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NEW YORK — Should Washington go to war unilaterally, it will put at risk the hard-earned reputation since 1945 of being an essentially peaceful hegemonist that fights only in self-defense — unlike the former Soviet Union, the expansionist bully that dressed up its aggression in the rhetoric of a universal socialist brotherhood. And what if the United Nations Security Council authorizes war? When the infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism was adopted, it was less a triumph of Arab diplomacy than an indictment of U.N pusillanimity. If the U.N. should be seen to have bent to U.S. will, who will protect U.N. officials against retaliatory attacks?

Since much of the U.S. grievance against Iraq seems to be focused on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program — and the American anger has precipitated an international crisis through the threat of war — it is worth examining the impact of 9/11 on nuclear weapons and doctrines and world order.

If by the end of his term, U.S. President Bill Clinton was a reluctant multilateralist, at the start of his term President George W. Bush was a disengaged multilateralist. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, pushed him into an assertive and aggressive unilateralism with little inclination to make concessions on any front to international concerns.

The dismissive attitude toward global regimes has found expression in unilateral changes in U.S. doctrines with respect to the utility and usability of nuclear weapons. Mutual and extended deterrence (for allies sheltered under the nuclear umbrella) has given way to offensive deterrence and unilateral pre-emption with special-purpose nuclear weapons that have been transformed from weapons of last resort to weapons of choice. There is further mission creep. Where previously their use was unimaginable except against nuclear enemies, today they are justified as counters to “weapons of mass destruction,” including biological and chemical weapons.

But such doctrinal spread may have unhappy consequences for weapons proliferation. For the calculus of potential proliferators is bound to be changed in response to the changing U.S. doctrine. It is not possible to convince others of the futility of nuclear weapons when the facts of possession and doctrines of use prove their utility for a self-selected few. Lowering the threshold of their use weakens the taboo against them, thus inevitably lowering the normative barriers to nuclear proliferation.

The proclamation of an essentially imperial doctrine of unchallenged military supremacy and full-spectrum dominance will greatly magnify the allure of nuclear weapons as weapons of defense and deterrence for poor/weak countries. Moreover, the combination of U.S. high-tech superiority, reliance on long distance over-the-horizon warfare and casualty aversion adds value to nuclear weapons as leveraging tools that can affect the calculus of U.S. military decisions.

But this in itself is now less worrying to Washington. For yet another effect of 9/11 was to change dramatically the focus of concern from universal to differentiated nuclear proliferation. Previously, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was the centerpiece and embodiment of the nonproliferation norm. This is why sanctions were imposed on India and Pakistan for carrying out nuclear tests in 1998, even though neither had signed the NPT.

Now the U.S. concern is not in relation to the NPT, but in terms of the relations of the proliferators with Washington. U.S.-friendly countries like Israel never evoked outrage over their nuclear weapons programs. Since Sept. 11, even India and Pakistan have been lifted out of countries of concern in favor of concentrated attacks on the axis of evil countries — that is, U.S.-hostile proliferators.

And of course the concern is no longer limited to state proliferators, but extends much more broadly to nonstate groups and individuals as well, especially those who might some day contemplate acts of nuclear terrorism. This is the true meaning of the Bush promise that the U.S. will not allow the world’s most dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes (and, one might add, the world’s most destructive groups and individuals), as judged solely and unilaterally by Washington.

Therein lies the logic of pre-emption, if necessary, well before the threat actually materializes (as with Hussein, whose acquisition of nuclear weapons does not seem imminent, all bluster to the contrary notwithstanding). There is also an underlying belief that current criticism of any U.S.-led war to take out Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction will be quickly muted with the success of the operation and eventually turn into gratitude for someone’s having had the necessary foresight, fortitude and resolution.

But in turn this changes the basis of world order as we know it. And that might be the most profound and long-lasting significance of 9/11. It may indeed have changed the world and tipped us into a post-Westphalian world. U.S. policy is full of contradictions within the paradigm of world order since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) wherein all states are of equal status and legitimacy.

How can the most prominent dissident against many global norms and regimes — from arms control to climate change and international criminal justice — claim to be the world’s most powerful enforcer of global norms and regimes, including nonproliferation?

How can the most vocal critic of the very notion of an international community anoint itself as the international community’s sheriff? For that matter, by what right do the five unelected members of the Security Council claim a permanent monopoly on nuclear weapons?

The answer lies in a conception of world order rooted outside the framework of Westphalian sovereignty. This also explains why some of today’s most potent threats come not from the conquering states within the Westphalian paradigm, but from failing states outside it.

In effect, Bush is saying that the gap between the fiction of legal equality and the reality of power preponderance, between equally legitimate and democratically legitimate states, has stretched beyond the breaking point.

Washington is no longer bound by such fiction. The Bush administration insists that the U.S. will remain as fundamentally trustworthy, balanced and responsible a custodian of world order as before — but of a post-Westphalian order centered on the United States surrounded by a wasteland of vassal states.

The U.N. is an organization of member states. During the minicrisis in the Security Council in July over the International Criminal Court, Washington had already demonstrated that it views the U.N. as a forum for augmenting policy options — not limiting them.

In his address to the General Assembly last month, Bush modified the “if you are not with us, you are against us” slogan from the war on terror to “if you are not with us, you are irrelevant” for the coming war against Iraq. This was not an American concession to U.N. multilateralism, but a demand for international capitulation to the U.S. threat to go to war. But in doing so, Bush presented the U.N. with an impossible choice between credibility and effectiveness, on the one hand, and integrity and principle, on the other.

The U.N. is both the symbol and the major instrument for moderating the use of force in international affairs, not sanctifying it and blessing a major expansion in its permissive scope through such subjective subterfuges as pre-emption. And it is the collective body for protecting the territorial integrity of member states within the Westphalian paradigm of national sovereignty.

The choice between irrelevance (for not having the courage to enforce its decisions) and complicity (in endorsing an armed attack on the territorial integrity of the weak by the powerful) would be a fatal one for the organization.

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