Today's date:
Spring 2003


The Iraq Crisis in Historical Perspective

Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, spoke with NPQ on February 24.

NPQ | In retrospect, 9/11 may have been the historical equivalent of the terrorist assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that ended up detonating World War I. The trauma exploded fissures in a fading world order that no longer upheld the arranged balance of powers, just as now the old post-World War II order no longer ?t today’s realities. Common interests are no longer compelling enough, inviting miscalculation. Are we seeing that now as NATO, the European Union and the United Nations are all in crisis?

PAUL KENNEDY | Oh, indeed, we are seeing “exploded fissures” in our international system that, just as in 1914, no longer fits the realities of the time. It is probable that the tensions we are facing today do not ?t any of the realities that the West faced between the late 1940s and the early 1990s. We are in a new world.

But it is not for the first time. Seven years ago, I and my colleagues at International Security Studies at Yale held a conference entitled Altered Strategic Landscapes in the 20th Century. It examined how policy-makers grappled with the turbulent and extraordinary flux in world affairs that occurred in 1917–23, then again in 1944–48 and then post-1989: three great periods of change. Perhaps we should have a fourth candidate, namely, post-Sept. 11. Because now we are surely grappling with flux and altered landscapes.

But the difference with the 1914 analogy is that today’s miscalculations and silly actions are highly unlikely to lead to a Great Power world war. In 1914, the Serbs (equivalent to today’s Iraq, because of the assassination of the Archduke) were protected by Imperial Russia. Right now, there is no major power which would or could intervene. This was the meaning of the anxious debates in the Security Council and the terrible importance of those debates. The almost unlimited strength of a single great actor is being constrained by the international conventions that ironically that same country—the US—played the major part in setting up in 1945. And if the single great actor chooses not to be constrained, the system will be permanently changed.

The similarities are that, just as the old Concert of Europe buckled and collapsed under the strain of the crises between 1908 and 1914, and just as the open, “globalized” trading system of a century ago was shattered by the coming of war, we might face a collapse or severe damaging of the following international arrangements:

Since 1945 the Great Powers in the UN (the five victor powers, the p5) agreed that they all would possess the veto—the Americans and Soviets were insistent on this—but in doing so they also agreed that they would respect any other p5’s veto, if only to keep their own privileges. By threatening to use it’s veto, France forced the US to forgo a second resolution authorizing war. With the Security Council horribly divided over Iraq, how can we expect it to function over the next international crisis, be it Korea, India-Pakistan, Turkey, Central America, West Africa or wherever?

When the League of Nations split over the 1935 Ethiopian crisis, it became a “lame duck” for future crises as well.

• NATO is, in my opinion, much closer than the UN to redundancy—or to a compelling need for reform. Regardless of the Bush administration demanding “are you with us, or against us” on the Iraq issue, NATO faces its own severe problems. First, there is no Warsaw Pact enemy to provide the cement that kept the alliance together during the entire Cold War. Second, while there are lots of new and impending members, there has been no redefinition of the central purpose of NATO’s existence. Third, the largest and most influential member of NATO (the US) has gone abroad to kill foreign demons. Fourth, without US force contributions, the other NATO members find themselves embarrassingly without real fighting power, with the possible exception of Britain and France. Fifth, there is a looming and difficult debate about “out-of-area” operations that will divide many members from each other. Why, for example, should Denmark pledge itself to help an intervention in Southwest Asia?

Above all—to return to the third point above with a different emphasis—the US does not feel much need for NATO (which, like the UN, it founded) and believes that the security challenges that lie ahead will chiefly be outside of Europe.

• As for the European Union, the situation is really bad, though wiser counsels may prevail in the next week or so. Absolutely the last thing Europe needs to do is to open quarrels in the way it has done in the past month. We have Britain versus France and Germany; Poland and Czech Republic versus France; Italy, Spain, Britain and six others against France and Germany; and France’s (that is, President Jacques Chirac’s) warning to the new and candidate EU members about siding with the US. This is pathetic. It confirms the claims of American hawks that Europe is “useless” and slows down the chances of European integration in other fields.

Perhaps the EU would be wise not to seek a common foreign policy for some time to come. Such a pursuit seems to retard rather than advance European unity. Why not return to reforming the flawed agricultural policy, for example, and leave foreign affairs to the United Nations and NATO, which are bound to play a central role?

NPQ | Who will lose the most legitimacy, the US or the UN, as a result of this war?

KENNEDY | Both parties will lose. The US will lose legitimacy and respect in most of the rest of the world, and the UN will lose legitimacy and respect among American patriots and the US government.

This will happen if there is a swift US victory against Iraq, or if it becomes a bloody, protracted campaign. In the first case, there will be massive resentments that the US went ahead without international sanction, and the other powers will seek ways to constrain American power in the future. And who will trust the Security Council again? In the second case, if bad events happen (a mixture of Vietnam, Mogadishu, Cambodia), the US will get all the blame, and there will be a backlash among its own citizens, possibly a return to isolationism.

NPQ | Another historical analogy is that by going to war on its own, the US will end up isolated—essentially at the end of its imperial role—like Britain and France after the Suez fiasco in 1956.

KENNEDY | Yes, by acting without UN backing, the US will appear rather like Britain and France at Suez in 1956—that is, it will encounter massive disapproval by the rest of the world. During the Suez crisis, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden regarded Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser as “another Hitler”; right now, the White House portrays Saddam Hussein as another Fascist-dictator villain, which is distorting its vision and judgment.

But an unwise strike against Baghdad would not mean the American superpower would have met its “end.” It is simply too strong, comparatively speaking, whereas Britain by 1956 was in a seriously weakened condition. Still, it is not unreasonable to claim that the US would be considerably weaker, not perhaps in its military power, but in two more lasting ways: first, the damage it does to itself, whether it be a swift victory that tempts it to further hubris, or a bloody campaign that causes a public backlash; and, second, the damage it does to the international system, to transatlantic relations, to the political fate of good friends like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and especially to the credibility of the UN itself. In short, it is not worth paying such a high price, loathsome as Saddam Hussein is.