Prior to 1945, the dominant trend in the policy of the United States was isolationist, which was isolation from global affairs. America was ambivalent about multilateral engagements and as much as possible remained separated from the European balance of power. In the same vein, the U.S. congress disapproved U.S. participation in the League of Nations reflecting the traditional ambivalence of America towards multilateral engagements.
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However, after the 2nd World War, there was a significant change in the U.S. foreign policy. The American isolationist approach collapsed completely, and the United States foreign policy was principally committed to multilateralism, as the defining post war strategy adopted by both Democrats and Republicans (Skidmore, 2005). The United States adopted a strategy of global engagement from its hitherto selective engagement. A multilateral approach became the crucial instrument in America’s attempt to conduct the cold war and rebuild international order. The onset of the cold war was the major source of change which by 1947 convinced U.S. policy makers that removal of the soviet threat was the proper strategy and in light of the communist challenge, the containment of the Soviet threat had to be global to have any effect (Jentleson, 2008).
The United States became committed to multilateral cooperation and international institutions following World War 2, it promoted the Bretton Woods System multilateralism while supporting institutions such as the UN, IMF, NATO, and the World Bank among others. During this period according to Skidmore (2005), multilateralism attained prominence in the foreign policy of the United States both in practice and in rhetoric, and as the U.S. became internationally powerful, multilateralism was integrated as a norm in international society.
However, the American foreign policy has since taken a sharp unilateralist turn especially with the Bush administration; it turned its back on the world and was principally committed to unilateralism and this has been consequential for the U.S. policy and the reputation of the United States internationally. This essay seeks to explore how the United States under the Bush administration rejected multilateralism and adopted a more unilateralist approach to global issues than its predecessors.
It is pertinent to note that multilateralism for the United States was not always a principled commitment, but more of a policy preference; American policy makers approached multilateralism pragmatically as it was adopted insofar as it serves U.S. interest and was willingly overlooked when it did not work. It is important to acknowledge that despite the fact that President Bush’s administration embraced a more unilateral approach to international issues, not all of presidents Bush’s predecessors adopted a multilateral approach to foreign policy as the United States always favoured whatever worked.
The Reagan administration in the 1982 Siberian gas pipeline conflict rejected the NATO consensus and enforced unilateral sanctions against European companies for cooperating economically with the Soviet Union (Ikenberry, 2003). The Bush senior administration in the bid to promote free trade approached international economic policy unilaterally; its use of “Super 301” trade negotiating authority allowed the U.S. to act as judge, jury and prosecutor simultaneously as it determines what countries should be threatened with punitive sanctions. According to Ikenberry (2003), U.S. officials argue consistently that although multilateralism was preferred, they were always ready to use bilateral talks or even unilateral actions when necessary to achieve what they want.
Under the Clinton administration, the NATO allies of the United States tried to convince the Clinton government for several years to intervene in the Bosnian Civil war through a multilateral approach. After the United States finally agreed in 1995, it practically dictated the terms of military intervention supporting the Dayton agreement (Stewart and Shepard, 2002). Also, the Clinton administration intervened under the auspices of military institutions in Somalia in 1992-1993, but withdrew its troops unilaterally after American soldiers became casualties in Somalia. Furthermore, despite international pressure, the United States sat back and practically did little or nothing while atrocities such as the genocide in Rwanda took place. In the same vein, the Clinton administration in Kosovo resisted the UN Security Council by rejecting an intervention and instead worked through NATO, a different multilateral institution.
Similarly, the Clinton administration in 1998 refused to be limited on its ability to employ U.S.military power and bypassed the UN Security Council by undertaking Operation Desert Fox, a major four-day bombing campaign on Iraqi targets. Clinton’s National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, is of the opinion that
“…only one overriding factor can determine whether the United States should act multilaterally or unilaterally, and that is America’s interests. We should act multilaterally where doing so advances our interests, and we should act unilaterally when that will serve our purpose. The simple question in each case is this: What works best?”
Anthony Lake (1993: 663)
However, the United States under the Bush administration embraced a more unilateralist approach to global issues than its predecessors. Unilateral elements of the Bush Doctrine were apparent in the first months of the Bush administration as America withdrew from international agreements, retreating into a unilateralist stance.
President Bush’s unilateralism became evident in the first few weeks after he took office. After he preached during his election campaign that the U.S. should learn humility in their conduct with other nations, in March 2001, President Bush rather arrogantly withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Global Warming negotiations, a protocol the Americans had signed but was yet to be ratified. Jacobson, (2002) echoed that The U.S did not want its capability to trade for emission rights with other nations to be limited. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol, European critics indicated that the United States in 2002 emitted about one-third of greenhouse gases globally (Dumbrell, 2002). Furthermore, in mid 2001, projections made pointed out that by 2010, U.S. emissions would increase by 23 percent. The U.S. refusal to support emission reduction limits confirmed the unilateralist position of the Bush administration to foreign policy (Dumbrell, 2002).
The Bush administration repudiated to support series of international agreements. The convention on the prohibition of the production, stockpiling, the transfer and use of antipersonnel mines was signed on the 18th of September 1997 in Ottawa (Prestowitz, 2003). The treaty was signed by every country in the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Cuba and every other member of NATO are signatories to the treaty except the United States and Turkey. The United States demanded an exemption for the removal of mines along the borders of the demilitarized zones in South Korea and an exemption permitting as part of a mixed system the deployment of U.S. antipersonnel mines including antitank mines (Edwards and King, 2007). Other parties to the negotiation rejected both demands made by U.S. military officials and this prompted the U.S. to decline the final agreement. Although President Clinton during his administration promised that the United States would sign the Ottawa convention by 2006, the Bush administration since entering into office had rejected the treaty and abandoned Clinton’s earlier pledge.
The United States followed self-proclaimed unilateralist action by refusing to ratify the International Criminal Court. The ICC, establish to try war crimes was voted to be established on July 17, 1997 by 120 nations although 7 nations voted against the court while 21 nations abstained (Nolte, 2003). Although President Clinton ultimately signed the ICC treaty as one of his final actions in office on December 31, 2000 overruling objections from many senate Republics and the pentagon, the Bush administration rejected the ICC and withdrew all U.S. support of the court thereby rendering the earlier signature of Clinton null and void (Brown, 2002).The Bush administration campaigned to make sure that other states would not bring charges to the ICC against U.S. troops, According to Nolte (2003), under U.S. pressure the governments of more than sixty states signed bilateral agreements pledging not to submit charges to the ICC against U S. troops.
Under the Bush administration, the unilateralist trend of America refusing to live by the rules and yet expecting the rest of the world to comply was dramatically accelerated. President Bush abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on December 13, 2001 in pursuance of a national missile defense as the Bush administration had blamed the national missile defense lack of advancement on the ABM Treaty (Hirsh, 2002). This step undertaken by the Bush Administration was opposed by China, Russia and most U.S. allies but President Bush was determined to go-it-alone by backing out of a Treaty that had been a vital part of arms control for close to 30 years.
During the Clinton and Bush Senior administration, the power of the United States was not flaunted by domineering less powerful states, although the Clinton administration acted unilaterally on some occasions, at least it appeared to consult and take the views of others before taking action. The Bush administration on the other hand does not even pretend to listen to its allies; rather they inform allies of what is expected to be done. Bush’s unilateralist approach could be referred to as “in your face” or without apology as his unilateral practise is not taken only as a necessary last resort.
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The 9/11 terrorist attacks on Washington D.C. and New York shocked the international community to cooperate unprecedentedly as friends and foes of the U.S declared jointly a global war on terrorism. However, after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan alongside its Al Qaeda terrorist allies had been toppled, the Bush administration returned to assertive unilateralism (Hayden et al, 2003). The Bush administration disregarded the uproar of international opposition, without an explicit authorization of the Security Council to the use of force and proceeded with the Iraq war almost alone.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the U.S policy under President Bush continued to be characterised by unilateralism. On the 29th January 2002, President Bush in his State of the Union Address characterized Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil”, governments threatening world peace, accused of seeking weapons of mass destruction and assisting terrorist (Owens and Dumbrell, 2008). Ignoring criticisms internationally, President Bush went ahead to destroy the Saddam Hussein government, belittling the International Atomic Energy Agency and the united nations as being ineffective. The U.S led coalition to invade Iraq was joined by only Britain.
The U.S. led invasion of Iraq under the Bush administration symbolised the implementation of a new national security policy known as the Bush doctrine. This doctrine basically changed the way U.S. acted towards the rest of the world and indicated a radical shift from past national security strategies. This doctrine stressed the concept of preventive or pre-emptive war and a willingness by the United States to act unilaterally if cooperation through a multilateral approach cannot be attained. According to Owens and Dumbrell (2008), President Bush indicated that the new policy was imperative to forestall the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among terrorist groups and rogue states, while maintaining that the policy of deterrence was no longer adequate to prevent the use of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons among terrorist organisations or rogue states.
The Bush doctrine prompts the United States to behave arrogantly and act unilaterally since the invasion of Iraq. Also, the doctrine would jeopardize the international cooperation necessary to track down terrorist groups as the U.S tends to alienate world opinion. Furthermore, the concept of pre-emptive war is prone to encourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction rather than discourage it and could increase the risk of regional conflicts if embraced by other nations.
The use of force unilaterally would not resolve the resolve the problems of the world. President Bush senior told his son that if a war in Iraq was not backed up by international cooperation, hopes of peace in the Middle East would be farfetched. Bush’s Unilateralism and pre-emptive action to deal with weapons of mass destruction has incited popular criticism and ambivalence throughout the Middle East, East and Southeast Asia among others (Edwards and king, 2007). His unilateral approach to global affairs has backfired as it created friction between the mainstream international community and the United States.
The heart of President Bush was in the right place as he wanted to make the world secure from terrorism and WMD for which he should be applauded, however, his “might makes right” and “America first” approaches have intensified animosities, shaken alliances and increased the risk of global terrorism. When it comes to addressing the problems of the world , multilateral international cooperation is more appropriate than President Bush’s unilateral actions.
The United States has the greatest influence in international affairs as it possesses the largest military and economy in the world. No nation has had as much cultural, economic and military power as the United States since the Roman Empire. However, Nye (2002) is of the opinion that it became evident through the nuclear threat posed by Iraq and the attacks of September 11 that in solving global problems, power is just not enough. Global issues such as environmental degradation, terrorism, financial instability, infectious diseases, drugs and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction requires involving the cooperation of other nations to be tackled.
Unilateralism harms the credibility and international standing of the United States, weakens global environmental initiatives, damaged treaties and cripples the ability of the U.S to negotiate effectively in the future.
There are global problems that simply cannot be solved by one country alone irrespective of how powerful, the U.S needs global cooperation to combat international terrorism, sanction effectively law-breaking states, hinder the proliferation of WMD and missile technology, to invest in foreign nations and to curtail illegal immigrants across international borders amongst others (Haass, 2008).
Nye (2002), stressed that the United States cannot “go it alone” as unilateralism is not a viable option; it threatens to undermine its soft power and triggers the forming of coalition against the U.S. which could finally limit its hard power. However, Nye is not saying that the United States should not strike out on its own when deemed necessary or as a last resort because the interest of the U.S. may not always correspond with the ambitions of other nations. Nevertheless, the United States should strive to cooperate with the international community as much as possible because if the U.S. is bound to lead, it is also bound to cooperate (Nye, 2002).
In conclusion, the United states under the bush administration adopted a more unilateralist approach to global issues than its predecessors as his administration embraced a “go it alone” strategy to address international issues in the aftermath of 9/11 and constantly repudiated international norms, treaties and negotiating forums. However, on Saturday 22 May 2010 at the West Point U.S Military Academy, President Obama while addressing graduating cadets declared that the U.S cannot act alone in the world as he outlined a foreign policy agenda that rejected the go-it-alone approach adopted by his predecessor, George W. Bush (BBC News, May 23, 2010).
President Obama announced that in contrast to the Bush era, the white house would no longer ignore the international community; explaining that the United States performed best when it operated within alliances for example during the Second World War or during its tensions with the Soviet Union.
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