It was never about Iraq. It is not really about terrorism any more either, though the terrorists are still there. Suddenly, to the vast surprise of practically everybody, it is about the whole way we run the world.

There is a classic scene, lovingly replicated in a hundred cartoons, in which Our Hero removes just one brick from a wall – and one after another, in an endless, slo-mo domino sequence, every structure in sight collapses into rubble. Osama bin Laden was a bit like that hero. With one spectacular act of terrorism, he undermined the United Nations (UN), the international rule of law, the whole multilateral system of collaboration and compromise that keeps the world safe – half a century of slow and painful progress all suddenly at risk.

It’s likely, of course, that bin Laden didn’t even understand how much his actions would destabilise the entire international system, for his frame of reference was radically different – but if he did, he wouldn’t mind a bit.
He had help: the Bush Administration was his ‘objective ally,’ as the Marxists used to put it. Its world-changing ambitions might never have got off the ground without the opportunity that bin Laden handed it on September 11, 2001, but four years later, American troops have plunged deep into the Middle East and Central Asia, the UN is struggling to survive, and most of America’s traditional allies and friends are in shock.

Future Tense by Gwynne Dyer

There is now a symbiotic relationship between the Islamist terrorists and the coalition of interests in Washington that has clambered aboard the ‘war on terror.’ Neither side wishes the other to triumph, but both thrive on the confrontation – and they have grown far beyond the original small groups of determined people who dragged the rest of us into this mess. In fact, neither the death of Osama bin Laden nor the fall of the neo-conservatives would necessarily bring a return to normality.

The rhetoric of jihads and crusades has grown more familiar, and the number of people whose emotions or career interests have committed them to an apocalyptic confrontation has grown greatly.

It is the far side of bizarre, for both the Islamist and the American projects as originally conceived are doomed to fail. The notion that Islamist revolutionaries will sweep to power all across the Muslim world, Talibanise it, and then wage a victorious jihad against the West is as implausible as the idea that the United States can permanently assume the role of global policeman (or, rather, global vigilante), that other countries will acquiesce in this unilateral declaration of hegemony, and that US voters will be willing to pay the cost in American lives and money over the long term. It’s not going to happen: the danger is not that extremists from the margins will dominate the global future, but that they will do enormous damage to our future before they go under.

What is really at risk here is the global project to abolish war and replace the rule of force in the world with the rule of law, the project whose centre piece is the United Nations. It was mainly an American initiative at the start, almost 60 years ago, and today it still commands the support of almost every government on the planet (although the Bush Administration has been an exception).

It is a 100-year project at the least, for it is trying to change international habits that had at least 5000 years to take root. The slowness of change causes immense frustration, especially given the urgency of change in an era of nuclear weapons, and yet the project continues to enjoy majority popular support in almost every country, including the United States. But it is now under serious threat.

The core rule of the UN is that war, except in immediate self-defence or in obedience to Security Council resolutions, is illegal. The new American strategic policy, post-9/11, asserts that the United States has the right to use military force wherever and whenever it judges necessary. Of course, the United States has used military force against foreigners without Security Council approval before, but this time is different.

The UN is a 100-year project because it will take at least that long for the great powers to stop yielding to the temptation, from time to time, to impose their will on weaker countries by force. The great powers do understand that a world under the rule of law, where the resort to force has become almost unthinkable by long habit, is also in their own long-term self-interest, because they, too, are vulnerable to destruction if war gets out of hand – but every so often they simply cannot resist ‘solving’ a problem by using their own superior force.

The UN system recognised from the start that the great powers were the problem: they were given vetoes precisely so that the Security Council would never find itself in the hopelessly compromised position of trying to enforce the law against them. All hope of progress therefore lies with the gradual habituation of the great powers to obeying the new international law that forbids a unilateral resort to force – and since that is ultimately in their interest too, they have generally at least tried to cloak their actions in legal justifications acceptable to the UN. But current American strategic doctrine requires the destruction of the international law embedded in the United Nations Charter.

To believe that this huge shift of doctrine is really driven solely by the ‘terrorist threat’ is about as sensible as believing in fairies. According to the US Government’s own figures, only 625 people, (all but 35 of them non-American) were killed by ‘international terrorism’ in 2003, down from 726 people worldwide in 2002: about two people a day, far fewer than die from dog bites. It truly is not about terrorism.

Iraq is much more relevant, although the US invasion of Iraq has been discussed and debated mainly in terms of what are frankly secondary issues. For critics of the war, the key questions have been who cooked the intelligence that gave the US, British, and Australian Governments cover for the attack, and who in those Governments knew it was dodgy and when did they know it?

For supporters of the war, the justifications have shifted over time from ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and imaginary links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda terrorists to the current one of liberating the Iraqi people from an evil tyrant and creating a beacon of democracy in the Arab world. None of that will matter ten years from now – but the invasion of Iraq may still be seen as a turning point in world history.

If the present US strategy of undermining international law and asserting American military hegemony around the planet is quickly abandoned under the pressure of events in Iraq, then normal service will soon be restored internationally and we will get our global project back with only a few dents in it.

If the US adventure in unilateralism continues for many more years, other great powers will start taking steps to protect their interests and the UN will start to die. No other major power wants to abandon the project to outlaw war and start back down the road to alliances, arms races, and all the other old baggage, but if the world’s greatest power becomes a rogue State they won’t have much choice.

If that happens, we have lost a lot.

This is an extract from Gwynne Dyer’s Future: Tense. The Coming World Order (Scribe) RRP $27.95

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.