: US Foreign Policy
US foreign policy: where to from here?
Published at uniya.org, January 2004
An edited version of this article appears in the Jan-Feb 2004
edition of Eureka
Street (vol. 14, no.1), the Jesuit magazine of public affairs,
the arts and theology.
World order is in a state of flux not seen since the first half
of last century. The way that the US executed regime change in Iraq
is the coming of age of a decade of change. It is posing a serious
challenge to the multilateral system that has existed for nearly
60 years. The post-1945 system has been characterised by détente
and containment, by multilateral institutions and by the compromise
of power around the United Nations Charter. That system now risks
being swept aside in a new era of unilateralism and ad hoc coalitions
of the willing.
Proponents of unilateralism argue that the old order is no longer
relevant, if it ever was, in guaranteeing peace and security in
a hostile world. What the world needs now and into the future, so
the argument goes, is a benign hegemon to maintain order and stability
and to promote the universal values of freedom, democracy and free
enterprise. This requires a leading nation with military supremacy,
in this case the US, to defeat current and emerging enemies, unilaterally
Some world leaders are troubled by this logic. The usually subtle
Kofi Annan warned last September against what he called the ‘lawless
use of force’. ‘We have come to a fork in the road’,
he went on to say. ‘Now we must decide whether it is possible
to continue [with the present arrangements] or whether radical changes
Annan left little doubt about the present disarray of world politics.
But while we might be shocked by events of recent years, we should
not be surprised. The world has been stewing, to adapt the old business
analogy, like a frog in boiling water, oblivious to the changing
Over a decade ago the Cold War ended with the crumbling of the
Soviet Union and its planned economies. This was a unique time in
modern history, marked by turbulent change and a bankruptcy of political
alternatives. With the monopolisation of world power, the Third
World—which had benefited from playing off one superpower
against the other—lost its bargaining leverage and became
fractured and marginalised. Meanwhile, business interests became
increasingly vocal and global in the absence of an ideological alternative.
The triumph of the market hastened change and unleashed an unprecedented
worldwide orgy of structural adjustment and deregulation.
The 1990s also saw the rise of groups resisting these trends. The
Islamist terrorists are the most prominent, but there are others.
Xenophobic and isolationist groups captured political discourse
in many countries, including One Nation in Australia. They offered
alternative views to the self-declared inevitability of cultural
and economic integration. The same period produced the international
protest movements against the excesses of global capitalism. These
groups promoted globalisation of a different kind, one that prioritises
human rights and sustainable development. By the late 1990s the
world had become a battlefield of ideas.
It was in this context that two competing US foreign policy approaches
developed. ‘Preemptive unilateralism’ is what we call
the approach of the current US administration. Some Pentagon officials
articulated this concept as early as 1992. This policy seeks to
revamp the approach of the Clinton administration, which is the
approach the former US ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright,
called ‘assertive multilateralism’.
Assertive multilateralism works within the post-1945 international
framework to exert US power while maximising consent and minimising
risk. ‘When the United States intervenes alone’, Albright
once said, ‘we pay all of the costs and run all of the risks.
When the UN acts, we pay one fourth of the costs and others provide
the vast majority of troops.’ Both views share a strong sense
of America’s mission to the world, but whereas assertive multilateralism
sees the spread of American values in evolutionary terms, preemptive
unilateralism sees it as a revolutionary activity.
The current revolutionaries in Washington do not entertain the
teleological fairytale that democracy and free enterprise is an
automatic expression of economic facts or the inevitable product
of history. ‘Freedom is not determined by some dialectic of
history,’ says President Bush. “Liberty, if not defended,
can be lost’. While the unilateralist camp shares with the
multilateralists foreign policy realism, it is distinguished by
its sense of moral purpose and historical urgency. Unilateralists
see the absence of a rival superpower as an opportunity to transform
the world radically and to create a capitalist version of ‘permanent
revolution’. President Bush calls his project a ‘global
democratic revolution’. The UN, a body that includes quite
a few undemocratic characters, is a persistent target of their frustration.
The importance of Iraq in this debate should not be overlooked.
Iraq is not just another petrol station under new management, although
it would be naïve to dismiss the role of the global oil market
in US calculations. Nor is the issue primarily about terrorism or
weapons of mass destruction, reasons all but admitted to be ‘bureaucratic’
by the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. It is both
a moral necessity to clean up the Middle East and an opportunity
to free the US from institutional restraints. Assertive multilateralism
was undone the way it was introduced: by bombing Iraq.
History records the debate at the end of the first Gulf War about
whether to carry the fight on to Baghdad or not, with serious implications
for US strategy and world order. Bush senior and National Security
Advisor Brent Scowcroft made the case clear. ‘Going in and
occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the UN’s mandate,
would have destroyed the precedent of international response to
aggression we hoped to establish.’ The argument against invasion
won in the end and set the terms of US engagement for years.
If world order is still in a state of uncertainty, Iraq is the
testing ground. Foreign Islamist fighters pouring across the border
understand the significance of Iraq. Loss of American life and the
hindrance of nation-building in Iraq will be the biggest test for
America’s sense of purpose since Vietnam. But even as the
situation gets worse, the US is unlikely to abandon its hard-fought
gains. The credibility of preemptive unilateralism is at stake.
The US will wrestle the UN for the sake of it.
Although the jury is still out, there are now signs that the revolution
is unravelling. The situation in the Middle East is deteriorating,
as are any moral gains of a quick coalition victory over Iraq. No
revolutions (even global ones) can be sustained without short-term
successes or popular support. Social and political forces opposed
to the new order are again on the move. How the Muslim world reacts
will affect how Americans see themselves. How the UN and Europe,
particular the Franco-German alliance, reorientate themselves will
affect US foreign policy options. Meanwhile, the people who mobilised
the massive global peace protests last year are again meeting at
the World Social Forum in January, where they will work on alternatives
to President Bush’s vision. Over a year after the unveiling
of the US’s preemptive strategy, it is not just the UN that
finds itself at the crossroads. All interested groups are reassessing
Minh Nguyen is a researcher at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice
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