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If It's Good for America, It's Good for the World
19 January 2002 27 January 2002
"Hopes of a New US Multilateralism Have Been Dashed. The Bush Administration May Form Coalitions When It Suits the United States But Its Overriding Mission is to Show the World Why the American Way is Best."
There was much talk of coalitions after the traumatic events of last September. Critics of Washington's policies hoped that their agenda of international cooperation would find new favor. They have been disappointed. What is right for America is regarded by the White House as right for the world.
In the aftermath of the atrocities of September 11, there was a palpable sense of support for the United States across much of the rest of the world. Condemnation of the perpetrators was remarkably widespread and this was accompanied by an expectation that a broadly-based multilateral coalition of states would quickly develop, with Washington in the lead.
It was expected that this would contrast markedly with a widespread sense that the administration of President George Bush had been pursuing a singularly unilateralist stance since coming to power - a significant change from its predecessor. Moreover, this was in contrast to opinion in Europe, and there was evidence of a developing transatlantic divide. Several months on, has there been any shift in US attitudes?
Much of the unilateral approach to international security had developed from policies pursued by the Republican majorities in Congress prior to President Bush's election. There had already been strong opposition to the ratifying of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to UN proposals for an International Criminal Court. Even on the issue of a ban on anti-personnel landmines, there was considerable suspicion.
In the first few months of the Bush administration this theme of unilateralism was repeated many times. There was clearly no longer any interest in maintaining the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, there was opposition to an agreement to curb the weaponization of space, and a markedly critical approach to UN talks on controlling the transfers of light arms.
These all indicated a strengthening of the unilateralist approach, but they were relatively minor issues compared with two substantial policy changes. One was the refusal to ratify the Kyoto climate change protocols and the other was sudden opposition to the carefully negotiated protocol to strengthen the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Both of these decisions caused consternation in Europe, as did the disengagement from talks with north Korea and the relative lack of interest in any Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In contrast, European Union (EU) countries were stressing conflict prevention, were quick to engage with north Korea, and emphasized Middle East peace negotiations. The entry into the European Union of countries such as Sweden, with a distinct international social awareness, was having an impact on EU policy. This was reflected in a greater commitment to debt relief and some forms of development assistance, a determined belief that the Kyoto protocols had to be rescued, and a far more positive attitude to arms control, especially the strengthening of the bio-weapons treaty.
They are there
The origins of the US approach to international security prior to September 11 lie in Republican thinking in the late 1990s, itself a rather interesting mirror of a similar process two decades earlier. During Jimmy Carter's presidency in the late 1970s, powerful right-wing groups developed to advocate the re-arming of the United States in the face of the perceived Soviet threat. Groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger and High Frontier proposed a vigorous process of confronting the ideological and military threat from Moscow. Many of those involved went on to serve in the Reagan administration.
The context then was a bipolar world with international communism the clear threat to US interests. By the end of the 1990s, the world was far more complex but there was still a clear sense of threat, expressed most interestingly by George Bush in an early campaign speech in January 2000:
"...it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who the 'they' were. It was us versus them and we knew exactly who them was. Now we're not so sure who the 'they' are, but we know they're there."
Yet, in this uncertain and volatile world, there was a perceived need on the Republican right for the United States to develop as the clear international leader, operating, certainly, in its own interests, but in the belief that what is right for America is right for the world. It comes from a deep-seated conviction that there is only one economic system, the globalized free market, set in the political context of liberal democracy.
In this view, the United States therefore has an historic mission to be a civilizing force in world affairs. History is at an end and the American way of life is predominant. This will not be a neo-colonial controlling of the world but more a shaping, through governmental, business and other processes, of a world economy and polity that is broadly in the American image.
Groups analogous to the Committee on the Present Danger have been highly active in recent years, and many of the key participants have gone on to take leading positions in the Bush administration. One of the most significant, the Project for the New American Century, includes among its supporters Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
It asks, in its statement of principles, "Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?", arguing that this is essential and 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".
In the context of the response to the Twin Tower attacks, though, this does not mean that the United States is only interested in unilateralism. Indeed it is thoroughly engaged in many multilateral endeavors, not least negotiations on trade and intellectual property rights. The point is that this is acceptable only when clearly in its own interests. The attitude was captured with precision by Charles Krauthammer, in The Weekly Standard on June 4 2001:
"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 system a stability and essential tranquility that 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."
The stability and essential tranquility of that benign imperium was shattered by the hijackers, and it is worth reflecting on the extraordinary effects of those atrocities. The Twin Towers were probably the most notable structures of post-war America. Visited by millions of US citizens as well as foreign tourists they represented the core of US commercial and financial dominance. More than 3,000 people were killed, a key part of the US financial structure was damaged and the New York Stock Exchange itself was closed for four days.
The effects of the attacks spread across the airline and aircraft industries to have an impact on the whole economy, tipping it into temporary recession. Moreover, a second attack struck right at the core of the military command structure, a strike on the Pentagon that was relatively light in terms of casualties because the part of the building hit by the airliner had been under renovation. Nevertheless, the fact that the Pentagon itself could be shown to be so vulnerable caused deep anguish, and anger, among many in the senior military.
Opposition to domination
While there was horror across the world at these events, there was also a realization in many countries and among many peoples that it was an expression, however atrocious, of a deep opposition to US dominance that shows itself in much less violent forms in many different ways. To the United States, though, it was a terrible symptom of a potential threat to an absolutely essential world order, and one that required a forceful and persistent response.
In the early weeks and months after the attack, the nature of that response became clear, as did the extent of possible multilateral co-operation. Close links were maintained with Britain, there was some support from some other western European countries, and Pakistan was persuaded to facilitate attacks against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Russia recognized its singularly favorable geographic position and responded with substantial support for the Northern Alliance, not least by providing it with large quantities of armaments, reportedly financed by the United States.
At the same time, the United States adopted a military policy which fell far short of using its ground forces to destroy the Taliban regime. Instead, it essentially took sides in the long-running Afghan civil war, linking up with any faction that opposed the Taliban. This, combined with heavy air strikes using area-impact munitions, and special forces working with opposition fighters, added up to a proxy war in which almost all the casualties were felt by various anti-Taliban militia. The combination of sustained US air attack and the action of these militia rapidly dispersed the Taliban regime and the Al Qaeda network, but not without cost - early estimates suggesting at least three thousand civilian deaths.
In adopting this military strategy against the Taliban, the United States made some use of partner countries. Chief among these was Britain, performing an essential role in the aerial refueling of carrier-based aircraft and deploying small numbers of Special Air Services (SAS) and Special Boat Services (SBS) forces. But the use was limited, and Britain's willingness to commit substantial ground troops to ensure stability in northern Afghanistan early in the war was rebuffed with little ceremony.
Moreover, wider issues indicated that unilateralism was alive and kicking. At the start of the review conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty at Geneva in November, there was little indication of any increased US commitment to the protocol. Indeed its firm opposition to the proposed treaty developments was finally declared openly on the very last day of negotiations.
Shortly before this, the United States had failed to participate in a meeting concerning the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and President Bush's much-vaunted cut-back in nuclear arsenals would be strictly independent. There would be no external verification or monitoring, and there would be provision for the maintenance of substantial reserves of warheads.
President Bush subsequently announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In an extraordinary demonstration of unilateralism this was accompanied, almost to the day, by the "ripple firing" of four Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This rare test, designed to simulate war-time use of these strategic nuclear weapons, was an unmistakable signal, not least to China, that the United States would develop missile defenses while retaining the world's most powerful offensive nuclear arsenal.
Perhaps the most significant development related to Afghanistan, where a presidential directive was issued to establish military courts to deal with suspected terrorists. This directive, issued on November 13, was reported to be the first since World War Two. Such courts could convene in the United States or overseas, or even on ships at sea, and it would be within the power of the president to determine who should be tried.
The trials could be held in secret, would not need to involve juries and could give sentences up to and including the death penalty. At the time the directive was issued, a White House spokesperson described the presidential order as "an additional tool to use as he sees fit to fight the war on terrorism and bring foreign terrorists to justice". This development is in the context of the United States maintaining persistent objections to the establishment of an independent International Criminal Court under the auspices of the United Nations.
This and other aspects of the pattern of events would seem to indicate that little has changed in terms of US security policy since September 11. Where cooperation is necessary, then it will be sought, but where it is considered appropriate to pursue unilateral policies, then this will be done with persistence and commitment. It follows that disagreements with otherwise close allies are likely to continue and that the trauma of those events has not resulted in a change of outlook.
In the context of the "war on terrorism", European support for the United States will probably be maintained for remaining operations in Afghanistan, but far greater difficulties may emerge if the United States does decide to take the war to Iraq. In those circumstances, the potential divide between European and US approaches to security that were evident before September 11 may become the core issue in transatlantic relations.