Trend Toward Unilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy
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. Senates defeat of the crucially important
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a defeat seen by many as reminiscent of the
Senates 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.
sides of the debate were heard on May 2021, 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.
of the test ban treaty, its 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 humankindpoverty, hunger, disease,
destruction of the environmentare not being addressed. This is
little short of tragic.
(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
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
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.
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.
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.
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. Clintons
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 disagreeor 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?
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?
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 opportunityand to reduce U.S. participation.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pentagons
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
the United States is also working to limit inspection safeguards in
the Chemical Weapons Conventionand 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 windowif indeed they arent already
out the window with the defeat of the test ban treaty.
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 communityand 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
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 conferences 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.
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 bothhas
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 usethat is
a problem which must be worked on. But it has often been the United
States itself which has simply failed to actas 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.
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
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 todays 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 gameas laid down
by the UN Charter, international law and by such international fora
as the WTO.
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.
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."
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 systemand 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
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."
doubtless true, so long as power is exercised in furtherance of legitimate
and sharedobjectives, 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.
to rely on what Tom Farer has called "institutionalized collaboration."
Given the nature of the challenges of the coming centurythe 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.
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.
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.
But keeping the Kosovo crisis out of the Security Council is one thing,
refusing to pay arrears to the United Nations is quite another.
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 multilateralistsa
workable international systembut 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.
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.