WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The next decade will probably tell us whether "sovereignty" will become a synonym for "possession of nuclear weapons." Why this is so is also relevant to the question of why U.S. President George W. Bush has become a pariah in certain circles worldwide. These two issues are part of a larger complex of questions having to do with the basis of international order and the contending schools of understanding about it.
Today the collapse of the Cold War international order, the rise of global terrorism and the backlash to globalization have among them raised the specter of a shrinkage, or even collapse, of globalization -- one perhaps even more catastrophic than the reversal of globalization from 1914 through 1945. Such a collapse, greatly limiting the international flow of goods, capital, and people, would have a number of consequences.
One repercussion would be a global depression probably surpassing the severity and breadth of the 1930s. The second would probably be the return of empire as a strategy for securing resources and security. These two are familiar from history.
The third would be the elevation of weapons of mass destruction, but particularly nuclear weapons, to an effective requirement of sovereignty, and to create an arms race to develop countermeasure, such as ballistic missile defense, and new, hard-to-counter weapons of mass destruction.
We have lived in a world of essentially unchallengeable sovereignty for several generations now, and have begun to think of it as the natural state of affairs. There have been only a few successful instances of a stronger state merely invading and annexing weaker ones, for example. However, historically this situation has been the exception rather than the norm.
Those states that today we call sovereign actually can be divided to three types. The first are those with substantial military and economic resources, and large enough to have reasonable strategic depth. Such nations could be called sovereign by nature; invading and annexing them would be a major and costly project even for a large empire.
The second category consists of those who have sufficient ability to raise the cost of conquest beyond the means of a large democratic and commercial state, although not for a sufficiently ruthless empire. Such nations could be called sovereign by circumstance in a world is dominated primarily by democratic and commercial nations.
The third category consists of those who maintain their sovereignty only because the rules of international order made it possible for them at the time. Such nations could be termed sovereign by convention.
All of the niceties of international order -- the complex set of treaties, institutions, assumptions and practices that have grown up since 1945 -- come from the fact that a democratic and commercial republic, the United States, and a group of similar allies have set the rules for that international order.
Now radical Islamist terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction have placed the United States and its key allies under stress. This has led Bush to be characterized as a unilateralist cowboy and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as his poodle. Yet in actual fact, both leaders are struggling to preserve the fundamentals of the international order that have vastly expanded the prosperity of the globe since 1945, and created the conditions that have permitted not only states that are sovereign by convention, but many who are sovereign by circumstance to become and remain independent.
Bush is doing so from national interest, as such an order is critical to maintaining America as the democratic commercial republic it is. Blair is also doing so from his Gladstonian belief in international order and morality.
Ironically, many of those who profess to hate war, empire and poverty, and who strive for a just international order, accuse Bush and Blair of promoting those things. In reality, a failure of the Bush-Blair coalition would sooner or later (probably sooner) give rise to a world in which a number of regional tyrannies who gradually, under the cover of their weapons of mass destruction, would annex first the states that are sovereign by convention, such as Kuwait, and eventually many that have been sovereign by circumstance.
The existence of such states would force other nations in the region to calculate that their own sovereignty depended on their acquisition of nuclear weapons. Given that most nuclear tyrannies would be happy to sell weapons to out-of-area states with ready cash, such proliferation could proceed more rapidly than many imagine. Alliances would be discounted; if America were to shy away from attacking a nation for fear of non-nuclear terrorism, it could hardly be expected to stand up to nuclear blackmail. This logic ends up favoring the nuclear over the non-nuclear, the ruthless over the constrained, and the closed over the open societies.
We may be at a critical point in the defense of the open, democratic and commercial order America and many other nations have together built since 1945. Those who do not support this defense fail to understand that the entire idea of an international order of rules (already extended far beyond what reality can support) cannot be taken for granted, and must be defended forcibly against would-be empires. This is not some kind of game in which Saddam gets to have nuclear weapons if U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to say "Simon says" before Bush acts.
Failure to understand these points may soon lead us to a place where life for all is short, nasty, brutish and mean, and from time to time, radioactive.