America Alone in the World

The horrors of September 11 confronted the United States with an extraordinary challenge and an extraordinary opportunity. The challenge was to increase our "homeland security" by measures that might have averted disaster, had they been implemented before the attacks, and that would minimize the risk of similar assaults in the future. The opportunity was to build on the sympathy and shock of other nations in order to construct a broad coalition against the sort of terrorism the United States had suffered.

Alas, it cannot be said that the year was well used. As the great Oxford and Yale historian of war Sir Michael Howard predicted, the notion of a "war" on terrorism proved a pernicious one. The very word "war" suggests military measures and, of course, victory -- rather than the difficult, slow and partly clandestine operations that fighting terrorism entails. So, too, does war allow for suspending or violating citizens' liberties, holding foreigners without due process and resorting to other arbitrary new forms of justice.

Moreover, by defining the fight as one against global terrorism -- including the supposed axis of evil -- President George W. Bush was able to endow his controversial and highly partisan agenda with a heroic dimension. Using his new popularity and his global war, he sought to silence or enlist the opposition. It's not exactly the newest trick in politics. The problem, however, was twofold. Conceptually, global terrorism is the sum of many individual terrorist acts (most of them local) with very different inspirations, dynamics and scopes. One size does not fit all. Indeed, some of our allies against al-Qaeda had been terrorists or had encouraged terrorists in the past -- or even the present. Useful as it was against the Taliban, the idea of taking action against not only terrorists but also the states that harbored them posed insoluble political problems with some allies (such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) that had supported terrorism. It also posed problems with democratic countries that had tolerated terrorists on their soil (Germany, Spain and the United States itself).

The strategy posed yet another set of problems with nations that used the American war and its rhetoric as a pretext for getting dangerously tougher with their own enemies. These enemies were charged (often correctly) with terrorism, but their circumstances were radically different from those under which Osama bin Laden deployed his rabid theological and anti-Western global network. In the case of Kashmir, the cynical exploitation of the antiterrorist cause put the United States in an embarrassing position, especially given Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's indispensable role in the assault on Afghanistan. In the case of the Palestinian intifada, the logic of antiterrorism pushed Bush into supporting Ariel Sharon -- a stance that shored up Israeli repression and helped justify Sharon's clever policy of destroying the Palestinian Authority while accusing it at once of impotence and of encouraging extremists.

By the end of the Clinton era, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Taba, Egypt, had been very close to an agreement on all important issues. Indeed, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one that cannot be resolved without strong American input and pressure. Washington's post-9-11 tilt toward Sharon, however, has rendered the United States ineffectual on this crucial issue -- one that many friendly Muslims regard as a test of American goodwill.
The ability to resolve the Palestinian issue was one casualty of the relentless anti-terrorism priority. But there were at least two others that Harvard professor and journalist Michael Ignatieff has noted. An administration that had already declared its distaste for "nation building" and for humanitarian interventions (except on narrow calculations of national interest) has become even more indifferent toward humanitarian considerations. To be sure, the administration spouts pro-democracy rhetoric. But it views humanitarian concerns as mere distractions from the war on terrorism. Similarly, the concern for human rights that has occasionally animated U.S. foreign policy would have embarrassed or annoyed many of our allies in the war, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. A foreign policy that took human rights seriously might have helped, in the long run, to limit the appeal of terrorism; but human rights are no longer even an ornament of U.S. diplomacy.

The coherence and consistency that the war was supposed to lend U.S. foreign policy have not materialized. The attempts to link Saddam Hussein's regime to 9-11 and other terrorist plots have failed; a rationale for attacking him had to be sought elsewhere. The administration is still looking for a convincing one.

Iraq's quest for weapons of mass destruction is not unique. But the new doctrine of preventive action against countries that work on acquiring such weapons and are hostile to the United States is very different from other breaches of state sovereignty as sanctioned by modern international law. In the past, collective efforts to curb excessive aggression on the part of sovereign powers have been pursued with the benediction of the United Nations. In the current instance, we risk acting on our own and creating a dangerous moral and political precedent.

Deterrence worked well against the Soviet Union, a much more potent and, at one point, malevolent adversary. If applied consistently, energetically and with the support of allies, deterrence could still work against Iraq. Replacing deterrence and collective humanitarian efforts with unilateral, preemptive intervention is a license for chaos. Henry Kissinger's acrobatics in his Washington Post article of Aug. 12, which attempts to reconcile a U.S. doctrine of preventive attack with the notion of world order, can only be described as pitiful.

This brings us to the most distressing aspect of the year since 9-11: America's growing isolation in the world. The war against terrorist networks that threaten the United States, its allies and even non-allies such as Russia, cannot be won by the United States alone. For one thing, we need the cooperation of other governments in arresting, trying or delivering to us suspects and possible plotters. And if military action becomes necessary, as it did last year in Afghanistan, we need the participation and endorsement of as many countries as possible. Bush Senior succeeded in obtaining that kind of cooperation in the Gulf War. A coalition is both a help and a constructive source of restraint. For a short while immediately after 9-11, the current Bush administration seemed to understand that its unilateralism was an obstacle. This did not last.

Instead, the administration has alienated allies and inflamed adversaries repeatedly over the last year. The multiple, half-baked rationales for action against Iraq have confused and disturbed even old allies such as Germany and Britain. The notion that the United States retains a prerogative to act alone in its own purported interests or those of the whole "world community" is clearly incompatible with the UN charter and international law. The self-perception of a unique and benevolent American empire charged with maintaining order in the world irritates allies and adversaries alike. And the oft-expressed contempt for international institutions except those controlled by the United States -- the view that only weak powers should be constrained by them or could benefit from them -- has alienated and exasperated many of our best friends.

The fact is that the United States took the lead in creating these institutions of collective security after 1945, precisely when it was the strongest superpower. That generation understood that it is the hegemonic state, paradoxically, that has the greatest interest in links of reciprocity, international law and mutual restraint.

Imperial hubris on issues such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court have further isolated the United States just when it needs allies most. The administration's case against the court is based on an offensive assumption that a UN institution will necessarily be unfair to the United States -- and on an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that places it above international law. Worse, we have bullied other countries to prevent them from signing or applying the protocol establishing the court.

This "we don't need you" posture is very risky for the United States, insulting to others and mistakenly based on the premise that others can never really proceed without us. A superpower must take special care not to provoke the united resistance of lesser powers. But the Bush administration fails to appreciate the importance of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye calls America's "soft power" -- a power that emanates from the deep sympathies and vast hopes American society has inspired abroad.

The shift from beacon to bully is rife with potential disaster. Because a hegemon cannot rule by force alone, it is vital for the United States to take an interest in other societies and cultures. Since 9-11, that interest has grown only with regard to Islam and terrorism. But an American foreign policy guided exclusively by narrow self-interest is not one our allies find terribly reassuring; and it is downright offensive to assert that the United States alone can decide what is good for others.

Particularly frightening to outside observers is the impression that U.S. foreign policy has been captured by a small group of hawks who, frustrated in 1991, are now ideologically committed to changing "evil" regimes -- even in countries that have no past experience of democracy and where repressive regimes face no experienced or cohesive opposition. There were comparable fears after the election of Ronald Reagan, but divisions within his administration preserved a kind of balance. Today's pragmatists are singularly weak and seem to lack the president's ear.

Bush continually describes himself as a patient man who will consult and listen. Let us hope that he means what he says and isn't just trying to prevent a real debate until all the important decisions have been made. Because one year after 9-11, three things are clear: First, the war against terrorism cannot be the alpha and omega of a foreign policy; second, it cannot be waged by military means alone; and finally, even a state endowed with overwhelming superiority in all the ingredients of "hard" force cannot substitute that for eyes, ears and brains. Decisions based on dubious assumptions, overconfidence and intelligence reports risk ending in imprudence and fiasco.