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Why the international community can’t solve crises

EPA/Haim Zach

Crises have their uses. If nothing else, they remind us how the international system works, who has power, and what’s at stake when things fall apart. The current, depressingly familiar, mayhem in Iraq provides a sobering reminder that even well-intentioned external powers may be able to do little to solve problems that have their roots in long-standing local rivalries.

Even without an overlay of ethnic and religious tensions, Iraq’s problems defy easy resolution. As in so much of the world, the arbitrary boundaries laid down by former colonial powers bore little relationship to social facts on the ground. The widespread predilection for authoritarian solutions to the resulting struggle for order and cohesion was the all too predictable consequence of European imperialism and its dissolution.

Plainly, ‘the West’ has much to answer for historically. One of the key questions now is what responsibility the current generation has in trying to atone for, let alone resolve, such troubling legacies. At what point does trying to make amends become unjustified and unwanted interference?

Even if it is accepted that the so-called developed, undoubtedly dominant, and invariably democratic powers ought to do something what form could it possibly take? More pointedly, might it actually do more harm than good?

These questions have assumed greater urgency as a consequence of a series of international crises that have come to a bloody head in Iraq. At such times there are inevitable expectations that the ‘international community’ ought to do something. These hopes are invariably unfulfilled for a very simple reason: there is not such thing as the international community.

To be sure, if the number of times ideas are piously invoked is any measure of significance, the international community ought to be at the centre of international affairs. But when push comes to shove as it all too frequently does these days, the international community is conspicuous by it absence.

At best the international community is a synonym for the usual suspects; a coterie of primarily western states whose strategic loyalties and normative predispositions generally align with those of the United States.

Perhaps the international community’s most promising moment recently was in the first Gulf War, when a coalition of 34 nations led by the United States responded to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. Even then, however, this was a small fraction of the nearly 200 members of the United Nations.

The contrast was the second conflict with Iraq, when a much smaller ‘coalition of the willing’ embarked on a catastrophically misjudged mission of regime change, is a painful reminder of the perils of hubris and an essentially unilateral approach to foreign policy. To guard against such disasters in the future, the creation of an effective international community might actually be a good idea for at least two reasons.

First, being hegemonic is very agreeable, no doubt, but the weight of expectations that comes with it can be crippling at times. Whatever the US does in the current crisis only one thing is certain: not everyone will be happy.

Even domestically, this is a no-win situation for an Obama administration judged to be weak and indecisive by its growing legion of critics. Internationally, the ‘great Satan’ is only likely to add to the list of its implacable enemies if it gets directly involved in the Middle East again.

The second counterintuitive reason for actually creating an international community, therefore, is that it potentially relieves the US of the burdens and opprobrium that come with leadership. Even the it’s-all-about-oil arguments look far less convincing now that the fracking revolution is about to make the US energy independent.

There is no immediate benefit for the US in intervening, other than stabilising – for the moment, at least – a region whose fate ultimately rests in its own hands.

Despite the recent self-serving protestations of innocence from the likes of Dick Cheney and Tony Blair, few now think that invasion of Iraq was a worthwhile endeavour. A Bush administration that was constrained by international opinion and better advised by more independently-minded allies might not have embarked on such an egregious folly, and we might have avoided the horrors that are unfolding as a direct consequence.

It is easy to be wise after the event, of course, but it is striking how some of the same misguided arguments are being recycled. The short-term choices facing Obama are all awful; none of them are likely to resolve the underlying deep-seated problems or restore order to a region whose collective future looks increasingly bleak.

There is, however, one thing that the US and its allies can do, and that is to set about creating an effective and expanded international community that actually lives up to the title. This will, of course, not be easy. The UN’s problems are legion and well known, yet it remains the starting point for any serious attempt to actually address the growing list of collective action problems that confront humanity.

It is worth the effort. True, the US will be constrained, but it will also be relieved of the manifold costs of actions that will never be universally supported. It is neither politically feasible nor normatively desirable that a single country bears this sort of this burden.

Finding ways to act collectively and inclusively is the challenge for the post-hegemonic 21st century. The survival of an international civilisation worthy of the name may depend on it.

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