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Its Own Worst Enemy


America’s current status as a hegemonic, unrivaled, unchallengeable “hyper-power,” the subject of Joseph Nye’s book, is exemplified in its military establishment. Before September 11, before President Bush proposed a 14 percent ($48 billion) increase in defense spending this year, the US was already in a league of its own. It has bases, ships, planes, and soldiers all around the globe. Washington spends more on its armed forces than any nation in history: the US defense budget will soon outdistance the annual defense expenditures of the next nine states combined. True, the member states of the EU between them have more soldiers than the US, and collectively their defense spending totaled nearly 70 percent that of Washington’s pre-2002 outlays; but the results in technology and hardware are simply not comparable. The US can intervene or make war almost anywhere in the world. No one else even comes close.

But the “America” that much of the world carries in its head is not defined by throw weights, smart bombs, or even GIs. It is more subtle and diffuse than that. In some places it is a fading memory of liberation. In others it is a promise of freedom, opportunity, and plenty: a political metaphor and a private fantasy. Elsewhere, or in the same places at other times, America has been identified with local repression. In short, America is everywhere. Americans—just 5 percent of the world’s population—generate 30 percent of the World’s Gross Product, consume nearly 30 percent of global oil production, and are responsible for almost as high a share of the world’s output of greenhouse gases. Our world is divided in many ways: rich/poor; North/South; Western/non-Western. But more and more, the division that counts is the one separating America from everyone else.

The anti-Americanism now preoccupying commentators should thus come as no surprise. The United States, by virtue of its unique standing, is exposed to the world’s critical gaze in everything it does or fails to do. Some of the antipathy the US arouses is a function of what it is: long before America rose to global dominion foreign visitors were criticizing its brash self-assurance, the narcissistic confidence of Americans in the superiority of American values and practices, and their rootless inattentiveness to history and tradition—their own and other people’s. The charge sheet has grown since the United States took the world stage, but it has not changed much. This “cultural” anti-Americanism is shared by Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians, secular and religious alike. It is not about antipathy to the West, or freedom, or the Enlightenment, or any other abstraction exemplified by the US. It is about America.1

Resented for what it is, America also stokes antipathy by what it does. Here things have recently changed for the worse. The US is often a delinquent international citizen. It is reluctant to join international initiatives or agreements, whether on climate warming, biological warfare, criminal justice, or women’s rights; the US is one of only two states (the other being Somalia) that have failed to ratify the 1989 Convention on Children’s Rights. The present US administration has “unsigned” the Rome Treaty establishing an International Criminal Court and has declared itself no longer bound by the Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties, which sets out the obligations of states to abide by treaties they have yet to ratify. The American attitude toward the United Nations and its agencies is cool, to say the least. Earlier this year the US ambassador for human rights called for the early dismissal of the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia—even though these are integral to any serious war on international terror and the US itself spent millions of dollars to bribe Belgrade into handing Slobodan Milosevic over to the Hague tribunal.

To many outsiders this inconsistent approach to international organizations and agreements, some of which Washington helped to establish, belies America’s claim to share international interests and seek multilateral partners for its goals. The same is true of American economic practices. The US is both advocate and exemplar of globalization—free-market capitalism untrammeled by frontiers, special interests, restrictive practices, protectionism, or state interference. But at home Washington applies steel tariffs, farm supports, and de facto government subsidies (notably for the defense industries) for domestic political gain. The European Union does this too, of course—the notorious Common Agricultural Policy consumes 45 percent of the Brussels budget and is at least as damaging in blocking the produce of African farmers as any US farm bill. But the cost to America’s image is far greater: the US is intimately identified with the very international norms it is transgressing.

To foreign critics, these contradictions in American behavior suggest hypocrisy—perhaps the most familiar of the accusations leveled at the US. They are all the more galling because, hypocritical or not, America is indispensable. Without American participation, most international agreements are dead letters. American leadership seems to be required even in cases—such as Bosnia between 1992 and 1995—where the British and their fellow Europeans had the means to resolve the crisis unaided. The US is cruelly unsuited to play the world’s policeman—Washington’s attention span is famously short, even in chronically troubled regions like Kashmir, the Balkans, the Middle East, or Korea—but it seems to have no choice. Meanwhile everyone else, but the Europeans especially, resent the United States when it fails to lead, but also when it leads too assertively.

The predictable backlash has been a new tone in American policy, an arrogant impatience with foreign opinion of any kind. The cold war is over, runs the unilateralist creed of the Bush administration and its supporters, and the dust has now cleared. We know who we are, and we know what we want. Foreign policy is about national interests. National interests are served by the exercise of power. Power is about arms and the will to use them, and we have both. In the words of the columnist Charles Krauthammer, in June 2001, “The new unilateralism seeks to strengthen American power and unashamedly deploy it on behalf of self-defined global ends.”2

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 the Bush administration’s unilateralist rhetoric was muted, to ease the search for allies in the coming war on terror. Overseas commentators, abashed by the carnage, earnestly returned the compliment—“We are all Americans now,” pronounced Le Monde, while NATO invoked Article V of its charter for the first time, committing all its members to solidarity with a United States under attack. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Most American allies firmly supported the war on Afghanistan, whatever their private misgivings. But in January 2002, when President Bush alluded in his State of the Union speech to an “axis of evil” (North Korea, Iran, Iraq), the breach was reopened.

What caused offense in that speech was less its substance than its form. Most of America’s allies doubt the wisdom of alienating Iran from the Western nations, and some of them question Washington’s way of handling Saddam Hussein. But these are not new disagreements. However, just four months after the administration declared itself keen to build alliances and collaborate closely with its friends in the struggle against a common enemy, Bush’s account of America’s global struggle against the forces of darkness didn’t even mention America’s allies. This raised hackles.3

The American response was to feign surprise—“So what unilateral action have we taken that has them all so shocked?” asked Colin Powell on February 17. But the Europeans had not misread the signs from Washington. Powell notwithstanding, the realist (some might say cynical) consensus in the administration was that since America’s allies are irrelevant to its military calculations and have no political choice but to tag along, nothing is gained by consulting them in advance or taking their sensitivities into consideration. In its crudest form this conclusion was well summarized, once again, by Charles Krauthammer:

Our sophisticated European cousins are aghast. The French led the way, denouncing American simplisme. They deem it a breach of manners to call evil by its name. They prefer accommodating to it. They have lots of practice, famously accommodating Nazi Germany in 1940…. We are in a war of self-defense. It is also a war for Western civilization. If the Europeans refuse to see themselves as part of this struggle, fine. If they wish to abdicate, fine. We will let them hold our coats, but not tie our hands.4

It is typical of the ugly mood in parts of Washington today that Krauthammer omits to mention not only that France lost 100,000 men in six weeks of fighting against the Germans in 1940, but also that the United States maintained full diplomatic relations with the evil Nazis for a further eighteen months, until Hitler declared war on America in December 1941.

Krauthammer, of course, is just a columnist. But the new tone of American foreign policy today is dryly summarized by Powell himself—for many foreigners the lone voice of multilateral moderation in Bush’s administration. Speaking in Rome, after the recent Bush–Putin meeting and the subsequent establishment of a NATO– Russia Council, he insisted that US foreign policy remains as “multilateralist” as ever. Our task, he explained, is to try to persuade our friends that our policies are right. But if that fails, “then we will take the position we believe is correct and I hope the Europeans are left with a better understanding of the way in which we want to do business.”5

It is this condescending indifference to outside opinion that grates on foreign ears and that has so disappointed America’s allies after the raised expectations of September 2001. Together with Bush’s recently pronounced strategic doctrine of “unilaterally determined preemptive self-defense” and the alarming prospect of new earth-penetrating nuclear weapons for possible use in Iraq—an unprecedented break with America’s historical reluctance to countenance first-strike weapons of this sort—it paints once more the picture of an American leadership deaf to criticism or advice.6 It is a leadership that all too often seems contemptuous and bellicose, and, in the words of El Pais, fuels “public alarm” by its obsessions and self-serving warnings of imminent Armageddon.

Joseph Nye is dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard and was a senior defense and intelligence official under President Clinton. His book-length essay on American foreign policy was written before the attacks of September 11 and hastily updated for publication, but it could not be more timely. Nye is not a Wilsonian idealist, bemoaning American reluctance to join the international community in a search for a better world—in 1990 he published Bound to Lead, in which he correctly predicted the coming American hegemony.7 He is not embarrassed by the reality of American supremacy.

Nevertheless, he has written a strong critique of unilateralism in American foreign policy—the widespread disposition to “go it alone,” paying a minimum of attention to the wishes of others. He is also implicitly skeptical of “realism,” the approach to international relations that disparages a priori concern with rights, transnational laws, or moral objectives and confines diplomacy to the advance of American interests by all appropriate means. But this is not a book about international relations theory.8 Nye’s objection to unilateralism, or realism in the sense used here, is not that they are conceptually insecure; his point is that they just don’t work.

  1. 1

    The attack of September 11 produced a small avalanche of books on anti-Americanism and its implications. See, for example, The Age of Terror: America and the World after September 11, edited by Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda (Basic Books, 2001); How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War, edited by James F. Hoge Jr. and Gideon Rose (Public Affairs, 2001); and What We Think of America (Granta, No. 77, 2002).

  2. 2

    Charles Krauthammer, “The New Unilateralism,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2001.

  3. 3

    In the course of his speech Bush mentioned “Europe” just once. NATO and the EU he passed over in silence.

  4. 4

    Charles Krauthammer, “The Axis of Petulance,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2002. Variations on this theme can be found in the writings of William Kristol and Robert Kagan, the Bush administration’s house intellectuals. See, for example, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, “The Bush Era,” The Weekly Standard, February 11, 2002.

  5. 5

    The Economist, June 1–7, 2002, p. 27.

  6. 6

    On the Bush administration’s move toward developing nuclear weapons for actual use, see Steven Weinberg, “The Growing Nuclear Danger,” The New York Review, July 18, 2002.

  7. 7

    Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (Basic Books, 1990).

  8. 8

    For a lucid account of realist thinking in the history of international relations, see the new book by Jonathan Haslam, No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli (Yale University Press, 2002).

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