huge risks as well. The pre-emption doctrine always is at risk of breaking the number one rule of diplomacy: which is don’t back the other guy into a corner from which he has no escape. When you combine this with the axis of evil rhetoric, you can hardly blame countries like Iran and Syria for coming to believe that they are next on the list and that war is likely or inevitable. At the moment they believe this, as we learned so vividly in 1914 and again at Pearl Harbor, the supposed target has every incentive to pre-empt pre-emption and find a way to strike first. In practice the U.S. is signing up to play games of chicken – everyone know what this game is? – but 10 or 12 games of chicken at once, which is a very tricky proposition.

By the way, anybody know how you win at chicken? Thomas Schelling got it right in 1961: the way to win at chicken is to throw your steering wheel out the window, so the other guy has to swerve. The question then becomes who can throw their steering wheel out the window first: Iran, Syria, North Korea, or the U.S..

I think this is EXACTLY what the North Koreans are engaged in right now. And there is a deep historical irony in this. The containment doctrine was built up intellectually over the last half of the 1940s, but it wasn’t actually implemented as the core logic of American Cold War foreign policy until after it was explicitly challenged – not in Europe principally, but in Korea in 1950. It then became the touchstone of U.S. strategy for at least 25 years.

Here we are more than a half century later; we’re focused on a conflict in Iraq; while the real challenge to the pre-emption doctrine is taking shape once again – in Korea.

How the U.S. responds to the North Korean challenge is going to define the reality of the preemption doctrine and that is likely to set the tone for U.S. foreign policy for some time. You might not want the U.S. to pre-empt North Korea’s nuclear program and there are very good reasons to NOT want that, but don’t think that the alternatives are necessarily and clearly preferable. In other words, I’m telling you to worry about what happens if the U.S. foreign policy doctrine collapses in front of its first big challenge less than a year after it was proclaimed.

The third piece of the world order project is the reconfiguration of global institutions. Don’t get too nostalgic about this. The Security Council, with its permanent five and unit veto power, we all know to be the legacy of a post-World War II balance of power system that has faded into history. NATO carries the legacy of an institution designed, as people used to say, to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

Each of these institutions was on a gradual reform path over the course of the 1990s. Whether or not gradual reform would have eventually worked, that part of the story is now over.

The Security Council as we know it came to an end when the French broke the deal they had made with the U.S. over a second resolution – strange in some ways, because the French have the most to lose from a reshuffling of power at the UN. NATO as we know it came to an end when the French and Germans said no to the deployment of NATO-assigned Patriot missile units to NATO member Turkey.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a bad thing. These institutions played useful roles, but the world is now very different and there may very well be better ways to fulfill some of the important functions of international institutions. You have to admit, there is a certain awkwardness to the idea that the major constraints on the exercise of U.S. power in the world are the votes of Cameroon, Angola, and New Guinea at the Security Council. And the idea of keeping 50,000 U.S. troops in Europe to prevent the growth of German power and war with France is a little anachronistic.

Read the complete remarks by:
Chancellor Berdahl
Nezar AlSayyad
Thomas G. Barnes
David D. Caron
Laura Nader
Steve Weber
Janet Yellen
Q&A with audience

The interesting question now is, what are we going to put in place of these institutions? The natural allies for the United States in the next phase of globalization are probably countries like Poland, Brazil, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Singapore, and perhaps a postwar Iraq. If that sounds bizarre to you, ask yourself if it sounds any more bizarre than it must have sounded to people in 1949, to talk about a North Atlantic Treaty Organization with France and Germany as our core allies and as each other’s allies.

What we have not done yet, is to make explicit the norms and principles that will be the foundation of this new set of institutions. The glue that holds the countries I just named together is made up of security and economic development, very much like the post-World War II glue for the ‘West’. But security has to mean more than a world that looks a lot like 1995, just without al-Qaida in it. And economic development has to mean more than IMF structural adjustment programs and massive World Bank infrastructure projects which, with very few exceptions, have delivered nothing like successful economic development to the majority of the world’s population.

So - in my view – the sooner we get done with Iraq and move on to defining the principles that will hold together a coalition for the new world order, the better. The downside risk of not doing that is very, very large.