Unilateralism Revisited

Among democratic politicians and political consultants, the accepted wisdom is that George W. Bush has been successful in foreign policy but a flop in domestic policy. This assessment is based more on polling than personal conviction, although some would-be presidential candidates, such as Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry, have actually endorsed key parts of Bush's foreign policy. Yet when the wise men of the mid-21st century total up the pluses and minuses of this Bush administration, they may well conclude that the president's foreign-policy failings more than matched his domestic ones; and while his domestic policy was fiscally imprudent and fueled the country's financial unrest, his foreign policy was reckless and foolish and imperiled America's place in the world.

Except for a brief respite after September 11, the Bush administration has supported what conservatives call "unilateralism" but really a variant of 1920s isolationism. The isolationists of the 1920s did not reject overseas intervention; they just rejected intervening through alliances or on behalf of concerns that didn't reflect the most narrow and immediate definition of the national interest. Bush's unilateralism was on display before September 11 in his withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and in his infatuation with national missile defense.

Most recently, it has been manifested in his rejection of the International Criminal Court and in the startling new Bush doctrine on pre-emptive war. These measures combine an indifference to international agreements with an imperial hubris grounded in America's current military superiority. They may not backfire immediately (although the administration has been taken aback by the opposition to its withdrawal from the court), but before the decade is over, decisions such as these could contribute to making the world far less hospitable to American power than it is now -- and to undermining the very basis of the Bush administration's unilateralism.

The idea for an International Criminal Court dates back to the Nuremberg trials after World War II. At Nuremberg, the United States and its allies established the precedent that individuals of a state could be tried for carrying out war crimes, even if they acted in furtherance of state policy. In the early 1990s, the United States once again backed war-crimes trials for leaders of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In 1995 it backed the idea of a United Nations permanent international court and sent representatives to help draft the statute establishing it. The statute, completed in Rome in 1998, set up a court of last resort that would try "the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole" in the event that the governments of the accused failed to act against them.

The Clinton administration complained that the statute didn't sufficiently protect American soldiers from being brought before the court by regimes with which the United States was in conflict. While American negotiators wanted the UN Security Council to be able to block prosecutions, the statute said it only could suspend them for a year at a time. In fact, the council could block prosecutions indefinitely through a vote of nine of its 15 members, but the United States wanted the court formally subordinate to the council. That was a legitimate, if not earthshaking, complaint. But the United States also wanted citizens who were acting under orders from their government exempted from prosecution. That would have undermined the very principle on which international trials such as Nuremberg were based.

In spite of these objections, President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in December 2000 on the understanding that the United States would attempt to modify it before submitting it to the Senate for ratification. (The United States had consigned other UN treaties to a similar limbo, ratifying the convention on genocide, for instance, some 40 years after signing it.) That left the new Bush administration with three options: It could send the treaty to the Senate for ratification (where Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had promised to kill it); it could try to negotiate changes in it, while threatening to withdraw from the treaty if the court became an instrument of anti-Americanism; or it could withdraw its signature immediately and refuse to abide by it. This May, the Bush administration not only chose to withdraw its signature, but it also threatened to veto UN peacekeeping actions if the United States wasn't granted immunity from any International Criminal Court proceedings. It eventually had to back down from this threat in the face of united European opposition.

If the Bush administration had wanted to change the specifics of the court, it could have held out for new negotiations. The Rome treaty, like the Kyoto treaty on global climate change, was based on the valid perception that there are certain concerns -- such as genocide and global warming -- that cannot be dealt with by individual governments acting alone. Both treaties represent flawed but remediable attempts to devise a plan to do that. The Clinton administration's strategy was to honor the effort while rejecting the specific results, but the Bush administration chose to reject the process -- and the very idea of an international agreement that the treaty embodied. In effect, the administration said that no agreement was possible that would satisfy American interests.

In his June 1 speech at West Point, Bush unveiled his new doctrine of pre-emptive war. "Our security will require all Americans...to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives," he said. Bush's statement was clearly intended to justify administration plans to invade Iraq, but it had much wider implications. Bush not only went beyond the Cold War strategies of deterrence and containment, but beyond the UN charter, which the United States had drafted and signed. Article 51 of the charter recognizes "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations." It doesn't recognize pre-emptive attacks. And for good reason. World Wars I and II both began with pre-emptive attacks. And the greatest threat of war today comes from similar assaults -- say, from China against Taiwan. By repudiating Article 51, the Bush administration provided a country such as China with a ready excuse for pre-emptive action, and deprived the United States and other nations of a justification for stopping it.

Bush's new doctrine was also unnecessary to justify an American effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As this year began, the United States could have followed two strategies against Saddam. It could have used the threat of invasion, coupled with aggressive diplomacy, to force Saddam to adhere to a UN resolution that requires him to reveal to arms inspectors and destroy all his weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam still failed to comply, the United States could have sought, and would have had a good chance of winning, security council support for enforcing the resolution by military means.

Alternatively, the administration could have opted for a pre-emptive unilateral strategy against Saddam, declaring him a menace to American liberty and lives. It couldn't do both, because if Saddam knew that Iraq would be invaded regardless of what he did, he wouldn't have any incentive to allow inspectors into his country.

The Bush administration opted for the latter strategy, threatening pre-emptive war no matter what Iraq did in the interim. It has stood aloof from UN negotiations with Iraq over arms inspectors. Says one UN official, "This administration gives the impression of being extremely nervous that this process is getting anywhere."

Bush's new doctrine is a rejection not only of multilateral diplomacy but of diplomacy itself. It reflects the administration's skepticism that it could ever win diplomatic support for its aims, and its confidence that it can achieve through its military superiority what it cannot accomplish through diplomacy. The Bush administration could still be proven correct in Iraq, where it faces a leader with a long record of diplomatic incompetence and military miscalculation. But it could also be courting disaster. On one hand, if Bush decides to invade against the advice of his own military and in the face of opposition from Europe and America's Gulf allies, he could be taking needless chances with American lives and with the stability of the entire region. A Bush invasion of Iraq, combined with the administration's tilt toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the pro-occupation Likud Party, could plunge the Mideast into chaos and hand Islamic radicals a victory previously denied them by the United States. On the other hand, if the Bush administration, faced with opposition, finally forgoes an invasion and settles for the kind of partial measures the Clinton administration embraced, it will have squandered an important chance to pressure Saddam into allowing arms inspectors back into his country. Either way America loses.

Bush's unilateralism can have even more dire consequences in the long term. The administration's disdain for international treaties will make it impossible for the world's nations to meet threats such as global warming or the spread of disease that can only be addressed through international accords. American unilateralism will also encourage the emergence over the next decades of rival power blocs in Asia and Europe. There are already stirrings in Europe, although any action would have to await the completion of European Union enlargement. If Europe and a China-led Southeast Asia arrayed themselves against the United States, that could bring back the international disorder that prevailed before World War I. The result would not necessarily mean a world war, but regional trading blocs and bitter proxy disputes that could lead to regional wars in those parts of the world that remain mired in autocracy and poverty.

Some foreign-policy realists argue that America's superiority will inevitably evoke military as well as economic challenges. But Joseph Nye argues convincingly in The Paradox of American Power that it doesn't have to happen. Leading nations can maintain their superiority without incurring opposition if they act as a protector of the world's freedoms and public goods, and not simply as a defender of their own. The British followed this strategy in the mid-19th century when they guaranteed freedom of the seas, and the United States followed it after World War II. But Bush and his administration have repudiated it on behalf of conservative neo-isolationism and unilateralism. By doing so, Bush could jeopardize the international system of alliances that so many Americans, including his father, labored to construct.

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