The point here is not who is right, but rather that the prudential case was not nearly as open-and-shut as Krauthammer and other neoconservatives believe. He talks as if the Bush Administration's judgment had been vindicated at every turn, and that any questioning of it can only be the result of base or dishonest motives. Would that this were so. The fact that our judgment was flawed has created an enormous legitimacy problem for us, one that will hurt our interests for a long time to come.
The problem of judgment gets to the heart of what is wrong with the vision of a unipolar world that Krauthammer lays out. In his words, the United States "has been designated custodian of the international system" by virtue of its enormous margin of military superiority. If we had in fact been designated global custodian, we would have no legitimacy problem, but we have unfortunately designated ourselves. We have in effect said to the rest of the world, "look, trust us, we will look out for your interests. You can do this safely because we not just any run-of-the-mill hyperpower. We are, after all, the United States." While we would not trust Russia, China, India, France or even Britain with a similar kind of power, we believe that the rest of the world should trust us. This is because the United States is different from other countries, a democracy espousing universal values and therefore not subject the same calculations of self-interest as other would-be hegemons.
There is actually something to this argument. But it is also not very difficult to see why it does not gain much traction outside the United States, and not just among those endemically hostile to America. Krauthammer-the-realist, after all, argues for a narrow definition of national interest, which does not suggest we will be a very reliable partner to a struggling friend when we do not have important interests at stake. And even if we were willing to bear other people's burdens, what about our judgment?
Legitimacy is a tricky concept. It is related to substantive principles of justice, but it is not the same thing as justice. That is, people believe that a set of institutions is legitimate because they believe they are just, but legitimacy is always relative to the people conferring legitimacy.
Legitimacy is important to us not simply because we want to feel good about ourselves, but because it is useful. Other people will follow the American lead if they believe that it is legitimate; if they do not, they will resist, complain, obstruct or actively oppose what we do. In this respect, it matters not what we believe to be legitimate, but rather what other people believe is legitimate. If the Indian government says that it will not participate in a peacekeeping force in Iraq unless it has a UN Security Council mandate to do so, it does not matter in the slightest that we believe the Security Council to be an illegitimate institution: the Indians simply will not help us out.
Krauthammer and others have dismissed the importance of legitimacy by associating it entirely with the United Nations--and then shooting at that very easy target. Of course, the UN has deep problems with legitimacy. Since membership is not based on a substantive principle of legitimacy, but rather formal sovereignty, it has been populated from the beginning by a range of dictatorial and human-rights abusing regimes. Our European allies themselves do not believe in the necessity of legitimization through the Security Council. When they found they could not get its support for the intervention in Kosovo because of the Russian veto, they were perfectly willing to bypass the UN and switch the venue to NATO instead.
But our legitimacy problem in Iraq went much deeper. Even if we had switched the venue to NATO--an alliance of democracies committed to the same underlying set of values--we could not have mustered a majority in support of our position, not to speak of the consensus required for collective action in that organization. The Bush Administration likes to boast of the size of the "coalition of the willing" that the United States was eventually able to pull together. One can take comfort in this only by abstracting from the quality of the support we received. Besides Britain and Australia, no one was willing to put boots on the ground during the active phase of combat, and now that post-conflict peacekeeping looks more like real warfare once again, Spain, Honduras and other members of the coalition are pulling out. Those countries that did support the United States did so on the basis of an elite calculation of national interest--in almost all cases against the wishes of large majorities of their own populations. This is true alike for Tony Blair, our staunchest ally, and for Poland, the most pro-American country in eastern Europe. While the behavior of Germany's Gerhard SchrÃ¶der in actively opposing the war was deeply disappointing, I would still much rather have Germany on my side than a feckless and corrupt Ukraine.
It is clear, in other words, that a very large part of the world, including many people who are normally inclined to be our friends, did not believe in the legitimacy of our behavior towards Iraq. This is not because the Security Council failed to endorse the war, but because many of our friends did not trust us, that is, the Bush Administration, to use our huge margin of power wisely and in the interests of the world as a whole. This should matter to us, not just for realist reasons of state (our ability to attract allies to share the burden), but for idealist ones as well (our ability to lead and inspire based on the attractiveness of who we are).
I do not believe that the Bush Administration was in fact contemptuous of the need for legitimacy. What they believed and hoped, rather, was that legitimacy would be awarded ex post rather than ex ante by the international community. There was a widespread belief among members of the administration that once it became clear that the United States was going to disarm Iraq forcefully, other NATO allies including France would eventually come on board. Everyone was taken aback by the vehemence with which France and Germany opposed the war, and by the U.S. failure to line up normally compliant countries like Chile and Mexico during the Security Council vote.
The hope that we would be awarded ex post legitimacy was not an unreasonable calculation. It might indeed have materialized had the United States found a large and active WMD program in Iraq after the invasion, or if the transition to a democratic regime had been as quick and low-cost as the Bush Administration expected. Many people have argued that American unilateralism towards Iraq breaks a long pattern of transatlantic cooperation, but they are forgetting history. The United States during the Cold War repeatedly pushed its European allies to do things they were reluctant to do, often by staking out positions first and seeking approval later. In the end, American judgment on these issues was better than that of the Europeans, and legitimacy was in fact awarded retrospectively. When this happened, the United States was not blamed for unilateralism, but praised for its leadership.
One could then interpret the Iraq War simply as a one-time mistake or unfortunate miscalculation coming on the heels of a long string of successes. Certainly, it would be utterly wrong to conclude that the war teaches us that the United States should never stick its neck out and lead the broader Western world to actions that our allies oppose or are reluctant to undertake. Nor should we conclude that pre-emption and unilateralism will never be necessary.
On the other hand, it is not simply bad luck that we failed to win legitimacy as badly as we did this time. The world is different now than it was during the Cold War in ways that will affect our future ability to exert leadership and claim to speak on behalf of the world as a whole. This is so for three reasons.
The first difference is, of course, the demise of the Soviet Union and the absence of an overarching superpower threat. During the Cold War, there was rampant anti-Americanism around the world and popular opposition to U.S. policies. But our influence was anchored by center-right parties throughout Europe that were both grateful for America's historical role in the liberation of Europe and fearful of Soviet influence. The global terrorist threat may some day come to be interpreted in a similar fashion, but it is not yet.Essay Types: Essay