United States unilateralism: alive and kicking?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 January 2002

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, there was a widespread belief that the US would realise that multilateral cooperation would be the only way to respond to the atrocities. Moreover, it was believed that this would be part of a wider appreciation in Washington that the unilateralist attitude that had been such a prominent part of the Bush administration’s approach to international relations would come to an end. Four months after the attacks and more than three months into the “war on terrorism”, how does it look? Have we entered a new era of cooperation, has nothing changed, or has the culture of the Bush administration even been strengthened by recent events?

George Bush’s first six months

The 2000 presidential election was so closely run, with Bush’s victory ultimately dependent on a handful of votes and “chads”, that many commentators expected the new administration to seek a political consensus in its early policy developments. Not a bit of it. Across the political landscape, and especially in foreign relations, a conservative agenda was rapidly implemented.

A critical approach was taken to UN negotiations on the control of light weapons, there was a much more cautious stance on the strengthening of the biological weapons convention; there was opposition to proposals for talks to prevent the weaponisation of space; and there were clear indications that the US might withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) while proceeding with plans for a national missile defence system, whatever the effect this might have in Moscow and Beijing. On regional policy, the US ceased negotiations with North Korea and was decidedly disinterested in the Middle East peace agenda.

Perhaps most significant, at least in the view of some European governments, was the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocols on climate change. By the middle of last year, it was abundantly clear that talk of consensus was eyewash and the Bush administration was firmly in the grip of a unilateralist international agenda. Even while this was evolving, EU states were taking a different view, with a high-level EU delegation of North Korea, a renewed commitment to the Middle East and a determination to proceed with the Kyoto process, even without the United States.

There are, though, two caveats to this ‘raw’ view of US foreign relations. One is that many of these attitudes were there well before the 2000 election. In the latter years of the Clinton administration, and with Congress in Republican hands, there had been other examples of a unilateralist approach, including opposition to the proposed international criminal court, criticisms of negotiations on a land mine ban, and a Senate refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The other caveat is that US policy behaviour since Bush came to power has always been a mix of the multilateral and unilateral. This was put memorably by the right-wing commentator, Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington-based Weekly Standard of 4 June last year:

“Multipolarity, yes, when there is no alternative. But not when there is. Not when we have the unique imbalance of power that we enjoy today – and that has given the international community a stability and essential tranquility it had not known for at least a century.

The international environment is far more likely to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium”.

This view lies at the heart of Republican thinking on international affairs and contrasts markedly with the view from Europe, but it is, in turn, part of a wider world view where there is some resonance with European political opinion.

The benign imperium

The conviction that America’s is a benign imperium stems from a belief that there is only one economic system appropriate for the world community and that this is framed in a particular political context. The system is the globalised free market and the context is liberal democracy. The belief in the free market is fundamental and was massively strengthened by the collapse of the Soviet system.

The Republican Right’s interpretation of this view goes further. It holds that the United States has an historic mission to be a civilizing force in world affairs, shaping economic and political relationships through business, governmental and other processes to ensure a world economy and polity that is in the American image. It is, necessarily, a global context that is persistently beneficial to the United States, but this does not diminish the sense of mission.

The manner in which the world-view has come to the fore in the past few years has an interesting resonance with the late 1970s. Then, Jimmy Carter was embattled with Republican forces advocating a vigorous re-arming of America to defeat the Soviet threat. In the run-up to the 1980 election, groups such as ‘High Frontier’ and the ‘Committee on the Present Danger’ sought assiduously to portray the Carter administration as soft on the Soviets, in contrast to the noble aims of the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. Many of those associated with this thinking went on to be influential members of the Reagan administration.

In a similar manner, groups active in the late 1990s focused on the crucial need for US leadership of the globalised world. Most notable was the ‘Project for the New American Century’, set up in 1997, with its statement of principles asking, “Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favourable to American principles and interests?” In answering its own question, the Project went on to argue that it is necessary “to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity and our principles.” Among its supporters are Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Such thinking underlies much of the current US approach to international affairs but, in one subtle way, it goes further than this, with a refusal to entertain the idea that there can be any legitimate alternative. This is simply unthinkable, not least because to accept the possibility of alternatives implies that the dominant model may not be fully valid. In this world view there is an assumption that any other approach or analysis must be either deeply wrong-headed, or if not, malign. As with the war on terrorism, so more generally, ‘if you are not with us you are against us’.

The triple dynamic of go-it-alone

Has this mind-set, illustrated by so many actions in the early part of last year, been altered by the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon? Away from the war in Afghanistan, the indications are of no change. The US government confirmed its opposition to the strengthening of the biological weapons convention in early December and the nuclear warhead cuts that had been announced a month earlier turned out to be plans to put the weapons into storage, not dismantle them. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was formally abandoned and, the same week, the US Navy staged a rare multiple test-firing of its Trident nuclear missile.

In relation to the war itself, there have been frequent instances of the US minimizing other involvements, even to the point of discouraging the UK from contributing regular armed forces to Afghanistan for several key weeks of the war. Meanwhile, numerous prisoners have been shipped to Cuba where they are neither prisoners-of-war nor criminals, yet face the prospect of trial by military tribunals meeting in secret and without prospect of appeal (articles 9 and 10). US troops have now commenced cooperative counter-insurgency training in the Philippines and there are reported to be special forces operating in Somalia. Perhaps most significant has been the rapid and unexpected development and consolidation of a whole string of military bases in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

On this evidence, there seems little doubt that unilateralism rules OK, and three factors help to explain this. The first is that the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks were particularly traumatic for the Republican Right. Attacking the centre of US commercial power, and closing down the New York Stock Exchange for several days, as well as damaging the Pentagon, struck at the heart of the belief in the new American century and required a vigorous and sustained military response. For a brief moment, the US had lost control and it was imperative that it be regained immediately.

Secondly, the war in Afghanistan appears, on the surface, to have gone well. That, at least, is the opinion of conservative commentators, even if it is not shared by the military leadership which is much more cautious. An apparent victory in Afghanistan is proof of US power and an encouragement to use it whenever and wherever necessary.

Finally, there should have been no reason to expect the Bush administration to have behaved any differently. The belief in the mission of the United States to run the world – to bestow the benign imperium – is deep-rooted in the new generation of Republican thinkers, and it has, if anything, been strengthened by the events of the past four months. American power is now dominant and its limitations are minimal. Before long there may be more terrible examples of the limits to power and the innate vulnerabilities of an urban-industrial superpower, but, for now, the new American century is becoming firmly entrenched, whatever the rest of the world might think.

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