Bush's International Charade

A notable passage appeared in President Bush's Sept. 20 speech to a Joint Session of Congress: "This is not just America's fight. And what is at stake is not just America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight."

On Nov. 10, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Bush continued to stress this theme of collective engagement. "We resolved that the aggressions and ambitions of the wicked must be opposed early, decisively and collectively, before they threaten us all," he said. "The civilized world is now responding. The United Nations has risen to this responsibility. Before the sun had set [on Sept. 12], these attacks on the world stood condemned by the world."

When Bush's speechwriters penned these words, they sought to prevent the war on terrorism from being seen as an independent, unilateral initiative. As expected, NATO had expressed its solidarity with the White House the day after the attacks by unanimously invoking Article 5 of its basic treaty, which affirms that an attack on one member is an attack on all. More tangibly, shortly before bombs began falling on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, the U.S. government assembled an impressive coalition of countries to carry on the War Against Global Terror. It even managed to prod Congress into finally paying a substantial portion of the dues the United States had long owed the United Nations.

One result of this "collective" action was that prominent liberals, seeking sunshine in the dark sky of October, proclaimed that the Bush administration had been forced to realize that unilateralism would not work in the 21st century, that international cooperation and multilateral arrangements were essential for the fulfillment of national interests.

But since Sept. 11 it has become clearer every day that President Bush and his advisors are not the overnight multilateralists that liberals and others took them for. Instead, the U.S. government has been developing only a fa├žade of support and subordination, a one-sided, almost imperial, coercive multilateralism revealed by the famous Bush threat: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." These words to Congress made it clear that the price of non-cooperation with the U.S. could be military confrontation.

In the conduct of the Afghanistan War this declaration reveals not joint decision-making or military cooperation, but complete control by the United States. Other countries and entities, including the United Nations, have been asked to help with post-conflict reconstruction but also told not to interfere with the conduct or goals of the war itself. When the U.S.'s allies in the war warned that the extension of the war to Iraq or elsewhere might break the coalition, Washington's official line was, "The mission will define the coalition, not the coalition the mission." Such an orientation suggests that even in the context of organizing the response to Sept. 11, the multilateralist element is marginal, and easily cast aside.

Perhaps the most telling development in the Bush administration's domineering multilateralism is its blithe dismissal of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. This unilateral withdrawal from a treaty that has served as a principal basis of arms control and stability for the last three decades is worrisome not only to Russia, one of the U.S.'s new allies in the war on terrorism, but to China and the nations of Europe as well. However, the most provocative aspect of America's unilateralist abrogation of the ABM Treaty is that it will allow the U.S. to construct a missile defense shield and possibly go on to weaponize space, which would threaten the rest of the world with American predominance. The goal of this revived and enlarged "Star Wars" project, it must be understood, is nothing less than to put the U.S. in charge of global security, thereby making all other states vulnerable.

The dismissal of the ABM Treaty may be the most visible sign of the Bush admini-stration's unilateralist foreign policy, but it's nothing new; this approach has been evident ever since they set up shop. That the unilateralist approach continues to flourish was made clear in the recent review by parties to the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, where most delegates regarded U.S. participation as a hindrance to useful cooperation, despite heightened concern about bioterrorism. Here another dimension of Bush's unilateralist approach became clear, what might be called the "market-plus-militarism" formula. That dogma aligns business forces (such as pharmaceutical companies who want to protect their intellectual property) against any form of international regulation that might imperil their industrial secrets. In other words, the Bush administration sees the protection of U.S. material interests as more important than the need to cooperate with other nations on such tasks as biological weapon program inspections.

Why hasn't there been more criticism of the Bush administration's pursuit of a unilateralist agenda? One reason is that the patriotic surge of support for the war has translated into astronomical approval ratings for Bush, which dilute criticism and effectively shield controversial policy initiatives from serious challenge. Indeed, criticism of governmental action, even if only vaguely related to security policy, has been stamped as unpatriotic, a process zealously presided over by Attorney General John Ashcroft. We ought to remember that the Bush leadership did not abandon its signature foreign policy stance opposing multilateralism after the World Trade Center attacks. It only altered its rhetoric to create an impression of multilateralism, while plunging ahead with the most controversial of its unilateralist moves.

Prior to Sept. 11, President Bush made clear the United States would become much more selective in its approach to "nation building" and "intervening abroad." He argued during and after the campaign that the U.S. government would no longer jeopardize the material and strategic interests of its citizens by bargaining with other countries over common problems. That pledge was as much a matter of style as substance. In their first few months in power, the Bush administration went out of their way to repudiate the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, and the proposed Treaty on Trade in Small Arms. The desired policy results probably could have been achieved by a more muted, less provocative appproach, and a conservative Senate would almost certainly not have consented to these treaties in any event. So the administration's stridency was meant to signal a unilateral rejection of global humanitarianism that they regard as inconsistent with American interests in a post cold war world.

In this perspective, the humanitarian peacekeeping of the 1990s in Somalia and the Balkans, and the commitment to what Bush called "nation-building," were seen as inconsistent with American national interests. But the retreat from globalism was explained to others as selective, not as isolationism. Instead, it was described as a systematic effort to redefine the U.S.'s relationship to the world. But note that multilateralism of the World Trade Organization variety was endorsed, as was a continued reliance on the International Monetary Fund to bail out distressed economies around the world, although this endorsement was given more reluctantly than in the past, given Wall Street's skepticism about IMF efforts to cushion the financial failures of third world countries.

Here it is useful to distinguish between four types of multilateralism, and how they relate to the affect of Sept. 11 on American foreign policy. First, there is soft multilateralism, essentially the U.N. system of treaty arrangements that seek to address global problems within a negotiated framework. Second, there is coercive multilateralism, the best example of which is the leverage exerted by the United States on other states to take part in international regimes dominated by Washington, especially in the post-Sept. 11 struggle against global terror, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the transnational control of migration and drugs. Third, there is neoliberal multilateralism, or the arrangements associated with facilitating the expansion of global trade and investment through the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and Annual Economic Summit of Advanced Industrial States, aka the Group of Seven (now Eight, with Russia). Lastly, there is civic multilateralism, involving innovative collaborations between civil society coalitions and moderate governments to produce global reforms, such as the Anti-Personnel Landmines Treaty and the Rome Treaty to establish an International Criminal Court.

The reappearance of security concerns at the top of the foreign policy agenda after Sept. 11 has eclipsed, at least temporarily, soft multilateralism and civic multilaterism, while giving salience to coercive multilateralism, and sustaining (although in a less strident spirit) neoliberal multilateralism. Whether these impacts will endure after the Afghanistan War is uncertain. But what is evident is that the Bush administration is generally opposed to soft and civic multilateralism, and quite adept at making opportune use of coercive multilateralism and selective use of neoliberal multilateralism. For this reason, it is a mistake to portray the Bush leadership as unalterably opposed to multilateralism; it will wear the cloak of multilateralism when it seems to fit.

The most common media assessment on the terrorist attacks was: "Sept. 11 changed everything, forever." My assessment of the Bush administration's foreign policy is best captured by the reverse sentiment: "Sept. 11 has not changed anything except the cosmetics of diplomacy." Before Sept. 11, the U.S. government was not dogmatically opposed to a multilateralism consistent with its unilateralist foreign policy goals, and since Sept. 11 it has not changed those views. Its refusal to defer or conceal its rejection of the ABM Treaty is particularly significant because it not only displeases almost all of America's allies, but introduces a discordant note into the coalition against global terror at a particularly sensitive moment.

If the United States repudiates a basic treaty relating to nuclear weapons at a time and place of its own choosing, what is to stop other countries from doing the same, or the United States from backing out of other treaty commitments whenever they become inconvenient? The whole effort of a treaty framework is to create a reliable arrangement that should be changed only by re-negotiation to take account of changed circumstances. Here, most parties to the ABM Treaty other than the United States believe that the prohibition on missile defense systems exerts a stabilizing influence and prevents a costly arms race, heightened tensions, and uncertain outcomes. What makes missile defense so objectionable is that it's bad if it fails (a huge waste of resources) and worse if it succeeds (since it could lead to a menacing new form of arms). But in a fragile world the multilateral ethos is most severely threatened by the refusal of the Bush administration to heed the views of even its most trusted allies.

Thinking ahead, if the war on terrorism is taken to other countries after the Afghan campaign, it may not only break the post-Sept. 11 anti-terror coalition but also encourage a major realignment in world politics. It might reinforce the reputation of the United States as a rogue superpower intent on global domination and oblivious to the need to act cooperatively on common global problems such as climate change. From a non-American perspective there are two threats to the possibility of global governance: one is posed by Osama bin Laden, the other, by George W. Bush. Most of us would prefer a third choice: a system of humane governance in which multilateral treaties and solutions, along with human rights, are paramount.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, is the author of Religion and Humane Global Governance.

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