Thanks largely to Franklin Roosevelt, the Second World War, which created the world in which we still all live, was fought for certain privileges embodied in the Atlantic Charter he and Churchill signed in August 1941, and four years later in the charter of the United Nations. They included the right of self-determination for all peoples, relatively free economic exchanges, and even disarmament. In theory those have remained the basis of American foreign policy every since, even though at times we have failed to observe them. Not only the United Nations, but the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty are based upon the idea of equality and impartiality--the only basis, in my opinion, for a truly peaceful world. Yet the men who initially wrote those agreements are long dead, and no new great war to reaffirm those principles is looming. That is not a bad thing, but we now risk sliding into war on several fronts because we are abandoning those principles.
One front is in the Middle East. Israel's foundation was regarded as an application of self-determination: the Jews, like other peoples, wanted their own state, and the United Nations decided they should have it. Unfortunately it was three decades before any of Israel's neighbors would recognize its existence, and by that time, Israel had expanded further thanks to the Six Day War. Since 1967 the Palestinians have been denied self-determination, and if I am not mistaken, they are the only people in the world who are not citizens of any country. The possibility of a two-state solution is fading rapidly from view. Reports out of Israel confirm that settlements are expanding and that the current Israeli government has no intention of giving up any control of East Jerusalem or halting the gradual seizures of property taking place there or elsewhere. The United States government, meanwhile, simply will not take on the Israelis, reduce their aid, or exert real pressure for a new solution.
Iran is a related issue. Nothing in the UN Charter denies Iran the right to a nuclear program or, for that matter, nuclear weapons. The Non-proliferation Treaty to which they are a party does deny them that right, but they deny any intention to build a weapon and they could in any case disavow the treaty, as the North Koreans have done. (Israel never signed it, and India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons anyway.) The Non-proliferation treaty committed non-nuclear signatories not to develop nuclear weapons, but also committed the nuclear states to disarm. This they have no real plans to do. Slowly but surely, the Obama Administration has adopted the position of its predecessor: that Iran will not achieve a nuclear capability simply because we do not believe that it should. Last week a news story quoted an anonymous American official telling the Israelis that containment of Iran is not our policy. That points eventually to military action. The attempt to deny their capability has already led us to unleash cyberwarfare, a precedent that may come back to haunt us. As we did at the height of the Cold War, we appear almost to be ruling out the prospect of living with the current Iranian government in peace.
The Pentagon is now increasingly focused on a possible war with China--the basis of a new doctrine of "air-sea battle" designed to prevent China from securing military control of its neighboring seas. The danger of conflict comes from two issues: Taiwan, whose status is still undetermined, and a dispute over territorial waters. Most of the world recognizes a 12-mile limit to sovereignty, but China is claiming the right to dominate the South China Sea out to 200 miles or so. The 12-mile limit is part of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which the United States has refused to sign, but in this case, we have endorsed that provision, as have China's neighbors. Here world opinion is indisputably against China, but it is not clear to me that anyone is working actively to try to close the gap and remove a potential source of trouble through agreement. The Pentagon meanwhile seems happy to have a new great-power threat on which to spend money.
The problem before the world is to recommit once again to a set of impartial principles, as in the 1940s--but this time without war. No one is better placed to encourage that process than the President of the United States, and in his first year in office it seemed that President Obama might do so. He has not. He and his administration have largely remained focused upon Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the Arab spring. The richer parts of the world are being left to take care of themselves. Meanwhile, the Republican insistence on "American exceptionalism" and their ceaseless portrayal of European societies as an evil to be avoided is breaking down the idea of the Atlantic community that held the world together for the second half of the twentieth century. Let us hope that this trend can be reversed.