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Bush's Flair for Unilateralism Not Boosting International Ties

Authors: Gregory Michaelidis, and James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
August 3, 2001
Philadelphia Inquirer

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International treaties are out of favor with the Bush White House.

Since taking office, the administration has withdrawn U.S. support for an array of agreements governing global warming, biological weapons, and creation of an international criminal court. It has also worked to water down a proposed pact limiting the sale of small-arms around the world. The administration insists it supports what these treaties seek to accomplish. It just objects to how they go about doing it. To be fair, nobody thinks the White House favors global warming or thugs toting biological weapons. But the administration's appetite for going it alone in foreign affairs is troubling. President Bush needs to explain to the American people why he thinks unilateralism serves the national interest. That will be difficult.

The administration says it has walked away from the treaties because they do not deserve support. The Kyoto Protocol is "fatally flawed" because it will be expensive to implement and does not apply to developing nations. The protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention will not catch all cheaters. An International Criminal Court might be used to harass U.S. citizens.

The argument that no treaty is better than a bad treaty has considerable appeal. Treaties are solemn pledges that should be made only after thoughtful debate. The United States should sign them because they advance its interests, not because everyone else is signing.

By the same token, however, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. If a treaty's objectives make sense, the United States should walk away from it only when there is a better alternative. On that score, the Bush administration gets a failing grade. Its eagerness to tell the world what it won't do has not been matched by a passion to say what it will do.

The administration's inability to come up with alternatives to the treaties it rejects suggests that its objections to treaty details are really a cover for something broader: a refusal to play by the same set of rules as the rest of the world. Some administration officials appear to be admitting as much when they talk about America pursuing an "a la carte multilateralism"— essentially working with others only when it suits us.

A la carte multilateralism has only one catch— it won't work. Cooperation cannot be ordered up on a whim. It must be nurtured. Even imperfect treaties can help establish a political consensus on what constitutes acceptable international behavior. When these norms are missing, cooperation becomes more difficult. International politics is about more than wealth and power. It is also about reciprocity. Just as in everyday life, countries have to give in order to get.

We are already seeing signs that the rest of the world is losing interest in working with the United States on Washington's terms. Rather than give Kyoto up for dead, America's allies hammered out their own agreement. Washington's pleas earlier this summer that the European Union drop its opposition to General Electric's proposed merger with Honeywell fell on deaf ears. Nearly every European ally save Britain has abandoned the hard-line U.S. policy toward Iraq. And in May the United States was voted off the United Nations Committee on Human Rights.

Most troubling, Washington's growing inability to get others to follow its lead comes when cooperation is needed more than ever. The most pressing foreign-policy problems we face today—global warming, weapons proliferation, international financial instability— can be solved only if countries work together. If President Bush sticks to his a la carte approach to foreign policy, America will find itself not only isolated in the world community, but less secure and prosperous as well.