Momentum is building for two collisions of international interests in 2011.  One involves the nature of the coalition operation in Libya, which carries with it implications about the role of the West in global security in general.  The other is the status of a Palestinian state, and the jockeying of various regional actors to assume the lead role in brokering the fate of Israel.

This post will address the first “collision.” As with anything in global affairs, the collision is not guaranteed, nor is the timing – that is, in 2011.  But the outlines of the collision course are clearly visible.  What is at stake is the leadership of the liberal West – such as it still is – in an international order that inoculates us against  either “global government” or the emergence of rival blocs.

As a superpower, the US has functioned as an alternative to the formation of blocs, which coalesce chiefly around the dynamics of aggression and security fears.  America’s ascendancy has mitigated the tendency of regional collectives to become blocs, which they do by succumbing to unipolar leadership and organizing “against” the nations outside of them.  The EU has been a relatively benign entity because of the existence of the United States as a superpower.  The same can be said of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Asia or UNASUR in Latin America, formed in 2008.  None of these entities would have formed quiescently, as a collective of political equals, in the absence of the US as a superpower.

The dimension of military force is key, and in a way we rarely think about except in the breach.  Under liberal Western leadership, expeditionary force has been the prerogative of national governments, and is to be used sparingly and deliberately, for explicit, auditable purposes, after consultation with other stakeholders and a relatively transparent decision process.  This principle is premised above all on the recognition that expeditionary force is disruptive, disjunctive, a breach of order.  It is not a form of police work; it is destabilizing, and while it may sometimes be necessary, is not to be undertaken lightly.

But in Libya in 2011, the US and NATO are making a mistake that surpasses even the anti-humanitarian error of prolonging a resolution for the people of Libya.  We are failing to live up to the standard we ourselves set for the disciplined, accountable use of force.  Point by point, we have been violating our own precepts.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is the chief culprit in this.  France, Britain, Italy, and the other European contributors have actually done better in some respects than the Obama administration, since their leaders have consulted openly with their representative bodies and kept their people advised of what was going on with the process.

Team Obama, however, besides failing the consultation and transparency tests, has chosen to use force for a non-feasible, non-auditable objective – establishing the condition of “Libyan civilians not being harmed,” independent of any political settlement – and thus acted irresponsibly.  NATO is shooting every day over the skies of Libya, but Libyan civilians continue to be harmed.  Nothing NATO is now doing with force can secure a resolution that will offer them relief.

Yet this is military force we’re talking about here, wielded by one group of sovereign nations against another.  Treating the action as if it doesn’t merit the conventional signs of deliberation and bona fides is inherently destabilizing. Obama’s method of using force doesn’t take either the nature of force or the breach of national sovereignty seriously enough.  Rather than assuming that sovereignty should be breached with force only for the most specific and peremptory of purposes, its premise seems to be: breach first, then calibrate the objective at your leisure.

Now some NATO members are calling for putting military “advisors” on the ground, and the headlines are full of alarms about “mission creep.”  When Dmitry Medvedev is right, he’s right.  The coalition is being urged to exceed its UN charter – which is only to enforce a weapons embargo and no-fly zone – and that’s not what Russia effectively bought into by refraining from using the veto on the Security Council.

The current leadership of the US and NATO has put the West in an untenable position.  What they are doing is not an exemplar of traditional Western force, it’s a post-modern experiment.  Even if Qaddafi is eliminated through a “leadership strike,” the barbaric cynicism of essentially removing him through assassination is hardly a recommendation for the tortured political morality embraced by the 1960s-era, Brussels-mentality left.

The collision that is coming is thus due to two factors:  the West’s inability to achieve a resolution in Libya through the methods it has confined itself to, and its irresponsible, even unethical attitude toward the underpinnings of international security.

Aspiring leadership rivals are plentiful.  They are scrambling now, but what we can expect to see from them are more alternative initiatives for handling Libya (some are already in the works) – along with, soon enough, a host of other regional security issues.  There may be a dramatic moment when Russia exercises a veto at the UN over a proposal from the NATO-led coalition.  But even if there’s not, the West will have lost standing if the threat of a veto limits what it can do in Libya.  It will lose standing if the exertions of a non-US, non-European actor, undertaken in an unrelated initiative, are what obtain a settlement in Libya.  And it will lose standing with every day that the situation in Libya remains unresolved.

Nothing is certain at the moment, including how the various actors will line up.  The “BRICS” group, for example – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – condemned the Libya intervention at its 14 April meeting.  Can the BRICS retain their cohesion if Russia or South Africa (or both) presses for a particular resolution in Libya?

Ultimately, they might.  Turkey is heavily involved in the Libya intervention (promising in late March to run the airport in Benghazi, which would install Turkish government officials as gate guards for cargo and personnel throughput there), and has entertained multiple visits by envoys from Qaddafi.  But Qaddafi’s envoys have visited Greece too, Turkey’s rival in NATO and the major landowner directly across the Mediterranean from Libya.  Russia’s Medvedev and Greece’s Giorgios Papandreou consulted on Libya last week, and in the days since, the two nations have jointly negotiated with Qaddafi’s current foreign minister on establishing a ceasefire (to be aided by Russian troops as monitors), while Qaddafi requested Greece’s help in negotiating with NATO.

With Turkey’s activism increasing and NATO Europe looking ineffective, Russia and Greece will find their perceived interests coinciding more and more.  Meanwhile, the indefatigable African Union has finally gotten representatives from Qaddafi and the rebels together this week in its continuing search for a settlement.  The Arab League – Libya’s other principal affiliation – has been fractured and ineffective; it just decided to postpone its scheduled 8 May summit in Baghdad after the Iraqi government expressed support for the Shia protesters in Bahrain.

Russia, Greece, and the African Union are all willing to back a settlement that leaves Qaddafi in a power position of some kind, with final conditions to be negotiated and multinational peacekeepers in Libya.  (The latter factor would be a boon to Russia and/or some members of the African Union.)

The US and Western Europe have backed themselves into the opposite corner.  Turkey retains independence right now in terms of her position on the Libya conflict, effectively siding with NATO but gaining benefits from doing so for her regional aspirations.  The longer we dither, however, the more coherent the alternative proposition will become.  Russia holds veto power over any UN endorsement of a ramp-up in NATO-led operations.  Turkey will almost certainly try to play both sides.  Coalition partners like Italy and Qatar – neither of which is a fan of major military action – may begin to waver.

Only one thing would have the hope of restoring the global power relationships that are being thrown up for grabs, and that is the US taking leadership to secure a resolution in Libya.  Even now it’s not too late in terms of the conditions at hand.  It is highly improbable, however.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

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