Asia | Latin America Security | Cuba | National Security | Global Financial Integrity | Americas Program | Avoided Deforestation Partners | Win Without War | TransBorder Project
Last Updated:5/22/03
The Trend Toward Unilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy

by Wayne S. Smith

On May 20-21, 1999, the Center for International Policy, based in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in London, co-hosted a conference in Washington to discuss the pros and cons of what many see as a disturbing trend toward unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy -a trend which subsequently, on October 13, 1999, was most dramatically manifested in the U.S. Senate’s defeat of the crucially important Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a defeat seen by many as reminiscent of the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Versailles Treaty after WWI. The following essay is loosely based on discussions at the conference and on subsequent exchanges among participants. The individual presentations of many of the participants will shortly be published by the Royal Institute at the address given below. Conference agenda and participants are attatched.

While both sides of the debate were heard on May 20–21, it should be stated at the outset that the Center for International Policy remains firm in its conviction that the United States is squandering the best opportunity the world has yet seen to construct an international system based on rule of law and on rules of conduct agreed to by all in such international fora as the World Trade Organization. The result of such an effort, eventually, could be a more stable, predictable, and prosperous world.

U.S. rejection of the test ban treaty, it’s failure to pay its dues to the United Nations (minuscule compared to the U.S. national budget), other actions which have tended to undermine the world body and other international organizations, a series of sanctions which are not only unilateral but which flout international law and the rules of conduct of the WTO, and which are extraterritorial in nature, all weaken the international system and have helped create a context in which we have not a more stable world but one which is more violent and unpredictable and in which the problems which really confront humankind—poverty, hunger, disease, destruction of the environment—are not being addressed. This is little short of tragic.

Many Europeans (and certainly all those represented at the conference) deplore this trend in U.S. policy. They point out that U.S. leadership is needed, to be sure, but that if that leadership is to be effective, the United States cannot hold itself above the established rules of conduct, as it has done on all too many occasions over the past few years. And there is no way that the defeat of the test ban treaty can be squared with responsible leadership.

World War I was to have been the war to end all wars. It was far from that. When it ended in 1918, the seeds for World War II were sown by the draconian peace, by the refusal of the United States (in 1920) to ratify the Versailles Treaty, and its virtual withdrawal from the international arena. Not only would the United States not join the League of Nations, it retreated to isolationism, not to re-emerge until engulfed against its will in World War II. It had, however, learned from the mistake of shirking its international obligations, and thus, at the end of this second all-absorbing global conflagration, the United

States led the world in founding the United Nations, guided by the vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and seconded by most other American political leaders from both parties. They understood that American interests were best served not by seeking dominance, but rather by fashioning an international system that would promote rule of law, conflict resolution and standards of social justice.

Movement toward this vision was immediately hindered, however, by the Cold War, which began even as the United Nations was founded. The world divided into two camps, each led by a superpower, the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to defend itself, the United States had also to defend (or at least give assurances to) many of the countries in its camp. Thus, during the almost half-century of the Cold War, the United States entered into alliances around the world and followed an intensely multilateral foreign policy.

But many in the United States had hoped that if the Cold War ever ended (and few expected it to end in our lifetimes), the United States could then again take the lead in moving toward the kind of international system the world had still only dreamed of. This, afterall, had been the vision of American leaders in founding the United Nations in the first place. It would be a matter of taking up where we had left off when interrupted by the Cold War.

One could not reasonably have expected the Administration of George Bush to take up that challenge. It took office in the trailing years of the Cold War and before the final collapse of the other super power. Clinton’s was the first post-Cold-War presidency. With promises of a foreign policy emphasizing multilateralism, the Clinton administration at first seemed to be moving in the right direction. But such hopes were soon dashed. In fact, the years of the Clinton presidency have seen the United States drift toward unilateralism and the undermining of the international system. The United States refuses to pay its arrears to the United Nations, refuses also to ratify key international conventions, and has come forward with a whole series of unilateral sanctions against countries with which we disagree—or which have simply in some way or another offended us. Many of these violate international law and the rules of conduct of various international bodies we are committed by treaty to uphold. The most egregious, the Helms-Burton Act, is blatantly extraterritorial and, according to the Inter-American Juridical Committee, infringes international law on at least eight counts. Its passage was denounced by the entire international community. How, many asked, could the United States take international obligations and treaties so lightly?

How to explain this trend? Why is the United States tending to turn its back on the United Nations when polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Americans support that body and want the international system strengthened?

One answer lies in the fact that while most see the end of the Cold War as opening the way to a stronger United Nations and a more effective international system generally, another point of view seems to prevail in the U.S. Congress. It holds that as the United States has emerged as the only remaining superpower, it need no longer adhere to international law, which in any event is seen as a bothersome abstraction. Nor should it be impeded in the exercise of power by the United Nations or any other international organization. As Ambassador William vanden Heuvel put it at the conference, had Senator Jesse Helms been a delegate at the San Francisco conference, he would have voted against its formation. He believes that U.S. membership to some degree dilutes U.S. sovereignty. And so he and like-minded colleagues in the U.S. Congress seek to undermine the United Nations at every opportunity—and to reduce U.S. participation.

The White House and State Department say they want a strong United Nations, but they seen so intimidated by Helms and Company and so lacking in any conviction or vision of their own that the UN bashers in the Congress usually get their way.

Certainly they got their way in rejecting the nuclear test ban treaty. The Administration favored the treaty. President Clinton had signed it in 1996 and encouraged other nations of sign and ratify. Many had done so. Others were waiting to see what the United States would do. In fact, President Clinton did very little to generate support for the treaty in the U.S. Senate. That notwithstanding, in September of this year, a number of Democratic senators, apparently encouraged by the White House, pushed to have the treaty brought to the floor for discussion and a vote. Unfortunately, they —and the White House— did so without making any effort to calculate just how many votes they had. In fact, far from having the necessary two-thirds majority, they could not even muster a majority. Realizing their error, they tried to postpone the vote. Too late. The treaty was defeated on October 13th by a vote of 51 to 48.

The consequences of their blunder and of the intransigence of the Republican majority were serious. Efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons have suffered a grievous blow, as have U.S. credentials for leadership. This is the first time in 80 years, or since 1920, that the Senate has rejected so important an international convention.

The Congress, however, is not the only nay-sayer. U.S. refusal to ratify, let alone adhere to, certain international conventions stems from objections voiced by the Pentagon. The United States is virtually alone in refusing to ratify an international convention banning antipersonnel land mines, for example, because the Pentagon insists it needs them to defend South Korea. Worse, only the United States and Somalia have failed to ratify the International Convention on the rights of the Child! The Pentagon’s objection to this one is that the convention might restrict recruitment of military personnel to those older than eighteen, while U.S. recruitment practices draw the line at seventeen. Is the awful public relations problem resulting from our failure (joined only by Somalia!) to support the rights of children really worth taking into the Armed Forces a few seventeen-year-olds?

Meanwhile, the United States is also working to limit inspection safeguards in the Chemical Weapons Convention—and lagging in tightening the rules against biological weapons. And there are those in both the Pentagon and the Congress who favor a unilateral scrapping of the anti-ballistic-missile treaty. If they succeed, most of our arms-limitation agreements with Russia will go out the window—if indeed they aren’t already out the window with the defeat of the test ban treaty.

This is hardly the way to lead the world toward arms reductions and safeguards. On the contrary, it is creating an atmosphere of growing insecurity in the international community—and serious doubts about U.S. leadership. Opportunities present themselves and the drifting Clinton administration squanders them or sees them turned back by the Congress. With reference to the defeat of the test ban treaty, the New York Times on October 14 quoted Rebecca Johnson, editor of the London-based Disarmament Diplomacy, as saying: "The initial impact will be catastrophic in terms of U.S. ability to be taken seriously in international efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The signal the rest of the world gets is that the United States prefers to engage in playground partisan politics rather than working with its allies on collective efforts at international security."

In fact, given how highly interdependent the world has become, the United States has no feasible alternative to multilateralism. In an age of instant communications, multinationals and global flows of capital, the idea that even the powerful United States can decide for itself is illusory. As was pointed out in the conference’s final panel dealing with the implications of unilateralism for world trade, rules of conduct are necessary. In recognition of that, the United States itself took the lead, for example, in setting up the World Trade Organization (WTO). And the latter has in fact served U.S. interests well. Most of the trade disputes involving the United States brought before that body have been decided in favor of the United States. To put forward legislation such as the Helms-Burton Act which undermines the WTO and violates its guidelines is short-sighted in the extreme.

And just as rules of conduct are necessary in the economic sphere, so too are they in the political. Clearly, the United States does not wish to be the world policeman (indeed, since that would imply casualties, it cannot be) and the cost would be prohibitive. Hence, machinery for conflict resolution is required, and an international peace-keeping force of one kind or another. The United Nations could provide both—has provided both in a variety of situations. The United States should be working to strengthen those mechanisms and to use them to the maximum extent, not to undermine them. Russian and Chinese veto powers in the Security Council may in some instances impede their use—that is a problem which must be worked on. But it has often been the United States itself which has simply failed to act—as in the case of the massacres in Rwanda. Tens of thousands of lives might have been saved had a UN peacekeeping force been deployed in time. Russia and China would not have objected. The United States held back. The basic equation is this: either we work to develop systems of conflict resolution and peacekeeping or face an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.

It stands to reason also that if rule of law is a desirable thing in the life of a nation, so too would it be in international affairs, albeit more difficult to achieve. Adherence to international law is not yet a given among nations. But the point is that we should be working toward that goal.

To act in accordance with and in defense of international law, or a code of conduct such as that embodied in the UN charter, is the most effective means of legitimizing any foreign policy move. But the United States must lead by example. In today’s world, there can be no double standards. The United States must practice what it preaches. Except in extraordinary circumstances in which its vital security might be at stake, it should adhere to the rules of the game—as laid down by the UN Charter, international law and by such international fora as the WTO.

Even the foreign policy of the only remaining superpower needs this mantle of legitimacy. The U.S. could not for long simply impose its will on the international community. The cost both in blood and treasure would be too great —and one the American people would not pay. As Bill Maynes pointed out at the May 20-21 conference, to impose their will on others, empires of the past had to be ruthless. But ruthlessness is not a characteristic of the American people.

Already there is growing reaction in the international community to what is regarded as the arrogance —and capriciousness— of U.S. power. As Maynes notes: "Our insistence on denigrating the UN and trying to have our own way in forum after forum is bound to backfire and leave us isolated and weakened. Even our European friends are complaining."

All Europeans represented at the conference emphasized that concern. It is not, they say, that Europe does not want U.S. leadership. It does. But they had expected the United States to take the lead in moving toward a stronger international system. Rather than that, it often seems to be undermining the system—and more and more to insist on playing by its own rules. That is unacceptable and in the end is not in the interest of the United States.

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented that while "the world may decry American arrogance, it depends on the sole remaining superpower as a guarantor of stability and prosperity."

This is doubtless true, so long as power is exercised in furtherance of legitimate —and shared—objectives, as stability and prosperity of course would be. Other nations would not long accept the exercise of U.S. power in furtherance of its own narrow interests and against theirs.

Far better to rely on what Tom Farer has called "institutionalized collaboration." Given the nature of the challenges of the coming century—the fragile and deteriorating environment, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the increase in world population and world poverty—, classical state-to-state diplomacy is unlikely to meet them. Rather, the best hope will be to draw the major states into networks of cooperation and consultation. Compromise is not a sign of weakness; rather it is a means of moving toward an objective with the cooperation of others, and thus with less cost to the United States It should be remembered that even Hans Morgenthau, the most revered exponent of basing foreign policy on national interests, held out as the ultimate goal a more perfect international system which in the final analysis would better serve the interests of all. The world now has the best opportunity it has ever had to move toward that goal. Realism and the national interests demand that the United States lead the way.

There are those who believe the United States should hold itself apart from any international body, that its decisions and actions should not be circumscribed by any law other than its own Constitution. These extreme unilateralists have no interest even in working toward a more functional international system. They are of course entitled to that opinion, but it leaves no room for compromise with those who believe the development of such a system to be imperative.

There are more, however, who even though calling for the near hegemonic exercise of U.S. power at this point in time, do so in the name of stability and the eventual emergence of an international system that really works. They tend to criticize the so-called multilateralists for putting the cart before the horse, i.e. for committing to the objective without any clear idea as to how to achieve it. As they put it, there is a complex relationship between process and goals. The world has not reached anything resembling the promised land and cannot rely exclusively on international institutions to create a liberal international order. Rather, responsible powers may sometimes have to step outside the framework of international institutions in order to advance the greater good. This, it is argued, is what the Clinton administration is doing. It would have preferred to work with the United Nations in handling the Kosovo crisis, for example, but to avoid a Russian and/or Chinese veto in the Security Council, had to rely on NATO instead.

Perhaps. But keeping the Kosovo crisis out of the Security Council is one thing, refusing to pay arrears to the United Nations is quite another.

Even so, it should be acknowledged that many of the concerns expressed by these "cautious hegemonists" have a certain validity. Basically, they share the same overall objective as the multilateralists—a workable international system—but are concerned that the United States not move too far too fast and not commit to it before there are solid guarantees that it will work.

Fair enough. There may be disagreements over the degree to which these concerns should inhibit movement toward the objective. A consensus is nonetheless possible. The great majority would agree that the United States should be working toward a strong international system based on rule of law. Indeed, there is no viable alternative.

Search WWW Search

Asia | Latin America Security | Cuba | National Security | Global Financial Integrity | Americas Program | Avoided Deforestation Partners | Win Without War | TransBorder Project

Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-3317 / fax (202) 232-3440