Interregnum: The long shadow of Iraq

Exactly seven years on from the invasion of Iraq and with the planned drawdown of US forces there by the end of 2011, it seems like a crucial chapter of the past decade might finally be drawing to a close. As it already has been slowly doing, Iraq will slide further off our TV screens and newspaper pages. But its legacy might only just be putting down roots.

Where exactly does invasion and occupation leave US power and credibility in the interregnum? Much of the current conversation about the changing world order is about how emerging powers will challenge the old, established ones. A recent Newsweek piece boldly proclaimed that “It’s China’s world. We’re just living in it,”, arguing that China is increasingly aspiring to set, if not setting already, the political, financial and technological standards for the coming century. But rather than this image of a revolution from below, what’s more fascinating is the idea of being “choked from above”, where the preeminent power is the source of the effort to reset and redefine the rules of the game*.

The invasion of Iraq might have been a demonstration of the notion that power does as power wants to, but what the years since have also suggested is of a backlash humbling and delegitimising power. Dunne feared that Iraq implied that international law was conditional on the domestic whims of the US, that the ends of the international community were now being defined independently of that community. An unsurprising extension of American exceptionalism?

But the idea of Iraq marking the emergence of “imperial authority” where the US retains the “option to disregard the rights of other members”, I think, has not come to pass. The United States might have tried to “contract out of international society”, as Dunne argues, but the rest of the decade suggests that it has been forced back into the box of conformity with the set of shared standards and expectations that still (even if somewhat amorphously) set the boundaries on permissible and appropriate conduct.

How so? Rather than the grudging fear and respect with the passing of the Cold War through the 1990s, what Iraq has meant for the US in this second post-Cold War decade is the fracturing of its respect and credibility. US military and economic power is still preeminent, but what it now confronts is others’ changed image of it as a ‘leader’. Rather than trying to brush off others’ attempts to cajole it into playing the ‘world’s policeman’, as in the 1990s, if it wanted to play policeman today it would find that no-one would want it to. This sort of respect has always been uneven, to be sure – but in things like a liberal global trade regime or in its continuing military presence in East Asia, American power and purpose has been largely accepted and indeed, quietly welcomed.

After Iraq, the US has found itself robustly challenged as ‘the bad guy’ (rogue state, even?) whose social purpose is now being scrutinized and questioned. Invasion followed the already-acrimonious global response to withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, but was also the most chest-thumping variant of this behaviour, of trying to set it apart from the existing rules and expectations. The dissent and disquietude of others has yet to embrace the models embodied in other leading powers, but the enthusiasm of cooperation with the US has also dissipated. And this carries profound costs for the price of achieving whatever the US’ foreign policy agenda might be, today and in coming years, as cajoling the cooperation of others becomes more difficult, tinged as it is by the shadow of hubris.

The days of a muscular China or India, reinvigorated Russia, or ever-closer Europe, to be material rivals to the US are still some way off. But ahead of their time, they may be filling the shoes of social leadership vacated by the US. Iraq might still become a stable democracy, but American adventure has come at grevious cost.

This is the third part of a series of posts trying to highlight themes of the past two decades, for which I’ve adopted the broad description of ‘interregnum’. See the first post explaining this choice here, and the second post on global solidarity here.

*Tim Dunne, 2003, “Society and Hierarchy in International Relations”, International Relations, 17(3), pp.303-320.

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One thought on “Interregnum: The long shadow of Iraq

  1. […] this choice here, the second post on global solidarity here, and the third on American power here. This was initially intended as a four-part collection of thoughts (which has taken longer than […]

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