Democracy Confronts The Superpower

Democracy Confronts The Superpower

The New Global Politics

The controversies over the invasion and now the reconstruction of Iraq have exposed a transformation underway in the relationships among states. The diversity and passion of the voices in the debates, the departures from traditional patterns of allegiance among countries, and America’s failure to win support from longstanding allies all point to a new reality: the geopolitical system, as never before, is displaying democratic features associated more commonly with national states than with global society.

This democratization of international politics has implications for how the United States behaves in the world. As weaker countries become more ready to combine and oppose what they see as an errant superpower, U.S. policy-makers may be inclined to suppress this new pluralism and preserve the more familiar norms of power politics. After the triumph in Iraq this temptation has been strengthened, with the United States having demonstrated to the world that, dissenting views notwithstanding, America is still the boss.

Yet, as disputes erupt over the shape of postwar Iraqi reconstruction and the handling of other hot spots such as North Korea, the varied voices in the debates show no sign of quieting down. Over time, the democratic transformation may go from being a nettlesome impediment to certain U.S. objectives to a persistent constraint on our superpower status. Instead of resisting change, we would be wise to adapt, harnessing these emergent democratic forces in the international arena so that they voluntarily support, rather than undercut, American leadership.

A Funny Thing Happened in the International Forum

The Iraq debate underscores this new dynamic. When the administration of George W. Bush approached the United Nations in September 2002 to seek support for military action to disarm Saddam Hussein, few doubted that it would ultimately get its way. As the world’s only superpower, with unrivaled military and economic strength, having just shown in Afghanistan its ability to topple corrupt penny-ante regimes without breaking a sweat, the United States looked unassailable. The unanimous resolution backing the reinstatement of weapons inspectors in November 2002 reinforced the idea that the United States could bring the world around to even highly controversial positions.

Four months later, the world was held rapt by a bitter feud between the United States and a handful of key allies who favored an Iraq invasion and France, Germany, Russia, China, and others, who demanded continued weapons inspections instead of war. Countries whose support the United States had taken for granted-such as Turkey, Mexico, and Chile-publicly debated where to stand. Tactics that in the past had always shored up wobbly backing from friends did not seem to work. Rather than resigning themselves to the inevitability of a war that the U.S. president had all but vowed would oc...

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