Us policy Failure: Unilateralism in a Global Environment

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US Policy Failure:

Unilateralism in a Global Environment

Forrest Schwartz



In the global age that we live in, it is unreasonable to think that a nation can independently face the complex diplomatic challenges that exist, yet the Bush administration has clearly demonstrated its intention to act unilaterally on a number of important issues, from worldwide security and terrorism to infectious disease and other environmental and humanitarian issues. Throughout the 1990’s, the United States relied primarily on a foreign policy based on multilateral efforts; however, signs of unilateralism began to emerge in 2002 with the planning of the Iraq War. (Levy) In an outline of the United States national security strategy, the current administration made it clear that it no longer felt bound by preexisting global agreements, and that it maintained the prerogative to defend itself from perceived threats even if the international community did not believe such threats were legitimate enough to necessitate action.

While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively...Today humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to further freedom's triumph over all these foes. The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission. But our responsibility to history is clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. (The National Security Strategy of the United States (2002), p 6, preface, and p 5)

Aside from violating the charter of the UN, unilateral preemption is simply not a sound national security policy. There are many advantages inherent to multilateralism that are not possible under a unilateral approach, such as the assurance of participation by all in the management of world affairs, and the legitimacy that it provides, particularly when it comes to matters regarding the use of force or the establishment of universal norms. Also, the complexity of global politics presents a serious challenge to the use of US power. In spite of its incredible military superiority, the United States is dependent on support from allies when it operates abroad. Geographically strategic position gives weak states and advantage when the United States is seeking access to military positions, further stressing the necessity of maintaining good relationships with other countries.

In accordance with its apparent wishes, the United States government finds itself alone in its belief in unilateralism; most other governments understand the importance of multilateralism, citing its importance to effectively dealing with issues of Global priority. As the United States isolates itself, the rest of the world is continuing to improve the efficacy of multilateral organizations; NATO recently allowed seven more European nations to the organization, improved its military capabilities and is working to establish new and better relationships with Russia, Central Asia, and other important areas (Black). Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, said that the European Union is a champion of multilateralism and that it will participate actively in the emerging new world order. Barroso said the European Union stands,

At the forefront of the development of a rule-based world order…multilateralism lies at the very basis of the international system as we see it. One of the salient features of the new world order is that borders matter less. We live in an age of inter-connectedness, our goal is to work through international institutions and international law to improve global governance. (Xinhuanet)
Despite the recognition by the rest of the world of the evidence supporting the need to adopt a multilateral approach to world affairs, President Bush has decided to act alone on many global policy challenges.

During periods of conflict, the United States has generally relied on a multilateral approach to resolving international problems; however, since the election of President Bush—a man who is unabashedly vocal about his religious beliefs—the United States has adopted a “go it alone” attitude. The current administration’s strategy of unilateralism represents a break from the pattern of previous Presidents, and indicates a stronger Christian influence on White House foreign policy. The Christian Right, with whom President Bush clearly sympathizes, has long played a role in domestic policy debates, such as those regarding abortion and prayer in schools; however, Christian influence on foreign policy has been limited until the current administration. Members of the ( Christian Right have long believed that involvement with international organizations constitutes a threat to United States sovereignty and our position as a moral authority in the world. In the 1960’s, various Christian organizations introduced measures to limit multilateralism, such as the “Get US out of the UN!” campaign. Some religious leaders are explicitly against the idea of multilateralism, such as Billy James Hargis, the leader of the Christian Crusade, an anti-communist organization, who proclaimed that, “The primary threat to the United States is internationalism” (Oldfield). This Christian belief that the United States is a moral authority with an obligation to impose its will on other countries, rather than work with them, is obvious in the Bush Administrations approach to foreign policy.

President Bush often uses religious language to justify his policies, frequently speaking about the moralistic battle of “good” versus “evil.” As President Bush told the country in his State of the Union Address, "America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling” (White House). With its policy based on Biblical notions of good versus evil, the Bush Administration operates under the assumption that it is always right; thus, its power is never negotiated. Belief in the unassailable right of the United States has led to the implementation of much Christian-inspired doctrine, leading to resentment of the United States throughout the World. The United States cut all of its aid to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) because it did not support Christian belief by promoting abstinence as the only method for preventing pregnancy and the spread of HIV/AIDS. The cut in UNPFA funding will lead to two million unwanted pregnancies, nearly 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, nearly 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths (Leupp). Bush’s decision angered many European nations, leading them to pledge to make up the money the United States cost the organization. One official said, "This only serves the United States' political goals, and nothing else…The losers from this decision will be some of the most vulnerable people on earth" (Leupp). Owing to his Christian beliefs, President Bush feels that he is acting on behalf of God; as a result, he carries out controversial policies without regard for their immense consequences (Moore).

The United States’ decision to engage in an essentially unilateral war against Iraq violated the United Nations Charter, and set a dangerous precedent for other states to take military action in response to threats, whether they are credible or contrived. President Bush and his administration have consistently attacked the legitimacy and credibility of the UN, reducing the institution's ability to exist in the future as the preeminent organization for worldwide conflict resolution. The attempt of the Bush administration to gain UN approval of an Iraqi government that was not popularly elected weakened the idea of national sovereignty as the foundation of the UN Charter. When it faced opposition in the UN Security Council, the United States government tried to create a veil of multilateral support for the war by exerting its influence over weaker governments to join a so-called "Coalition of the Willing," which undermined democracy in a number of these countries, where as much as 90 percent of the populations were against the war (A Failed Transition). In its past military actions, from Gulf War I to the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States followed the recommendations of the United Nations and championed the UN’s role as an important international body because the UN was serving the interests of the United States. However, the United States no longer views the UN as an effective tool for resolving global conflict because the UN no longer supports the direction of the United States. The United States has proven its willingness to cripple the United Nations, despite its past support in the War on Terror in Afghanistan, because it no longer agrees with the administration’s current plans to invade Iraq (Unilateralism or Multilateralism).

In a speech to the General Assembly of the UN, Kofi Anon reprimanded countries that acted independently of its agreed upon charter, saying,

Since this Organization was founded, States have generally sought to deal with threats to the peace through containment and deterrence, by a system based on collective security and the United Nations Charter. Article 51 of the Charter prescribes that all States, if attacked, retain the inherent right of self-defence. But until now it has been understood that when States go beyond that, and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an "armed attack" with weapons of mass destruction could be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group. Rather than wait for that to happen, they argue, States have the right and obligation to use force pre-emptively, even on the territory of other States, and even while weapons systems that might be used to attack them are still being developed. According to this argument, States are not obliged to wait until there is agreement in the Security Council. Instead, they reserve the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions. This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last fifty-eight years. My concern is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification. (Unilateralism or Multilateralism)

Although Anon does not specifically mention the United States in his speech, it is clear who his remarks are directed to. If the United States continues on its path of unilateralist foreign policy, the UN may be irreparably damaged, an event that would significantly reduce the stability of international relations.

In addition to the negative effects it has had on international organizations like the United Nations, the United States’ policy of unilateralism has hurt its relationships with various countries. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel pointed to President Bush's "cowboy diplomacy" as the source of feelings of disaffection in key allies like France, Germany and Russia (Jordan). He accused the president of breaking his promise to gain United Nations support before engaging in military action against Saddam Hussein (Jordan). Arrogance among U.S. diplomats, and the White House’s uncompromising position on many important issues has led to a loss of US credibility around the world. The Bush Administration's approach to international diplomacy has created feelings of alienation within the governments and populations of friendly countries, and has inspired many nations to engage in defiant rhetoric and establish policies to counteract those of the United States. Failures of important international conferences such as the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun and the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey indicate the increasing resistance to US policy. On numerous occasions, the Bush Administration has shown that rather than work toward a common solution, it will end negotiations unless its desires are completely met, and as time goes on, more and more countries are beginning to grow wary of the stubbornness of the current administration. President Bush’s Neoconservative advisors do not seem concerned by this turn of events, though. Like any White House policy, the decision to act unilaterally was obviously given much thought, and ultimately the leaders of the United States felt that the benefits outweighed the consequences. As one reporter described it, “Animosity abroad can be seen as a small price to pay for global hegemony” (Carlsen). The United States estranged important allies based on their shared belief that the war in Iraq is not justified and will lead to instability, and increased terrorism throughout the world.


The Bush Administration affects the ability for the international community to act on non-security issues by refusing to budge from its unilateralist “our way or the highway” stance. Despite—or perhaps because of—its position as the world's primary producer of greenhouse gases, the United States criticized the science behind the policy established by the Kyoto Protocol. While 160 officials from different governments met to work toward a solution to global warming, President Bush, a former oilman, publicly doubted the threat of climate change, and no longer supports the Kyoto Protocol or plans on living up to the goals agreed upon four years ago. Ken Krupp, the executive director of Environmental Defense, said, "The Bush Administration's approach of explore for oil and ignore the science on global warming leaves the U.S. increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

It is bad for America's interests for the United States to be seen as the rogue nation of greenhouse gas pollution” (Environmental News Service). This isolationist approach to environmental issues that affect the entire world is creating concern within various European governments about whether or not the United States will ever act in the interest of the common good. Taken in conjunction with President Bush's decisions to end talks with North Korea aimed at controlling their nuclear program, proceed with the development of missile defense, expel 50 Russian diplomats and cut back on spending on Russian denuclearization programs, this administration’s decision to forsake the climate change agreement demonstrates that the United States is rejecting multilateral engagement in favor of a policy of defending only American interests (Donovan).

The Bush administration’s failure to ratify a treaty intended to create a permanent international war crimes court in 2002 illustrates the increasing distance between the United States and its allies, and exemplifies Washington’s desire to maintain a foreign policy based on unilateralism. In a memo to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the United States representative for war crimes in the UN, said the White House had no intention of endorsing the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, and regard itself as, “No longer bound in any way to its purpose and objective” (Vann). Sen. Russ Feingold warned that this type of behavior would "call into question our country's credibility in all multilateral endeavors. Others, especially in European capitals, loudly argue that the U.S. withdrawal from the ICC worsens Bush's "record of hostility toward multilateral commitments," a prediction that is coming true (Dempsey). Directly attacking the actions of the Bush White House, French President Jacque Chirac described the problems of unilateralism, saying, "In an open world, no one can live in isolation, no one can act alone in the name of all…Multilateralism is a concept for our time: for it alone allows us to apprehend contemporary problems globally and in all their complexity” (Unilateralism or Multilateralism).

None of these treaties are perfect, and very few United States officials feel that the US should ratify them in their current state, but simply walking away from them is not an example of sound policy. President Bush claims to base his policies on a perceived moral obligation to rid the world of “evil,” but his actual policy decisions reflect a deeper commitment to rid the world of everything that involves a compromise on behalf of the United States. In the age of globalization that we live in, it is in the best interest of the United States to act with the considerations of others in mind. The United States should come to the bargaining table and work toward solutions that benefit the world at large, because ultimately, such solutions would benefit the US as well.


While in office, President Bush has abrogated the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by President Clinton; and made a farce of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which resulted in a rush to acquire nuclear weapons. His decision to withdraw from these important treaties reflects the unilateral policies of the United States, and weakens the primary means of international arms control. In the Presidential debates, President Bush said that North Korea had broken a 1994 agreement by enriching uranium; North Korea did violate the spirit of the agreement, but uranium enrichment was not prohibited by the accord. The United States, however, did break its commitment to guaranteeing that it would not use the threat of nuclear weapons against North Korea, illustrating the Bush Administration’s belief that the United States does not have to honor its agreements with regards to nuclear arms. President Bush has also infringed upon the security considerations of China by advocating a system of National Missile Defense capable of neutralizing China’s nuclear-capable long-range missiles. China has expressed concern over this proposal, but the Bush Administration has largely ignored them (Cheng). Bush’s unilateral approach to the issue of nuclear weapons—essentially based on the belief that the United States no

longer has to abide by historical agreements predicated on mutual assured destruction—has revived the nuclear threat, legitimized others nations’ desire for nuclear technology, and increased the danger to the world.

By choosing to act unilaterally with regard to Iraq, the United States ignored the beliefs of the majority of the world, including its own western allies, and closed the door on the UN’s process of peaceful disarmament of Iraq. Over the course of the Iraq war, the United States military also violated the Geneva Convention, making it more likely that in the future, other nations will ignore these protections in their treatment of civilian populations and detainees. In addition, many former military officials have voiced criticism of the war in Iraq, including retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who has charged that by adopting a unilateralist approach, creating a false justification for war, alienating traditional allies, and failing to plan for post-war Iraq, the Bush Administration made the United States less secure. Surveys in eight European and Arab countries demonstrated broad public sentiment that the war in Iraq has hurt, rather than helped, the War on Terrorism” (A Failed Transition).

Another important consequence of unilateralist action is the disintegration of international law. The United States’ decision to intervene in a foreign country in accordance with its own immediate goals undermines the power of law and order that helps other countries accept the United States’ power. If all parties abide by the same rules, and do not preemptively lash out at other nations, there is no reason to fear the potential power of other countries. However, when the United States used force to unilaterally advance its own agenda, it bred distrust and compelled other states increase their militaries accordingly, leading to a more volatile situation than existed before.

When it comes to homeland security, the money spent by the United States to pursue its essentially unilateral war in Iraq can be viewed as a waste. Although President Bush continues to proclaim that the United States—and the world at large—is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, there are a number of ways the resources could have been better used to increase the safety of the country. A report by the Center for American Progress outlined eighteen ways in which the money could have been spent to improve national security, including the addition of 100,000 police officers nationwide, and the implementation of important initiatives to safeguard ports and loose nuclear weapons. All of these measures probably would have made a greater impact on protecting the United States.


The president's actions in the War on Terror indicate a focus more on nation-states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, than on non-state actors like al-Qaeda, who arguably pose a larger threat to global security (Drum). Many conservatives believe that rogue states pose the biggest threat to national security by supporting international terrorism, thus the emphasis on President Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Clearly rogue states are dangerous—imagine a nuclear capable state such as Pakistan under the influence of radical Islamists—but as dangerous as they are, they remain states with a legitimate interest in remaining a state. Thus, they are unlikely to risk the wrath of the United States by being threatening. In addition, centralized governments have a vested interest in suppressing dissenting groups that could compete for power, which would make it difficult for a terrorist group to establish a strong foundation. In contrast, failed states provide the perfect environment for groups like Al-Qaeda to thrive as a result of weak law enforcement and the ability to engage in illegal activities such as trafficking of diamonds, drugs and humans to get money, which is central to the success of terrorist organizations. Permeable borders facilitate face-to-face contact between terrorists, a critical ingredient in the creation of the trust necessary to coordinate secret networks (Mallaby). Disillusioned local populations also provide a potential source of from which terrorist groups can recruit new members. In this way, failed states and non-state terrorist groups present a more significant threat to the security of the United States. The Bush administration has recently acknowledged the security risk posed by failing states, but it has not offered any additional resources to fight the problem (Rice).

CostS of the Unilateral War on Terror in Iraq

The opportunity cost of the war in Iraq is immense; if the resources were devoted instead to global humanitarian organizations seeking to improve the standard of living worldwide, the United States could fully fund global anti-hunger efforts for six years, worldwide AIDS programs for fourteen years, or provide basic immunizations for every child in the world for forty-nine years ( Such action would ultimately benefit US interests in reducing terrorism by helping to eliminate the social and economic reasons that inspire dispossessed youth to turn to violence. It is undeniable that poverty plays a key role in developing breeding grounds for terror organizations, especially when individuals are confronted by the incredible excesses of the United States (Kippner). In Dude Where’s My Country, Michael Moore argues this point beautifully, saying, “True security comes from ensuring that all people, here and around the globe, are able to meet their basic needs. At the very least, we have to make damn sure we [the US] are not the ones robbing them of that dream” (Moore). Unfortunately, this is a concept that the Bush Administration is slow to grasp.

Osama bid Laden has made is goal clear; he wants to tap the resources of the

US in order to lead to its economic collapse, similar to what happened in the Soviet

Union. Bin Laden maintains that he experienced success using a similar tactic against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the birthplace of his terror organization, Al Qaeda (Meek). His methods seem to be working—to date, the US has spent approximately 200 billion dollars on the war in Iraq (, and shows no signs of slowing down. Economists argue that war can be good for nations with economic woes—wartime industry increases jobs and production—but in the case of Iraq, where there is no end in sight, the war could ultimately end up crippling important domestic programs in the United States and abroad (Meek). James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas, predicts that while war spending may help the economy initially, over time it is likely to bring about a period of economic troubles involving an expanded trade deficit and high inflation (A Failed Transition). Coupled with President Bush’s tax cuts, the expense of the war on Iraq could have significant long-term consequences for the economy of the United States.
Uncertain Future of Unilateralism

Isolationism is not a viable choice in today’s globally organized world, making unilateralism a dangerous policy. A world in which every country relies on unilateralism is not a better guarantee for the national security of the United States, and certainly establishes dim prospects for the future of the world (Levy). Following the disastrous fall of Iraq into unmanageable post-war chaos, the United States government has begun to reconsider the policy of unilateralism, because the diplomatic and domestic political price of acting alone has proven to be too great. The first nation of the axis of evil proved a tougher proposition than expected, and the other countries posed even greater challenges (Watanabe). Countries like North Korea and Iran have not expressed interest in bilateral talks, and thus there is no hope for a unilateral solution in these cases (KNCA). The task of dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions has been assigned to officials of Britain, France and Germany. Last year, in an important demonstration of the power of multilateralism, this group convinced Iran to bring its nuclear program back within the control of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Authority, and have continued to make progress toward a peaceful solution. An even more multilateral group that includes Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea is handling the issue of North Korea's nuclear potential (Walker). The Bush Administration has demonstrated another significant step toward multilateral policy, in the form of the Proliferation Security Initiative, and despite its brief existence, it has experienced much success controlling weapons of mass destruction, particularly with regard to Moammar Gadhafi (The New Multilateralism). These recent events suggest that the United States government may have turned over a new leaf, expanding the possibility of future multilateral agreements.

Many of the friendly countries that the United States arrogantly criticized and shunned have shown a willingness to welcome the United States back with open arms. As many European leaders have made clear, they recognize the importance of multilateralism, and are willing to welcome the United States back with open arms. Other nations’ awareness of the potential power of the United States to affect the world with its policy is an important lesson for the current administration to learn. The United States has the capability to shape the course of world events however it sees fit; one can only hope that the Bush Administrations recognizes that the interests of the United States—which one could argue are not necessarily identical to the interests of President Bush—will be better served through worldwide involvement and cooperation.

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