Today's date:
Fall 2002

Preemption and The End of Westphalia

Henry Kissinger is a former US Secretary of State.

New York - President George W. Bush's speech to the United Nations dramatically set forth American policy in Iraq in three propositions: an account of the threat posed by stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; a description of the precise manner in which Iraq has violated UN resolutions in building these weapons; and a strong implication that no solution is workable unless coupled with a removal of Saddam Hussein.

President Bush did not offer an American blueprint. In calling on the UN to meet the challenge to its authority, he conveyed that, for America, common action is the preferred strategy; unilateral action is a last resort. The speech was therefore significant as well for what it did not say. The president did not assert a universal right of preemption; he based his case on the exceptional character of Iraq's conduct and its defiance of UN resolutions. He did not claim a general American right to impose regime change on other societies. He did insist that, in the specific case of Iraq, the rigorous measures required to implement the UN's own resolutions are almost surely incompatible with Saddam's continuation in power.

Thus the president has opened the door to a cooperative approach to dealing with the ultimate challenge: how to adapt the international system to the implications of the age of terrorism. For on Sept. 11, the world entered a new period in which private, non-state organizations have proved capable of threatening national and international security by stealth attacks. The controversy about preemption is a symptom of the impact of this transformation. At bottom it is a debate between the traditional notion of sovereignty of the nation-state as set forth in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the adaptation required by both modern technology and the nature of the terrorist threat.

Osama bin Laden's base was on the territory of a national state, though his was not a national cause. Highly disciplined operatives were scattered around the globe, some on the soil of America's closest allies and even within America itself. They enjoyed financial and organizational support from a number of countries-most frequently from private individuals ostensibly not under the control of their governments. Bases for terrorists have been established in several countries, but usually in areas where the governments could plausibly deny control or were actually not in control, such as in Yemen, Somalia or perhaps Indonesia and Iran.

In this manner, the international system based on the sovereign nation-state is being transformed by a transnational threat that has to be fought on the sovereign territory of other nations over issues transcending the nation-state. Having no territory to defend, the terrorists are not subject to the deterrent threats of the Cold War; having as their aim the destruction of social cohesion, they are not interested in the conciliating procedures and compromises of traditional diplomacy.

By attacking New York and Washington, the terrorists ensured that this transformation would be shaped by the special character of the American nation. For America has never thought of itself as simply one nation among others. Its national ethos has been expressed as a universal cause identifying the spread of liberty and representative government as the key to peace. American foreign policy is more comfortable with categories of good and evil than with the calculations of national interest of European cabinet diplomacy.

European critics holding more traditional concepts have accused America of overreacting because terrorism is a new problem primarily to Americans-one that Europeans overcame in the 1970s and 1980s without undertaking global crusades. But the terrorism of two decades ago was of a different character. It was on the whole composed of nationals of the country where the terror took place (or, as in the case of the IRA in Britain, by a group with special national grievances of its own). Though some received foreign intelligence support, their bases were in the country where they operated. Their weapons of choice were mostly suitable for individual assaults. By contrast, Sept. 11 terrorists operate on a global basis, are motivated less by a specific grievance than by a generalized hatred and have access to weapons by which they can give effect to their strategy of killing thousands and ultimately far more if they acquire weapons of mass destruction.

In the immediate post-Sept. 11 period, this difference in emphasis was submerged in a general shock that brought home to most nations the importance of the United States as the guarantor of international stability in the traditional sense. The intelligence and police aspect of the war against terrorism-the part most compatible with the cooperation among sovereign states-received almost universal support.

Since the attack on the US was launched from the sovereign territory of a nation-state, the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan generated widespread cooperation as well. But as soon as the Afghanistan operation was substantially concluded, the next phase of the anti-terrorist campaign was bound to raise the issue of how to deal with incipient rather than actual terrorism.

Unlike the Westphalian period, when the movement of armies foreshadowed threat, modern technology in the service of terror gives no warning, and its perpetrators vanish with the act of commission. Hence countries that harbor terrorist headquarters or terrorist training centers cannot take refuge behind traditional notions of sovereignty. If there is a serious prospect of a terrorist threat from the soil of a sovereign country, some preemptive action-including military action-is inherent in the definition of the challenge.

It is at this point that the general terrorist threat merges with the challenge posed by weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Perhaps the most important long-term problem faced by the international community is the problem of proliferation of these weapons, especially in states with no internal checks on their rulers' decisions and even more so when these weapons have been used against the country's own people and its neighbors. If the world is not to turn into a doomsday machine, a way must be found to prevent that proliferation. Cold War principles of deterrence are almost impossible to implement when there is a multiplicity of states, some of them harboring terrorists in position to wreak havoc.

The Cold War world reflected a certain uniformity in the assessment of risk between the two sides. But when many states threaten each other for incongruent purposes, who is to do the deterring, and in the face of what provocation? This is especially true since what must be deterred is not simply the use of weapons of mass destruction but the threat of them. Is the US to undertake this role on a global basis in every contingency?

Therefore, the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in violation of the UN resolutions cannot be separated from the post-Afghanistan phase of the war against terrorism. Iraq is located in the midst of a region that has been the hotbed of the special type of global terrorist activity from which the attack on the US was organized. The challenge posed by Iraq is not the precise degree of its relationship to Al Qaeda-though Iraq has used terrorism against its neighbors, against Israel and as far away as Europe. Nor is it the precise magnitude of the stockpiles that constitute the threat. By its defiance of the UN Security Council requiring it to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has in effect asserted the right to possess weapons whose very existence magnifies the terrorist threat immeasurably.

Global terrorism cannot flourish except with the support of states that either sympathize or acquiesce in its actions. To the extent that these countries observe the flouting of UN resolutions and the defiance of America, they feel less restrained in continuing or ignoring these activities. For the nations of the world to acquiesce in growing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction where the new form of terrorism has been spawned is to undermine restraint not only with respect to weapons proliferation but with respect to the psychological impulse toward terrorism altogether.

By defining the challenge as of a magnitude requiring cooperative action by the world community, President Bush has affirmed America's commitment to a new world order. As the most powerful nation in the world, the US has a special unilateral capacity to implement its convictions. But it also has a special obligation to justify its actions by principles that transcend the assertions of preponderant power. It cannot be in either the American national or the world's interest to develop principles that grant every nation an unfettered right of preemption against its own definition of threats to its security. Thus the case for enforcement should be the opening move in a serious effort of consultation to develop general principles that other nations can consider in the general interest. This surely was the implicit message of the president's UN speech even if it was not articulated in these terms.

The UN is therefore challenged to come up with a control system that eliminates existing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq together with procedures to prevent their being rebuilt. The control system must go far beyond the inspection system negated by Saddam's evasions and violations. It must prevent any possibility for local authorities to harass informants or to impede free access to the inspectors. It should be backed by standby authority to remove any obstacle to transparency. In practice, such a system will almost certainly prove incompatible with the continuation of Saddam's regime.

Other nations-especially allies who have been sheltered for half a century under the American commitment to world order-should take this challenge seriously and not subordinate it to domestic politics. A special responsibility falls on America's traditional allies. In the end, the US-like any great power-will reserve the right to act alone. But it would be an egregious failure of 50 years of Atlantic policy if matters reached this point. Now that the president has announced his direction and the administration will speak unambiguously with one voice, it is hard to believe our allies will jettison a half-century of Atlantic partnership on an issue ultimately as vital to their interests as to ours. The Bush administration's concern about terrorism and weapons proliferation in the Middle East involves one of the fundamental issues of the emerging international order. It should not be dismissed with comments about adventurism, and is unlikely to be when the American direction is clear and European electoral pressures have subsided.

Beyond the issue of how to deal with the threat, consultation is urgently necessary about the organization of post-Saddam Iraq. The political and economic reconstruction of a strong and unified Iraq cannot be the task of one nation.

In the end, it is important to keep in mind that consultation is a process; it is leadership that brings about a better world. A door has been opened. The shape of the future will depend on those who walk through it.

back to index