A Nation of Pre-emptors? (DAVID RIEFF, 1/15/06, NY Times Magazine)
The fact that political debate over the U.S. intervention in Iraq breaks down largely along party lines, with Republicans generally in favor and Democrats skeptical or opposed, has tended to obscure the fact that American interventionism has historically been a bipartisan impulse. Indeed, far less separates the parties than it might seem from the current polarized discourse in Washington. For all their scruples about the Iraq adventure, few Democrats question the idea that it is right for the United States to “promote” democracy in the world, by force if necessary. It could hardly be otherwise. As George W. Bush has pointed out, nation-building was a principal foreign-policy cornerstone of the Clinton administration.
Nonetheless, the pervasive sense that the Bush administration bungled the mission in Iraq has led Democrats to play down their own ideas about reshaping the global order. Recently, however, a number of Democratic foreign-policy analysts have tried to reinvigorate their party’s internationalist traditions. In a series of articles, Ivo Daalder and James Steinberg, both of whom held senior positions in the Clinton administration, have argued that “states have a responsibility to head off internal developments – acquiring weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists, to name two – that pose a threat to the security of other states.” If they do not do so, outside powers may and sometimes must intervene. “It would be unfortunate,” they write, “if President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption were a casualty of the Iraq war.” For them, “conditional sovereignty” is “central to a new norm of state responsibility.” Implicit in their argument is the view that nondemocratic states are especially likely to breed threats. For this reason, the lack of democracy may itself pose a security problem – a notion that Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, once summed up when he declared that “the spread of our values makes us safer.”
At first glance, such a foreign policy combines the best of Wilsonian moralism and sober realism. What could be wrong with a global consensus supporting action against states that commit crimes against their own citizens or maintain a nasty habit of supporting terrorists or seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction? But the sad fact is that what at first may seem morally obvious may prove to be morally ambiguous as well. The problem is that it is probably not the “international community” that will be doing the intervening; it is particular states – above all, the United States and its allies. And as the international reaction to the Iraq war so painfully demonstrated, the gap between the international perception of the legitimacy of America’s actions and the American view could scarcely be greater.
The Bush administration has claimed that the essential question is not whether an intervention is unilateral or multilateral, United Nations-sanctioned or not, but whether it is right or wrong. Agree or disagree, it is a coherent position: the world needs American leadership, and America must provide it.
The new theorists of conditional sovereignty share this benign vision of American power.
The one condition placed on modern sovereignty is that America approve of your regime.