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Unilateralism Is Alive and Well in Washington

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
December 21, 2001
International Herald Tribune

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George W. Bush's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty shows that American unilateralism is alive and well. In that regard at least, Sept. 11 changed little in American foreign policy.

After the terrorist attacks, some expected and many hoped that President Bush would adopt a more multilateral approach to foreign policy. It was a hope shared even by his father, who said on Sept. 14: "Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call to duty and to defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter." Within hours of the attacks, the United States asked the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning those responsible. With U.S. encouragement, America's NATO partners fulfilled their treaty obligations and pledged to come to its defense. Instead of lashing out alone, the Bush administration assembled a broad international coalition to fight the scourge of terrorism.

It soon became clear, however, that the administration's commitment to multilateral action was tactical rather than strategic. When others extended a helping hand on matters of immediate need, the United States graciously accepted. Foreign cooperation in tracking down those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, sharing critical intelligence and shutting down financial networks that sustain terrorist operations all served Washington's goal of defeating Qaida.

The Bush administration was nonetheless determined to set the pace and level of cooperation. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," President Bush declared, making clear that Washington, not other capitals, would determine which was which.

Where foreign cooperation was not necessary, the administration went its own way. Judging that it could win the war in Afghanistan largely on its own, it turned down multiple offers of military assistance from European allies, thus trivializing NATO's commitment to collective self-defense that was so rapidly invoked on Sept. 12.

And if some had hoped that the administration would abandon its rejectionist stance on key international treaties after Sept. 11, they were sorely disappointed. After standing alone in Bonn last July as the nations of the world finalized an agreement on reducing greenhouse gases, the administration had promised to generate new proposals of its own. Yet the U.S. delegation arrived empty-handed for the next round of talks, in Marrakech in October. Its only task appeared to be to make sure nothing happened at the conference that might harm U.S. interests.

Last month the United States was the only signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty not to attend a conference of countries that had signed or ratified the treaty. The administration opposes the test ban.

Last week a U.S. delegation stunned members of a review conference in Geneva on the Biological Weapons Convention by declaring Washington's opposition to any multilateral effort to strengthen enforcement and compliance with the convention, which bans the development and possession of germ weapons. This opposition came even though the anthrax-laced letters made the United States the victim of a bio-terrorist attack. And now the Bush administration is set to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which has helped stabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship for nearly 30 years. President Vladimir Putin has suggested that he is willing to modify the treaty to allow more robust testing of missile defenses, but that is not enough for the Bush administration. The United States apparently must be unfettered in this, as in most other matters.

Mr. Bush's unilateralist impulse is shortsighted. In seeking to eliminate potential constraints on U.S. freedom of action, the administration gains a free hand today at the likely cost of losing needed partners tomorrow.