President Bush’s June graduation address to the cadets at West Point has attracted attention mainly because it is the fullest articulation, so far, of the new strategic doctrine of pre-emption. The radical idea being touted by the White House and Pentagon is that the United States has the right to use military force against any state that is seen as hostile or makes moves to acquire weapons of mass destruction–nuclear, biological or chemical. The obvious initial test case for pre-emption is Iraq, whose government the United States is continually threatening to overthrow, either on the model of the displacement of the Taliban in Afghanistan or by some other method. Washington’s war plans have evidently not been finalized, and whether the intimations of war–despite the numerous objections voiced by neighboring governments and European allies–are to be taken literally is still unclear.

What is certain, and scary, is the new approach to the use of international force beneath the banner of counterterrorism and in the domestic climate of fervent nationalism that has existed since September 11. This new approach repudiates the core idea of the United Nations Charter (reinforced by decisions of the World Court in The Hague), which prohibits any use of international force that is not undertaken in self-defense after the occurrence of an armed attack across an international boundary or pursuant to a decision by the UN Security Council. When Iraq conquered and annexed Kuwait in 1990, Kuwait was legally entitled to act in self-defense to recover its territorial sovereignty even without any UN authorization. And the United States and others were able to join Kuwait in bolstering its prospects, thereby acting in what international lawyers call collective self-defense.

Back in 1956, when the American commitment to this Charter effort to limit the discretion of states to the extent possible was still strong, the US government surprised its allies and adversaries by opposing the Suez war of Britain, France and Israel because it was a nondefensive use of force against Egypt, despite the provocations associated at the time with Nasser’s anti-Israeli, anti-Western militancy. This legal commitment had evolved by stages in the period after World War I, and when the surviving leaders of Germany and Japan were prosecuted for war crimes, “crimes against the peace” were declared to be even worse than atrocities committed in the course of the war. The task of the Charter was to give this concept as clear limits as possible.

Pre-emption, in contrast, validates striking first–not in a crisis, as was done by Israel with plausible, if not entirely convincing, justification in the 1967 war, when enemy Arab troops were massing on its borders after dismissing the UN war-preventing presence, but on the basis of shadowy intentions, alleged potential links to terrorist groups, supposed plans and projects to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and anticipations of possible future dangers. It is a doctrine without limits, without accountability to the UN or international law, without any dependence on a collective judgment of responsible governments and, what is worse, without any convincing demonstration of practical necessity.

It is true that the reality of the mega-terrorist challenge requires some rethinking of the relevance of rules and restraints based on conflict in a world of territorial states. The most radical aspects of the Al Qaeda challenge are a result of its nonterritorial, concealed organizational reality as a multistate network. Modern geopolitics was framed to cope with conflict, and relations among sovereign states; the capacity of a network with modest resources to attack and wage a devastating type of war against the most powerful state does require acknowledgment that postmodern geopolitics needs a different structure of security.

Postmodernity refers here to preoccupations that can no longer be reduced to territorial dimensions. This contrasts with “modernity,” born internationally in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia with the emergence of the secular sovereign state, and a world politics that could be understood by reference to territorial ambitions and defense. For Osama bin Laden, the focus has been on nonterritorial empowerment via mega-terrorism, with the vision of an Islamic umma replacing the modern, Western-inspired structure of distinct sovereign states. For George W. Bush, the emphasis has been on carrying the retaliatory war to the networked enemy concealed in some sixty countries, and on declaring war against all those nonstate forces around the world.

To respond to the threat of mega-terrorism does require some stretching of international law to accommodate the reasonable security needs of sovereign states. Prior cross-border military reactions to transnational terrorism over the years by the United States, India, Israel and others were generally tolerated by the UN and international public opinion because they seemed proportionate and necessary in relation to the threats posed, and the use of force relied upon was in its essence reactive, not anticipatory. International law was bent to serve these practical imperatives of security, but not broken. But the Bush doctrine of pre-emption goes much further, encroaching on highly dangerous terrain. It claims a right to abandon rules of restraint and of law patiently developed over the course of centuries, rules governing the use of force in relation to territorial states, not networks.

To propose abandoning the core legal restraint on international force in relations among states is to misread the challenge of September 11. It permits states to use force nondefensively against their enemies, thereby creating a terrible precedent. There is every reason to think that containment and deterrence remain effective ways to approach a state that threatens unwarranted expansion. There is no evidence to suggest that Iraq cannot be deterred, and its pattern of behavior in relation to its war against Iran in the 1980s, as well as its conquest and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, were based on a rational calculation of gains that, when proved incorrect, led to a reversal of policy. Brutal and oppressive as the regime in Iraq is, it was accepted until 1990 as a geopolitical ally of sorts. As a state, it acts and behaves normally, that is, by weighing benefits and costs. It is surrounded and threatened by superior force, and any attempt to lash out at neighbors or others would almost certainly result in its immediate and total destruction. There is no reason whatsoever to think that deterrence and containment would not succeed, even should Baghdad manage to acquire biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Deterrence and containment succeeded in relation to the Soviet Union for more than four decades, under far more demanding circumstances.

What is at stake with pre-emption, as tied to the “axis of evil” imagery, is more hidden and sinister. What is feared in Washington, I think, is not aggressive moves by these countries but their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction that might give them a deterrent capability with respect to the United States and other nations. Since the end of the cold war the United States has enjoyed the luxury of being undeterred in world politics. It is this circumstance that makes Bush’s “unilateralism” particularly disturbing to other countries, and it must be understood in relation to the moves of the Pentagon, contained in a report leaked last December, to increase US reliance on nuclear weapons in a variety of strategic circumstances. At West Point, Bush declared with moral fervor that “our enemies…have been caught seeking these terrible weapons.” It never occurs to our leaders that these weapons are no less terrible when in the hands of the United States, especially when their use is explicitly contemplated as a sensible policy option. There is every reason for others to fear that when the United States is undeterred it will again become subject to “the Hiroshima temptation,” in which it might threaten and use such weapons in the absence of any prospect of retaliation.

Bush goes further, combining empire with utopia, reminding his West Point audience that “the twentieth century ended with a single surviving model of human progress based on nonnegotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property, and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.” The clear intention is to suggest that America is the embodiment of this model. And while Bush does concede that “America cannot impose this vision,” he does propose that it “can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people,” and presumably punish those that don’t. Not only does the United States claim the right to global dominance but it also professes to have the final answers for societal well-being, seeming to forget its homeless, its crowded and expanding prisons, its urban blight and countless other domestic reminders that ours may not be the best of all possible worlds, and especially not for all possible peoples.

This vision of postmodern geopolitics is underwritten by a now-familiar strong message of evangelical moralism. Bush notes that “some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree,” and adds that “moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place.” Such moral absolutism is then applied to the current global realities. Bush insists that “we are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.” Aside from occupying the moral high ground, which exempts America from self-criticism or from addressing the grievances others have with respect to our policies, such sentiments imply a repudiation of dialogue and negotiation. As there can be no acceptable compromise with the forces of evil, there can be no reasonable restraint on the forces of good. We may lament fundamentalism in the Islamic world and decry the fulminations of Osama bin Laden, but what about our own?

In contemplating this geopolitical vision for the future, one wonders what happened to candidate Bush’s rhetoric about the importance of “humility” in defining America’s role in the world. Of course, he was then trying to downsize the humanitarian diplomacy attributed (mostly wrongly) to Clinton/Gore, but the contrast in tone and substance is still striking. One wonders whether the heady atmosphere of the Oval Office has fed these geopolitical dreams, or whether our President, well-known for his lack of foreign policy knowledge, has been manipulated into a crusading mode by bureaucratic hawks who seized the opportunity so tragically provided by September 11.

Many influential Americans share this dream of a borderless global empire but adopt less forthright language. For instance, the respected military commentator Eliot Cohen, writing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, suggests that “in the twenty-first century, characterized like the European Middle Ages by a universal (if problematic) high culture with a universal language, the U.S. military plays an extraordinary and inimitable role. It has become, whether Americans or others like it or not, the ultimate guarantor of international order.” To make such an assertion without apology or justification is to say, in effect, that the imperial role of the United States is no longer in doubt, or even subject to useful debate. To acknowledge that it makes no difference whether Americans or others support this destiny is to reveal the fallen condition of democracy and the irrelevance of international public opinion. Along similar lines of presupposition, Stephen Biddle, in the same issue of Foreign Affairs, observes in relation to the problems of the Balkans, and specifically Kosovo, that “Americans do well in crusades,” but then he cites Cohen and Andrew Bacevich to the effect that “they are not suited…to the dirty work of imperial policing to secure second- or third-tier interest.” Such an outlook makes the fact of an American global empire a foregone conclusion.

But pre-emption and double standards were not the only troubling features of this postmodern geopolitical outlook outlined in the West Point speech. There is first of all the issue of global dominance, a project to transform the world order from its current assemblage of sovereign states in the direction of a postmodern (that is, nonterritorial) global empire administered from Washington. Bush misleadingly assured the graduating cadets that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” and then went on to describe precisely such undertakings. The President mentioned that past rivalries among states arose because of their efforts to compete with one another, but insisted that the future will be different because of American military superiority: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” The ambition here is breathtaking and imperial–nothing less than to remind all states that the era of self-help security is essentially over, that America is the global gendarme, and that other states should devote their energies to economic and peaceful pursuits, leaving overall security in Washington’s hands. One can only wonder at the reaction of foreign ministries around the world, say in Paris or Beijing, when confronted by this language, which dramatically diminishes traditional sovereign rights, as well as by the reinforcing moves to scrap the ABM treaty, to build a missile defense shield and to plan for the weaponization of space.

Whether it is Bush at West Point, or the more sedate writings of the foreign policy elite writing for each other, or for that matter intelligent and progressive criticism, useful analysis must proceed from the postmodern realization that we are addressing a menacing nonstate adversary concealed in a network that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. These new circumstances definitely call for new thinking that adapts international law and global security in an effective and constructive manner. But the adjustments called for by Bush do not meet the specific challenge of mega-terrorism, and they unleash a variety of dangerous forces. What is needed is new thinking that sees the United States as part of a global community that is seeking appropriate ways to restore security and confidence, but builds on existing frameworks of legal restraints and works toward a more robust UN, while not claiming for itself an imperial role to make up the rules of world politics as it goes along. Given the bipartisan gridlock that has gripped the country since September 11, positive forms of new thinking will almost certainly come, if they come, from pressures exerted by the citizenry outside the Beltway. We as citizens have never faced a more urgent duty.