Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 24 November 2003

Making sense of the new world turmoil

BLURB:    Last week, with more bombings in Turkey and Iraq, was another tumultuous time for a world that has lost its compass.   The multilateral system, whether in peace and security or in economic cooperation, is in tatters.  Can the United States re-think its hegemonic role, or can the rest of the world sail ahead even if the captain won’t join the ship of multilateral cooperation?


What a tumultuous time for world peace and security.  The bombings in Turkey, the two US helicopters brought down in Iraq,  the more than hundred thousand people in London demonstrating the visit of US President Bush, and in Baghdad on Saturday two new car bombs and a missile hit on a DHL cargo plane (it landed safely)…

The war and occupation in Iraq, whose stated aim was to fight terrorism, has led to more turmoil and terror instead.

The role of the US in all this has split opinion worldwide, in each country and town, maybe even within some families.

For example, as Bush was arriving in London last week for a state visit hosted by the Queen and the British Prime Minister, the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said the US President was the greatest threat to humanity ever.  Moreover he did not recognize Bush as President as he had not really been elected.  And he hosted a party for anti-Bush protestors.

At an Oxfam International three-day forum in Dublin that I attended last week, participants were trying to make sense of the new world turmoil and what can be done about it.

Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and now Honorary Oxfam President) said after September 11, dreams of fighting the enemies of all—poverty, injustice, environmental degradation – have become a nightmare of disappointment.

The future of multilateralism is uncertain, due partly to an unbalanced world where the US has not adapted to its global dominance and how best to work in a multilateral system, she added. 

The uncertainty also stems from the approach of the other members of the Permanent Five in the Security Council and inadequate governance of the multilateral system that failed to put the interests of poor nations and those at risk ahead of powerful states.  A multilateral commitment to protection of citizens is still illusive.

She said the UN is far from irrelevant but its experience over Iraq (the frustrating saga of weapons inspections, being defied by the US led coalition, then sidelined in Iraq reconstruction) underscores the need for reform and long-term change. 

For her, the fundamental question is “how we re-engage the US in international issues and organizations, whether on the Middle East roadmap to peace, drug patents, climate change, arms control, the International Court or the Doha Round.”

Robinson’s speech reminded me of the most memorable phrase of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, where the Chairman of a panel preparing the main Summit document whispered to his neighbour,  “But what do we do about the United States?”,  not knowing the microphone would pick this up.

He was referring to the problems caused by the US delegation in blocking potential consensus on many issues.

By the next day that phrase had been placed on the Tee Shirts of hundreds of environmentalists who were angry at what they saw  as the US undermining efforts at multilateral solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, bioafety, toxic chemicals, air pollution, development aid and the excessive power of big corporations.

At the Oxfam meeting, a Berkeley University political scientist, Steve Weber, explained that September 11 led to a new world view for the US political elites.  They no longer pursue the “building of democracy” and cannot wait for “engagement” with other countries they are suspicious of, but are now driven by an overriding fear of an alliance of what they saw as tyrannical regimes and “movements of rage.” 

He likened this to a Paerl Harbour syndrome, the fear of being subjected to a massive attack while unprepared, as happened on 11 September 2001 and at Pearl Harbour in the Second World War. 

This syndrome would drive the US political leaders, even beyond the period of the Bush presidency, to want to dominate the world so as to pre-empt what they see as potential threats and more surprise attacks.

This pessimistic scenario was however challenged by many others, such as Roberto Bissio from Uruguay, who said that within the US itself there was increasing dissent against the Bush administration’s foreign policy, as Americans realize its counter-productive effects.   

Moreover, the stiff resistance against US occupation in Iraq is already causing the US to quicken its withdrawal and to seek UN cooperation, and this would act as a check limiting the U.S. ambitious plans to intervene in other parts of the world, added Bissio, who coordinates Social Watch, a network of citizen groups around the world that monitors whether governments implement their commitments to UN goals.

Soon, Americans will realize that its aggressive plan for world hegemony and to prevent terrorism and surprise attacks would have the opposite effect, and the political elites will have to address the root causes of terrorism instead.

Others also pointed to the massive spending by the US on its Iraq and Afghan interventions, contributing to its quickly rising government and foreign debts, which could cause a fall in the dollar and a national or even global financial crisis.  This economic factor may also put a brake on future US military adventures.

Mary Kaldor, a specialist on peace and security issues based at the London School of Economics, said the war on Iraq was a turning point in damage to the multilateral system and it is now hard to put the system together again.

She said the war was a historic mistake.   War is unacceptable on moral grounds, as the millions around the world that protested on 15 February were publicly stating.  There is no such thing as legitimate killing by the state.  The killing of 13,000 people (4,000 of them civilians) in the Iraq war is very high by human rights standards.  With global communications exposing the casualties, people are no longer able to accept the killing by their state of other people in foreign countries.

She added that with the technology of bombings and grenades now more widely available including to those resisting occupation, there has been an “equalization” in war.  “You can win the war but cannot bring about order.” 

Why then does a country like the US to go war if it cannot succeed?  Asking this, Kaldor herself supplied an answer.  War is a political mobilization aimed at domestic politics.  The US wanted to repeat the grand narrative of liberating countries and bringing democracy, interested not so much in success but to be seen to be doing this for its domestic audience.

She recounted how on her recent trip to Baghdad, she had been visiting the office of the US forces when a bombing took place nearby.  The immediate reaction of the American official she was talking to was not about the damage caused, but: “How will the Democrats see this?”

Many speakers also dealt with the economic and social factors underlying the world’s political insecurity.  The imbalances of the world trade system, which contributed to the collapse of the Cancun talks, and the social and political damage caused by debt and financial crises, were discussed.

On these, the citizen groups who were present, could claim some success in highlighting the problems and pointing to solutions, including through their campaigns for debt relief and for fairer trade. 

But NGO leaders such as the Brazilian, Candido Grzybowski of the World Social Forum and Marcello Furtado of Greenpeace, said it was now time for the civil society groups to go beyond taking up specific issues and also develop a longer-term action plan to re-build a multilateral system that works for people and for development.

Strengthening the social movements in both poor and rich countries was identified as being crucial, but also the deepening of knowledge on a whole range of specific issues and on proposals for alternatives and solutions.

The NGOs felt they had become more effective in recent years in pointing to the problems and even in proposing some solutions on specific issues.  But they had now to shift to a new level of proposing basic changes to the global systems of trade, finance and social development, which are so evidently not working.

Back to the question of “what to do with the United States”, some participants thought the world could not just stop and wait for the US to change its ways, but should move ahead with international cooperation even if the US would not want to join in.

If the developing countries can unite more among themselves, as they did at the WTO Cancun meeting, and if some developed countries, such as in Europe, could join with them, then much of the world could collaborate with plans and agreements to improve the global situation on the environment, on social issues such as poverty eradication, food security and health care, on trade and finance, and on peace and security.

Such agreements could go ahead even if the US did not want to join.  This has already happened in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the Cartegena Protocol on biosafety, which are operating even without the US as a member.

If the rest of the world sails ahead, one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, the US may decide to rejoin the ship of multilateralism.  Sailing ahead first would thus be better than stopping the ship or even allowing the ship to capsize.       

As current coordinator of the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as the Organisation of Islamic Conferences, Malaysia has an important role and potentially a historic role to play to bring about more peace and justice in what is a now a dangerous world.

There’s a lot of expectations placed on Malaysia.  Let’s hope the country can rise to the occasion.