The US-Iran clash, regardless of how the exchange of strikes in January will culminate, is definitely a new type of war in a new international setting. Most noteworthy is the desire of Washington, the stronger player, to keep the conflict, which has drawn the world’s attention, within the diplomatic framework. The new setting is characterized by democracy pervading the international environment to a degree unprecedented in the last 100 years and putting constraints on solutions that seemed most acceptable just a few years ago. The US is aware that in a changed global milieu it cannot hope for a full military victory over Tehran in the style of the past decades. Therefore, the consequences of Washington’s military escapade and Iran’s response may turn out to be equally dramatic and new for the practice of international relations.
The dramatism of the situation consists in that any conflict, even a military-diplomatic one, might lead to an escalation that its initiators will not be able to control. The element of novelty is that this is the first post-1991 armed clash involving the US, where interests rather than values are at stake. In theory, therefore, it may culminate in the sides changing their positions even in case of the most dramatic developments rather than in either of them leaving the scene as an independent international player. All that notwithstanding, both Iran and the United States periodically utter ideological incantations, a vice of the past epoch, when ideology reigned supreme in foreign policy, which it is not so easy to get rid of.
The Second World War (1939-1945) ended in a total defeat for its initiators; their territories were occupied by the winners, who brought to power friendly political regimes. In this regard, it was unique, with the only other exception of this sort being the victory of monarchic Europe led by Russia and Britain over Napoleon’s France in the early 19th century. But even then the winners were wise enough simply to restore a regime that they thought legitimate rather than strip the vanquished of sovereignty. At the same time, France immediately joined the European concert of great powers as a full-fledged member. All other wars waged by the European civilization amounted to the use of force for the sake of achieving diplomatic aims and, if need be, transferring territories. We owe to this approach the “brilliant” epoch in the history of international relations, when the number of civilian casualties was at its lowest.
In 1945, however, the winners were simply unable to restrain themselves, given the immensity of misanthropic sentiments professed by the regimes in Germany and Japan. It was ruled that the nations guilty of giving birth to these regimes could not decide their own fate by themselves. Both countries were occupied by the winners, and their political regimes were put under absolute control. Thereby the strongest powers gained a foul experience that overshadowed efforts to achieve their own foreign policy objectives. Even in cases where it was enough to use force to adjust the behavior of weaker participants in international relations, the stronger powers chose what seemed at first sight a simpler solution, which involved depriving the underdogs of all sovereign rights. No matter what conflict The latter half of the 20th century and the first years of the new one were marked by these total solutions. The great powers had to fully control medium-sized and small states to be sure that they would not pose a threat to their security. But this was also made possible by the existence of objective opportunities: there were no alternatives or external factors that would keep the strongest powers within geographically acceptable limits.
After the Cold War, the United States and its allies continued to behave as if nothing had changed. The NATO expansion and regime change policies are all features of a unique epoch in international relations which will never come again. But between 2001 and 2015, this essentially totalitarian international political order was maintained by the one and only power center, something that made its manifestations even uglier. During a quarter of a century, the US and its allies were operating in a totally unrestrained arbitrary manner, their most spectacular “achievements” being the military operations against Yugoslavia in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011.
The United States is a different story and still has the potential to aspire to a dominant role. A military conflict with a strong rival is an inevitable stage in its own transformation that will either make it rethink its role in the world, or cause consternation and push humankind toward a global disaster. This conflict is quite likely to start under President Trump, the most peaceful US leader in the last 40 years.
Even if Trump managed to arrest the escalation, Iran predictably would be this strong rival, what with a history of its confrontation with the United States (and to a lesser extent with its European allies) lasting since the Islamic revolution. The Islamic republic is too strong to be regarded as just a victim on a par with Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. During a conflict with the US, Tehran will certainly get outside assistance, just because other superpowers do not want the US to win, even at a high cost. At the same time, Iran lacks a nuclear deterrent. Possessing one would have
The end of the Cold War and the waning threat of a global conflict between military blocs have led to a debate on the nature of future wars. For a while, the US and the Europeans tried to declare their interventions and semi-colonial operations against patently weaker adversaries to be this sort of war. But these attempts were groundless as was a parallel effort to find a new role for NATO outside of its containment of a “real adversary,” namely Russia or China. An armed struggle between the United States and Iran, if it continues in earnest, may prove a conflict of the new epoch in the true sense of the word. A ratio between the political aims and the military tools for their attainment is of fundamental importance. If the aims are limited by specific interests and warfare is handled by the military, the world may get a chance to do away with the ideology of total imperial control that it contracted in the blood-letting 20th century. Trump, with his propensity for peacefully settling disputes, is well positioned to be a harbinger of a new stage in US foreign policy, a stage of diplomacy conducted by a normal, not messianic, power. But his chances are slim.