Over and over again I hear people discussing the possibility of the United States losing its position of leadership in the world. China, they say, is rising. Russia, they worry, is becoming more belligerent. What is going to happen, they wonder, when America is no longer number one?
This subject attracts a lot of attention. After the Cold War ended and a simple division of the world under the rubrics of “good” and “evil” was no longer appropriate, an opening was created for a new, equally simplistic, explanation. Scholars of international politics have indulged themselves in hypothesizing about the makeover of the world: trying on different shapes and discussing whether they fit. Different theories have emerged: from returning to great power politics to becoming an integrated world where nation-states no longer matter and international corporations conduct the orchestra. So which world is it going to be and what should we do about it?
These are the wrong questions: They are also useless and destructive. Wondering about the shape of the world takes our attention away from real problems and instead makes us worry about monsters under the bed. After the September 11 attacks, however, confused and discombobulated, we felt the need for this shape to be defined. We found a definition in the 2002 National Security Strategy, otherwise known as the Bush Doctrine. In it, President Bush attempted to make the world look simple again by dividing it into familiar camps of the "evil-doers" and the rest of us. Bush argued that these "evil-doers," rogue nations and non-state actors such as terrorists, present the greatest danger to the free world and therefore have to be stopped, preemptively. In this doctrine the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq was established.
The danger posed by Iraq was misread, misperceived, and mismanaged. Instead of trying to put our finger on the emerging new order with emerging new threats, if they even existed, we should have focused on things that were within our reach and our control and did not require a crystal ball. Retaliation against the Taliban, which provided support and shelter for Al-Qaeda, was one of those things. Using the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to unify the world in the face of common threats, such as terrorism, was another.
Remember how after 9/11 Bush asked the country to have “the warm courage of national unity”? Well, he got not only national but world unity. NATO invoked its fifth amendment famously proclaiming an all-for-one and one-for-all policy. The French newspaper Lemonde declared “We are all Americans” and the United States’ national anthem was heard outside of Buckingham Palace where thousands of Londoners waved American flags. Russians, who themselves only months earlier had experienced a series of terrorist bombings, put aside major disagreements with the United States and offered their help.
Big or small, democratic or authoritarian, countries were willing to let the U.S. lead in the fight against terrorism. Even Iran was ready to stand by our side in this war. In a largely symbolic gesture, during the week after the 9/11 attacks, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke out against the terrorist act and dropped the “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers, for the first time since the 1979 revolution. On the practical side, as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, suggests, Iran was willing to use its influence over the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban and establish a new government in that country. All these steps were taken by Iran before the State of the Union Address of 2002, when Bush included the country in the “axis of evil.”
This overwhelmingly warm and compassionate response of friends and foes alike is where the secret to confronting the new global challenges lies. Right there was an opportunity to rally most of the world around the United States not only for present, but also for future, dangers. It did not happen. We chose to let go of this opportunity and save the world our way: that is by defining which countries were the “evil-doers” and invading one of them (Iraq-the-evil-doer) preventively with the “coalition of the willing” and without the consent of the United Nations.
What we don’t seem to understand even today is that the shape of the world is determined by our actions and not the other way around. It is dangerous and misguided to come up with the theories of international order that project the present into an unknowable future, and base our actions upon those projections. Instead of trying to redefine the world order after 9/11, we should have redefined the role of the United States in whatever order it was.
The good news is that there is still time. This time is not now but will come after the November elections. Whether with McCain or Obama in charge, we are going to write a new chapter in American foreign policy. One would hope that in this chapter we will stop guessing about the future world order and start creating better polices based on the one there is today.
Anna Cherkasova is a dual degree master's student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is also studying Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and plans to graduate in 2009.