"If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future"
The predicament of US leadership today
Ever since Bush 43 the US are in a credibility crisis. And the hope and change Obama supposedly was to bring didn't manifest, in fact, Obama has been a remarkable example in foreign policy consistency, not so much in means, but certainly in goals, which basically remained unchanged from the Bush 43 administration, the Asia pivot being the great exception. They tried everything.
Direct leadership didn't work:
The US going it alone with their coalition of the willing, coerced and bribed in the Iraq war of 2003 war basically succeeded only in getting Saddam and a lot of bystanders killed and the US became hated more than ever. It notably did not achieve the intended goal in Iraq, to the contrary, it contributed greatly to the disintegration of the nation-state formerly known as Iraq into what it is today. Last I looked blossoms didn't bloom from Baghdad to Beirut, and whatever people threw at US troops, it wasn't rose petals.
Leadership from behind didn't work that well either:
Just like having US armed forces kicking in the door themselves, having proxies do it also left a trail of dead and rubble in its wake, and it has proven to be even more chaotic.
US and western neo-con, neo-liberal and/or R2P (the lines blur) politicos won't like it but their insistence that Syria must be regime-changed (off with his head!) probably helped greatly to prevent any settlement of the underlying conflict. That helped to bring the Syrian civil war where it is now and was instrumental in getting a large number of people killed in the process who could still be alive, while tearing the country apart and empowering people like ISIS in the vacuum left as Assad's forces withdrew to core territories to fight for their and their community’s survival.
Success is different, and the absence of US success over the last decade has left the US in a situation where it has become less relevant.
That naturally has consequences for the alliances the US is engaged in. What does that mean for Europe and NATO? Are the US, as Ms. Albright has famously said and Obama has restated, indeed still the one indispensable nation?
NATO, Kosovo, international law, liberal wars and R2P
In face of a considerable absence of credible threats to NATO members, NATO has, under US leadership, decided to seek dragons to destroy in 'out of area operations'. The alliance has found them first in the Balkans, then in Afghanistan and now in Ukraine.
In all of this, the Kosovo war stands out: The Balkan interventions in the aftermath of Yugoslavian disintegration are a special case as these were IMO the first of what I will call 'postmodern wars', wars that liberals could like, that were waged in pursuit, at least nominally, of human rights.
In Germany, the US exerted massive pressure to support the Kosovo war on the incoming SPD-Greens coalition before they even entered office. They were given by their American interlocutors, so it is reported, 15 minutes, to decide, and they decided in support of the Kosovo war. For credibility, liberal support for the Kosovo war was critical. The ZEIT retrospective is IMO correct when it says that nobody could seriously accuse either the SPD or the Greens to hold any tendency for militarized conflict resolution, to the contrary. Indeed, this gave their support the aura of political-moral seriousness.
The war was waged without a UN mandate, but with a NATO one, which must have necessitated some legal contortions in face of the wording of Article 1 NATO Charter:
"The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations."
Apparently, the feeling was that that left the barn door open to use force in conflicts in which the members choose to involve themselves and that do not concern the parties. This reading requires to ignore that part about inconsistency 'with the purposes of the United Nations', since the latter's charter rather unmistakably stresses in Article 2 UN Charter:
"The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.
1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members."
That fact that about every nation on earth is a member of the UN speaks for itself.
The Kosovo war constituted an attempt to create an early coalition of the willing and was a first step by the US to ignore the UN order if expedient. To intervene in the internal affairs of another country, inevitably violates the national sovereignty of the targeted state. To do so one needs alternative sources of legitimacy.
R2P, or on being post-modern on sovereignty
Traditionally, as a result of national sovereignty, domestic conflicts are not subject to the UN's 'jurisdiction', and as such off the table. Just like for this reason Kosovo nominally wasn’t subject to UN jurisdiction, Ferguson, Missouri – as an American internal issue – is not an issue for the UN Security Council to address, and that would even be so if the police had mass executed demonstrators there, or called in air strikes with impunity.
For many liberals such conduct, and the legal impossibility to do something about it, now, is unpalatable. If one really wants to intervene to prevent such a situation from becoming worse, one still has to address the issue of national sovereignty. One would need to be delusional to deny that.
R2P is the name for one attempt to find a solution to the dilemma of atrocities being committed within nation states by nation states on domestic populations, and where the killing doesn’t spill over into territory of other nation states. The idea was that a country 'should not be able to hide behind its sovereignty when they commit mass atrocities' or genocide. Such states under R2P practically forfeit it.
This is legally a stance with quite sweeping consequences, and the inherent radicalism can only rightly be understood in light of mass murder like in Rwanda, Cambodia or Bosnia. In practice, the prevention of genocide is clearly not what the doctrine was invoked for.
And yet a fundamental dilemma remains: The only entity able to violate another nation’s sovereignty is another nation state.
To put it a bit pointedly: The nation-state is precisely what liberals and neo-liberals see as the problem.
This emphasis helps explain the focus of many European liberals to rely on post-national actors like the ICC or ‘the international community’, be it the UN or the EU or NATO – not only does that give strength in numbers and legitimacy, and the veeneer to not act for petty and selfish national motives - it is also seen as a check on individual nation states.
The US R2Pers are in this regard odd birds, since they have chosen the US - after all a nation state - as the vessel to punish the wicked.
Liberal and European ideals and the sense of vindication
In a sense, the liberal principles enshrined in the EU are a point of convergence for liberals and neo-liberals alike. In many respects, the EU is a crowning achievement of European liberalism. Europe, with its legal transformation and legal and economic integration transcends the state.
If one looks at the European free market and the European basic freedoms the liberal element cannot possibly be overlooked. These freedoms are being zealously guarded and at times expanded by the European Court against infringement by individual nation states.
Europe's considerable expansion likewise was seen as a revolutionary new step into the direction of a new stable, peaceful and prosperous future for Europe, built in shared values, permanent dialogue, cooperation and interdependence. The EU and EU expansion are all about integration and interdependence, and the resulting effect that countries that cooperate so closely are unlikely to go to war with each other. The more the merrier! Expansion is good! That is the European creed in a nutshell.
The idea of interdependence and shared access to resources eliminating any incentives for conflict was what drove the EU from the onset - it was largely conceived as a vessel to resolve French and German differences - two of the three the treaties were on strategic commodities - coal and steel (after all there was a lot of struggle between the two over who controls Alsace-Lorraine) and nuclear materials (then the next big thing) - and then there was the initial European Economic Community.
It is a sign of the profound success in many ways of the project that Franco-German relations - former arch enemies after all - are now friendly and stable. That the EEC finally became the dominant organisation and that Europe prospered is a welcome side effect.
Just as successful is the parallel development that concerns human rights in Europe. During the cold war the question of human rights was basically newspeak for criticizing the governments and practices of communist countries in a supposedly post-ideological way, which culminated in the Helsinki declaration.
Just like the collapse of the regimes of the Warsaw Pact created a narrative that the US won the cold war, for European liberals it was just clear that their liberal principles had won the war of ideas in the cold war. Neo-liberals saw the startling economic collapse in the East as their vindication.
With the end of the cold war, and the collapse of leftist ideology, the European Left was facing a crisis. Out of this crisis emerged the New Left – for example Schröder in Germany or Blair in Britain – which had discovered for them neo-liberalism as the market doctrine, since that was seen as the only game in town.
Probably the only reason why welfare states had been acceptable to the US before – who would have never allowed these programs at home – was that it kept quiet substantial left movements that were at home in Europe. The fall of Communism as a result also discredited the European welfare states. Since Communism no longer was a credible ideological rival, the US and the IWF would no longer tolerate such indulgences. Austerity was the order of the day.
The perception that the nation state and state power is the problem applied to economics as much as to politics:
In the economic sphere the dogma of efficient markets serves as the argument why abolishing oversight and regulations is desirable, but at its root IMO lays the idea that it is national law, and meddling lawmakers if pushed by their electorates, which imposes restrictions on businesses. To abolish such meddling, and to compel through international treaties other states to not conduct market oversight that the US has decided to abolish, neo-liberals expect to have everybody prosper. With the state out of the way, a bright economic future will bloom, finally! And with prosperity will come peace.
In the political realm the focus largely is about the historical examples of states terrorizing their or neighboring populations, and indeed this was the case with the repressive regimes of the late Warsaw Pact, Nazi Germany and for example Imperial Japan. Their historic rampages were so bad and were so murderous because the state’s capacity for organized violence is unsurpassed, as a result of its substantial resources and bureaucratic organizational capability.
In that light, the conclusion that suggests itself is that the weaker the state is, the safer the individual is from it. This view that the state is itself a threat is in a sense a point of convergence for neo-liberals and liberals alike.
EU expansion at an impasse?
For the EU countries the last decades that saw EU expansion and integration of the new members and generally good economic development, despite crises, are a remarkable success story. It is not hard to see how for Europeans, integration and further expansion may seem totally normal and sensible. Does it not work?
Well, mostly: There has been a general sense that Romania and Bulgaria already had been brought in far too really. It may sound patronizing, but it will probably take billions (getting stolen) and decades of governance (nation) building to right these basket cases.
And yet there are people who talk about allowing Ukraine into the EU as if they really mean it, just as if Ukraine was not worse in every respect than either Romania or Bulgaria: Ukraine’s cleptocratic oligarchs were worse and greedier still than even the Russian ones, corruption is endemic and the economy is in dire straits, and now add to this already unappealing picture the damage and disruption caused by the civil war.
In light of such realities, it makes little sense to expand the EU any further. Of course, a formal renunciation to expand the EU further runs counter to European instincts that see assimilation and integration as the right way to achieve mutual security and prosperity.
Since the EU's economic or gravitational pull is quite substantial, the EU has in the past been able to successfully use the prospect of EU ascension as political leverage to shape policies in countries that wanted to enter the EU. A formal renunciation would deprive the EU of that tool and they probably would be loath to give it up. But then, the Turks have long given up believing the EU on this anyway. And the Turks could rightly ask: Why Ukraine but not Turkey, which economically probably is in far better shape?
EU and the economy or security- what matters?
It is interesting to have at this point a brief look at the realities facing a small country of the former Soviet bloc, like Latvia:
Latvia is EU member. Their economy does export to Russia (18%), Lithuania (15%), Estonia (12%), Germany (7,2)%, Poland (5,6%), Sweden (4,8%) - the US isn't even on the list, and neither is it for imports.
More, Latvia has been making considerable progress on integrating into the EU: Latvians are using EU law every day, indeed, EU law has become Latvian law. They can trade, settle, work and travel freely in Europe. If I travel to Latvia, under Schengen rules, I merely need to show ID at the airport. I don't need a passport or a visa. It is the same for Latvians when they travel to Germany.
The question is who has more influence in these countries: The folks the Baltic countries talk, deal and trade with on a daily basis or the guys who are training the officers of their minuscule armies and are selling them used US arms under foreign military sales?
In my judgment it is that in peace it is the EU that must matter to them most. It is only in light of Russia emerging, deus ex machina, as a threat, that the US, as a protector, reasserts their practical relevance to them politically.
The role of NATO, the absence of treats, and the timeliness of the Ukraine crisis
There is the famous adage that NATO was all about to keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.
I increasingly think that this is precisely what we are seeing right now, and what is also underlying the Ukraine crisis.
Nothing revives an old alliance as much as a(n) (in)credible external threat. The re-emergence, through US policy, or Russia as an antagonist, provides just such a threat, at a time when the US is in dire need of it, and America’s vaunted indispensability has come under increasing doubt. It restores US relevance to Europe through NATO.
The US simultaneously does the same in Asia with ASEAN as they take their aim at China.
I think this reassertion of US leadership is the primary motivation on part of the neo-cons and Brezinskiites in their drive against Russia. In that sense, global leadership is the end, and the crises are the means to achieve it.
To the extent that the Obamaites do not just blunder along blindly but pursue a plan, I think that this is it.
They apparently try to make the US more relevant again by deliberately antagonizing Russia, have Europe pay for it (and weaken it as an economic competitor), offer Europe protection through NATO while taking control of the strategic energy transit routes that supply Europe, since these energy transit routes are arteries of our economies, just in case the EU does become a peer competitor after all.
That'd then be every bit as reckless as the neo-conservative plan to reshape the Middle East in the US image.