The perils of being #1

Los Angeles Times - Sunday, December 12, 1999


WASHINGTON--The question facing U.S. foreign policy is not internationalism versus the "new isolationists," as President Bill Clinton would have it. Rather, the behavior of U.S. friends and allies suggests the real question is: Which type of internationalism should guide U.S. foreign policy: unilateralism or multilateralism?
     European allies decided at a meeting in Helsinki, which ended yesterday, to form a "rapid reaction force" to respond to future Bosnia-type crises. Two weeks earlier, 13 Asian nations gathered in Manila to conceive a pan-Asian economic and security future modeled after that of the European Union. Although the meeting was held in the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, and key U.S. allies Japan and South Korea participated, no Americans were invited.
     Isn't it U.S. alliances--the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe and the democracies in Japan and South Korea--that underpin global stability?
     Americans may think of themselves as good global citizens who believe that the rule of law should guide international relations. But to much of the world, U.S. behavior frequently appears unilateral, capricious and strategically incoherent. A ridiculous perception? Consider:
     The fates of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the international criminal court, the land-mine treaty and the Kyoto climate treaty have something in common: The administration helped craft all these international pacts, yet the United States refused to ratify any of them. Add to this sanctions that the U.S., at one time or another, has unilaterally applied on nearly two-thirds of the world's population, including the extraterritorial extension of American law. Throw in the U.S.-led war against Yugoslavia without a United Nations mandate and combine with talk of shredding the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
     The United States often does appear to be a capricious superpower, and European and Asian quests for more strategic independence underscore this perception.
     Political scientists describe two classic reactions to a predominate power: jumping on the bandwagon or striving to counterbalance the concentration of power. So confused is the post-Cold War world that U.S. friends and allies appear to be doing both at the same time.
     France, teaming up with China, recently denounced U.S. nuclear and antimissile policies, in essence calling the U.S. a "rogue superpower." And Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's trip to Beijing last week, as Clinton was lecturing him on Chechnya, suggests that U.S. actions may also be driving potential competitors Russia and China into an alliance to offset mutual concerns about unchecked U.S. power.
     Even after discounting Chinese rhetoric and Yelstin's erratic behavior, some resentment toward the United States is inevitable. It is a consequence of being the steward of global order. Not since the Roman Empire has a single power held such global preeminence. In every realm--economic, military, cultural and technological--U.S. dominance is palpable and, if anything, increasing. Yet, Americans show little interest in empire or in being a new Rome. Indeed, if recent cuts in spending on foreign aid and diplomacy are indicators, Americans are not interested in paying a premium for their dominant global role.
     But in a world of interdependence, the United States, because it is the sole power capable of projecting force anywhere, is the default global leader. We have seen it time and again: When there is an international crisis, be it Bosnia, Kosovo or North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, who ya gonna call?
     This makes the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers all the more stark. The end of the Cold War removed the threat of nuclear holocaust and, with it, interest in world affairs. A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is still no single organizing principle guiding U.S. policy. This has domesticated U.S. foreign policy, with single-issue interest groups jostling to steer U.S. policy in this or that direction.
     The push and pull of these forces, combined with the absence of a clear sense of overall direction, give U.S. policy its unilateral cast. The trail of unratified treaties, which reflects the culture of lawyers that has been a hallmark of Clintonism, reinforces this impression. This legalistic political culture emphasizes process over results, yielding a foreign policy akin to the ill-fated Kellogg-Briand Pact, which "outlawed" war. Clinton's penchant for signing pieces of paper doesn't always advance U.S. interests.
     The administration has, at times, displayed a fuzzy utopianism. After the war in Kosovo ended, Clinton mused that human rights concerns supersede national sovereignty. Russia's brutal assault on Chechnya has forced the president to retreat on this score, but when was the last time Clinton spoke of Somalia or Haiti? Call this excessive multilateralism.
     On the other hand, some in Congress have never met a treaty they liked. Granted, among the treaties the U.S. has not embraced, some may not have promoted the U.S. national interest. The scientific case for global warming may be compelling, but a treaty that leaves out two of the world's biggest polluters, China and India, is a nonstarter. The land-mine and international-criminal-court treaties would constrain the U.S. in ways that might not promote stability. The current controversy over U.S. military behavior at No Gun Ri during the Korean War hints at the risk such treaties pose for global powers frequently involved in military actions. The test-ban treaty, its proponents contended, locked in the U.S. strategic advantage and curbed China, Russia and India's nuclear possibilities. Critics questioned its verifiability, enforcement and impact on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. If the ABM treaty blocks U.S. ability to defend its citizens against missiles, some argue, who needs it? Call this excessive unilateralism.
     It is tempting to argue that all this matters little in a world of overwhelming U.S. power and influence. Yet, the U.S. global advantage is impermanent. Over the next quarter century, the roles of other powers--European, Chinese, perhaps even Russian--will increase. The U.S. challenge is to husband its current advantage wisely. That means fostering a global structure of relations that advances U.S. interests over the long term, one in which other major players feel they have more of a stake in cooperating with us than in obstructing us. But the message that Washington seems to be sending to other powers is less one of norms and rules than of arbitrary power exercised.
     This is especially unwise at a time when American values--democracy, free markets, prosperity--have triumphed. There is no competing idea. Yet, U.S. impatience sometimes suggests that we have a difficult time taking "yes" for an answer. The power of political-military capabilities, ideas and culture are invaluable assets of U.S. leadership. These strengths should form the basis for a new foreign-policy bipartisanship, one that locates the proper balance between unilateralism and multilateralism, before our idiosyncratic ways have unintended consequences we may regret. *

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Robert A. Manning, a Former State Department Advisor for Policy, Is a Senior Fellow and Director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Author of the Forthcoming Book "The Asian Energy Factor (Revisited)."

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