People who claim that George Bush's legacy is going to be Iraq are pretty short-sighted. Twenty years from now we may see his true legacy as the fracture, if not complete breakdown in postwar multilateralism.
The next US president's challenge is going to be undoing as much of the damage caused by his predecessor as possible. He or she is going to have to struggle with Iraq, global warming, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and a foreign policy that has profoundly destabilized the world. Taken altogether, it's a Herculean task made even more difficult by America's trade, deficit, debt and tax imbalances. The next president will inherit an America left with little goodwill abroad; few unquestioning allies and a host of hostile nations, many of them of its own creation.
Among the next president's most urgent challenges will be defusing the arms races that Bush unilateralism has triggered. The US, China, Russia and India are all reaching for their guns. Smaller countries are following suit. This has to be stopped and then reversed and the only path to that is a return to multilateralism.
Arms races are fear-driven. The actions of one nation or group of nations make another, rightly or wrongly, feel insecure, inferior and threatened. This is exactly what Bush has done, time and again. He departed from international law to wage pre-emptive war, illegal war, a war of aggression based on a toxic brew of delusion and outright deceit. He put his name to the astonishingly bellicose "Bush Doctrine" which enshrines America's right to further pre-emptive war against any nation or group of nations who offend American supremacy by rising to a level considered by America to rival its own military or economic might.
George Bush has placed war over peace as America's priority and the world has taken notice. China has launched a major campaign of rearmament, seeking to develop its own generation of sophisticated weaponry to bolster its regional security. India too is matching its own economic ascendancy with military expansion. Now it is Russia's turn.
The US sought to consolidate the end of the Cold War by needlessly expanding its flagship military alliance, NATO, to Russia's very borders. Now George Bush has pursued his goal of an anti-missile defence system positioned as close to Russia's borders as Poland. He has announced his intention to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. He has increased his country's already astronomical military budget by over 60%. He has driven Russia into a corner.
These aren't the acts of a man seeking peace but of a bully demanding submission.
The German newspaper, Der Spiegel, warns that Russia is responding quite predictably:
"US tanks are already capable of destroying many Russian tanks from ranges at which their Russian counterparts are not even capable of striking their adversaries, while the US's Stealth bomber, currently matchless in the world, is virtually invisible to radar systems.
"Similarly, US troops are capable of observing and attacking their enemies while escaping detection themselves using remote-controlled cameras mounted on drones. And the crews of American attack submarines can locate virtually any other ship in the world's oceans using advanced sensors, without exposing themselves to danger.
"But Washington has achieved its greatest gains precisely in an area once considered successfully defused as a result of arms control efforts. American long-range missiles are now so precise that experts believe that a US first strike could destroy Moscow's nuclear capability. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, US experts Keir Lieber and Daryl Press described the end of the strategy of 'mutually assured destruction,' which has preserved the balance of power and prevented nuclear war since the 1960s.
"In contrast, Russia's fleet of missile submarines has been reduced to a mere nine vessels. The country now only has bombers stationed at two airbases, and the absence of an early warning system leaves the Russian aircraft almost completely vulnerable to a surprise attack. The same applies to the mobile launchers for Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, which now hardly ever leave their hangars -- hangars which the Americans have in their sights.
"Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov complains that the US defense budget is '25 times as large as Russia's.' To at least partially close this gap, he presented an ambitious modernization program to the lower house of the Russian parliament last week. Under the plan, Russia would build 50 new strategic bombers, eight nuclear submarines, dozens of new missile silos, more than 50 mobile Topol-M missiles and four military satellites by 2015.
"The Americans plan to expand their global missile defense system by adding up to 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an early warning system in the Czech Republic. Bush has assured Putin that the purpose of the missile shield is to defend against "irresponsible states" and the "growing threat from the Middle East" -- and that it is not directed against the Russians.
But the Russians, convinced that the missiles based in Poland could shoot down their missiles in the event of a conflict, are vigorously opposed to the US's "encircling" strategy. "
"Washington's actions show signs that the US is 'partially losing touch with reality,' writes Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung: No one in the West had enough imagination to realize Putin might actually interpret the missile shield on his borders as a provocation.
"In Washington, on the other hand, Putin's Munich speech is more likely to bolster the arguments of those who have long warned against a new threat coming from Russia. Sources say that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has never trusted Putin, a former KGB agent, and influential Senator John McCain has been calling for a tougher stance on Russia for years. Indeed, when the Russian president launched into his verbal attacks at the Munich conference, McCain, who was seated only a few meters away from Putin, became visibly enraged.
"From the standpoint of the White House, the self-confident Russian's list of sins is gradually becoming intolerably long, not because of fears of a direct Russian military threat but because Moscow is seeking allies among the US's enemies. Russia's delivery of advanced surface-to-air missile defense systems to Iran is seen as an especially serious offence.
"And hardliners in Washington see themselves vindicated by Putin's offer this week to help the Saudi royal family develop a nuclear program -- proof, they say, that a new conflict between the former arch-rivals is unavoidable."
We can only hope that the next US president has the wisdom to prevent this nascent Cold War from developing into a self-fulfilling prophecy. America's allies need to stop being complacent handmaidens. The time has come for an intervention, putting Washington back in touch with reality. We all need America to return to the community of nations.