George W. Bush’s go-it-alone stance will ultimately frustrate American goals, writes
JANICE GROSS STEINSeptember232002
DOING IT HIS WAY
George W. Bush’s go-it-alone stance will ultimately frustrate American goals, writes
JANICE GROSS STEIN
IN PARIS, Berlin, London, Riyadh, and even in Ottawa, there is a deepening unease about the leadership of the United States. After Sept. 11, it was no surprise to its friends that Washington flexed its military muscle. The Bush administration made its determination to use force to protect its homeland against further attack unmistakably clear. It is not that resolve that is causing anxiety among its friends and allies everywhere. It is rather the sharp contradiction between the American readiness to engage militarily and its persistent refusal to support international institutions and agreements. Friends and allies could live with that unilateralism, especially as the U.S. responded to the attacks of Sept. 11. More troubling, however, are Washington’s claims to exceptionalism. More and more, the U.S. is insisting on an exception for itself from the rules that govern others.
The signs of the new unilateralism were there from the beginnings of the Bush administration. He came to office determined to build a ballistic missile defence for the continental United States. If it was necessary to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty, a cornerstone of arms control agreements, so be it. The U.S. consulted widely about its intention to withdraw from the treaty, but the message was clear: it would withdraw, with or without the approval of others. And so it did.
There would also be no more irrespon-
sible bailouts by the International Monetary Fund of governments that faced liquidity problems. The old rules of the international financial system, this administration feels, created moral hazard and encouraged irresponsible behaviour. Only when faced with the grim prospect of the collapse of economies in Latin America did Washington reverse itself. On environmental policy, the story was no different. The Bush administration made its unwillingness to sign the Kyoto Protocol crystal clear. Washington would develop its own rules that would protect American interests.
Most alarming was the determined rejection of the new International Criminal Court. The Clinton administration had signed the treaty creating the court but, anticipating opposition, had not sent it to the Senate for ratification. The Bush
administration took the unprecedented step of withdrawing its signature from the treaty. Then, at the UN Security Council, it held the renewal of peacekeeping missions hostage, insisting its forces be given special exemption from the jurisdiction of the Court. In recent months, Washington has pressed its friends hard to sign bilateral treaties guaranteeing American forces exemption from the jurisdiction of the Court. Again and again, the U.S. cites its “exceptional” roles and responsibilities.
This emphasis on exceptionalism is, to put it mildly, unsettling. The U.S., after all, had led in the creation of international tribunals to try perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Now it was willing to put the international force in Bosnia at risk to gain exemption for its personnel serving in international forces. The attempt to insulate its military from international rules the U.S. itself had long championed so antagonized its allies that Canada uncharacteristically called for a special, open meeting of the Security Council to debate its consequences.
That the U.S. is exceptional is beyond question. Never has such a wide gap existed between a hegemonic military power and its closest competitors. Washington’s defence budget is larger than those of the next 25 nations combined, and the gap will likely grow. It is also at least a generation ahead of anyone else in it development of sophisticated military technology. The U.S. alone has the capacity to project power globally. Britain, during the heyday of its Empire, could conceivably have been outmatched by a coalition of all the European powers. Not so the U.S.
There is, of course, a paradox here. This military pre-eminence, no matter how overwhelming, does not buy the United States security from attack, even in its heartland. Using America’s own jetliners, a tiny but determined group of zealots succeeded in inflicting unprecedented civilian casualties. No military instrument could have prevented or frustrated these attacks. The most sophisticated military technology may be adequate to retaliate against the perpetrators—and even that is questionable—but it cannot provide absolute protection against diabolically ingenious adversaries who work around the established state structures through sophisticat-
ed networks of terrorism. American exceptionalism may have been part of the motive for the attack, but it cannot prevent a recurrence. Here lies the fundamental contradiction in Washington’s policies.
At some level, the Bush administration acknowledges the need for multilateral solutions. It moved quickly to promote multilateral intelligence sharing, transparency in the international financial sector and international police co-operation. It has asked for and received advance sharing of passenger lists from civilian airlines worldwide. Indeed, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, some of those who watch the Bush administration hoped its unilateralist and exceptionalist tendencies would be moderated by the obvious need for multilateral co-operation to manage the threat of terror.
This has not happened. Only when it clearly and overwhelmingly serves the national interest does the Bush administration promote multilateral co-operation. Otherwise, it displays its willingness to ride roughshod over multilateral institutions and agreements. This administration is a stubborn exceptionalist.
Multilateralism only when it suits is a curious understanding of the purpose and dynamics of international institutions and agreements. Tough-minded realists know that those institutions work best when
ONLY WHEN it clearly and overwhelmingly serves the U.S. interest does the Bush administration promote multilateral co-operation
their powerful members understand that even if their interests are not served today, they may well be tomorrow. And if their interests are not served in one particular case, they are served by the web of international institutions. Consequently, they are willing to compromise for the sake of gains they may make another time.
Recent U.S. administrations have recognized this interdependence, reserved exceptionalism for their most vital interests, and worked to build the web of international institutions that help to manage the forces the Bush administration most fears. The chaos that will deepen as the fabric of those institutions is weakened will only abet global terror.
There is another argument in support of international co-operation. The problems we face in a connected and interdependent world—protection of the environment, control of disease that can create pandemics, regulation of trade and
finance and, of course, debilitation of networks of terror and crime—require a global contract and multilateral solutions. No single state, no matter how powerful or exceptional, can meet these challenges. International institutions and agreements are not an occasional convenience but an imperative, even for the exceptional.
Most in the Bush administration argue impatiently that extraordinary power and responsibilities give the U.S. special licence to act unilaterally to safeguard American interests. Bush shares this perspective. But not all recent presidents have thought this way, nor do all the senior officials within the current administration. These voices, now a fading minority, argue that it is precisely that exceptional status that makes a strong network of international governance imperative. Otherwise, the burden on the U.S. would simply be too great.
These arguments are fiercely joined as the President struggles with the decision whether to use unilateral force to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Bush and his most senior advisers are convinced that Saddam constitutes a grave threat to American security, if not now then in the near future. They worry not at all about a unilateral determination of who stays in power and who goes. They worry not much about the lack of support from traditional friends and allies. They worry even less about international legitimacy for military action. They are preoccupied only by questions of feasibility, logistics and, at the end of the day, cost.
The President has his eyes fixed on “hard” military power, exercised with others if possible but alone if necessary. By design or through inadvertence, he ignores the critical role of international institutions, allied support and, more generically, “soft” power—exerting influence through ideas and by example. It would be a serious mistake to discount the importance of hard power and the resolve to exercise it in pursuit of national interest. Few in Washington are making that error. It is an even more serious error to discount soft power and to claim exceptionalism routinely. Many in Washington are making that mistake. fffl
Janice Gross Stein is Belzberg professor of conflict management and director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is The Cult of Efficiency.
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