If from a classical perspective US behaviour can still on a whole be accommodated within the framework of the international law we are accustomed to, there is a second way to look at the problem, which makes the picture much more complex and potentially harmful. This perspective focuses on the changes in the nature of international law which are due to the globalization and questions the role which the USA plays in the process. As is well known, theories differ about the nature of globalization and how it will effect on an international law primarily based on states as political units governed by the principle of sovereign equality. In particular, it is not at all certain that the state as such will evaporate in the process of globalization, or that all states will be equally affected.
For those who view globalization as an outright “americanization” of the world, the matter is easily disposed of. Far from disaggregating into a bundle of services connected in a world network for the benefit of the consumer, as some neo-liberal visionaries want us make to believe, the USA would be in fact on the way to world domination through the corrosion of the integrity of potentially competing states. This is an oversimplification of reality, unless the noun “americanization” is taken as a synonym for the empire of the capitalistic system. In this latter meaning, it is true that the western model of state is in the process of loosen its administrative hold on economic governance. If this process has to be welcomed as an efficient reshaping of power leverages in an integrated and multileveled international environment, or to be lamented as a dismantling of the achievements of social cohesion and a surrender to the market’s dominance, is not a question which has to be answered here. The point is that in any case the state lays down some of its prerogatives and is put on the same level as other actors such as international institutions, “independent” agencies, interest groups, corporations, individuals. This cannot but have a profound impact on the nature of international law, or at least on some of its tenets, first of all on sovereign equality. Indeed, it is clear that even in an advanced stage of international economic interdependence, states will not disappear as principal units of order and governance. Rather, as Kingsbury has aptly argued, the crucial change is likely to be normative, until reaching a functional concept of sovereignty as a “bargaining resource of variable quantum”. It is obvious that the most powerful states will be in a better position to bargain their power, or even to make the deal at the expenses of others. This uneven diminution of state sovereignty will not only lead to a re-division of the world into zones of “civilization” reminiscent of a colonial past, but will also be most dramatically felt in a loosening of the restraints on coercive intervention.
It is at this point that the discourse on globalization meets the specter of hegemony. It might well be that liberal states, in the meaning of free market oriented democracies, are not likely to fight each other, so that the system of a “liberal” world should incarnate the ideal of a perpetual “liberal” peace, but this does not at all imply that liberal states are less inclined to use force than others. On the contrary, their missionary and self-righteous zeal pushes them to override ethical and normative barriers against the use of whatever they deem to be “just” force.
There are theories which go even further and view war as immanent in the very concept of globalization. The views differ with the perspectives. So, for neo-colonial studies, it is quite obvious that “globalization” is but a synonym of a predatory design by western states to re-establish their control over world strategic resources, preferably through the interplay of international financial institutions, but if need be through some more decisive destabilising devices or the outright use of force. For other theorists a permanent state of emergency, a constant conflict with the “Other”, be it with an opportunely designated “rogue” state or even more aptly with a “global” threat such as terrorism, is even necessary for the self-understanding and survival of the very concept of state in the age of globalization. After all, from Hobbes onward, sovereignty has commonly been understood as obedience in exchange of protection.
Therefore globalization, somehow “perversely” can serve to confirm the continuing significance of national imperialism”. What does this mean for the present discussion on US hegemony? From what has been said above, it seems that a new hegemony may necessarily have to be conceived of in terms of military strength alone. In fact it does not come as a surprise that there are now in the USA intellectuals who explicitly propagate the inevitability of war for the defence of the free markets, or favourably compare US readiness to display its military power in today’s “world jungle” with European weaknesses, cowardice and fancies about an outdated international law.
In all respects, the invasion of Iraq marks the crossing of a threshold. Not only it was an unapologetically, openly defiant blow by the USA to the collective will of the Security Council. It also departed from the “zero casualty” doctrine, cherished by the prior US military and political establishment, which is now felt irreconcilable with the pathos and ethos of a “superpower” worthy its name. This development sheds a sinister light on President Bush’ National Security Strategy document of 17 September 2002, a document which some have tried to accommodate as a dialectical attempt to reinterpret customary international law on self-defence. More than the proclaimed right of pre-emptive self-defence against terrorist threats and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, for which some arguments could be made, the real motive of the NSS seems to be the determination of the US Government “to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States”. Taken together with the neo-liberal millenarianism which pervades the present US administration, its pronounced “interest” in holding its grip on strategic resources such as oil, and its unabashed contempt for international institutional or multilateral checks, this amounts to little less than an admission of a resolute will to dominate the world, to establish an ultimate imperium, whatever the price might be.
Should this be the grand strategy behind some recent US moves, such as the labelling of some states as belonging to an “axis of evil”, one cannot help but see the future with apprehension. International law is little consolation to remember that it was with the decisive help of the USA that it managed to escape this danger once.