America and Multilateralism: Why George W. Bush is No Different

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

July 26, 2001

At the G-8 summit in Genoa, George W. Bush stood firm on its refusal of the Kyoto protocol on global warming and on its missile defense plan. The first is regarded as bad for the U.S. economy; the second is deemed indispensable for American security, whatever the problems for other countries or for the world as a whole. In New York, U.S. negotiator John Bolton created a significant impediment to talks aiming at curbing the sales and trafficking of small arms, stating “The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.” In a recent letter to the European Union about the use of the global fund to fight AIDS, Robert Zoellick, the United States Trade Representative, expressed skepticism of the EU plan for drug pricing, listing among other problems that “the sharing of drug pricing information can at times present problems under U.S. antitrust laws.”

The common point between these recent moves is American reluctance to accommodate the drive towards more cooperative institutions and more international coordination at the expense of domestic practices. Indeed, Washington has often been viewed in recent years as unwilling to pay any price for the progress of multilateralism—whether the International Criminal Court, the Landmine treaty, or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which was rejected by the Senate in October 1999. The priority of domestic concerns over the need for international cooperation and even international law has become more prominent with the adoption of extraterritorial legislation (the Helms-Burton and D’Amato-Kennedy laws) and hard-ball policies vis-à-vis the UN.

U.S. sovereignty first, cooperative diplomacy second: is this anything new? In Europe, this tendency has been perceived as a sudden drift towards unilateralism, and has recently been dubbed “cowboy diplomacy”—a reference to George W. Bush’s Texan origins. Now that the U.S. is the only superpower, it is assumed, it can do away with treaties and international cooperation and get its way through influence, diplomatic pressure, or sheer power.

While this view is not entirely wrong, it tends both to overestimate George W. Bush’s personal role and to underestimate America’s historic pattern in this respect. The question Europeans should ask, to understand the present and predict the future, is this one: was America ever a genuine multilateral power? Has it ever been ready to sacrifice domestic practices (especially when its Constitution is involved) or its perception of what its own security requires for the sake of international cooperation?

A quick look at history confirms that the answer is no. At times, America did cooperate and create new structures in which its own power was somewhat constrained. But in effect Washington dominated the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and NATO in the 1940’s and the 1950’s. It has retained a veto power in each of these organization since then, so that domestic costs have always been minimal. The GATT was a loose agreement, not a binding treaty with a supranational organization; the WTO did not really change this since no country can be made to alter its domestic legislation if it doesn’t wish to do so. True, in the aftermath of the Cold War, America seemed to be heading towards genuine multilateralism. But the first Bush administration would have waged the Gulf war without the UN, and the Clinton administration quickly retreated from UN peacekeeping operations under domestic pressure. And other administrations in history exhibit even worse records, from Nixon unilaterally retreating from the Bretton Woods monetary framework to Ronald Reagan terminating U.S. participation in UNESCO and withdrawing U.S. acceptance of the World Court permanent jurisdiction—even if there might have been some valid reasons in each case.

This is why George W. Bush is no exception. Rather, the creation of the UN and of the Bretton Woods institutions can be regarded today as the historical exception, measured against the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles (1920) and of the CTBT (1999). Two conflicting trends collided in Genoa, as they collided in Toronto for the Landmine Treaty, in Rome for the International Criminal Court or in Kyoto for global warming. First, the long-standing American reluctance to accept any infringement on its sovereignty or any significant change of its domestic practices or way of life, for the sake of international cooperation. Second, the recent proliferation of transnational campaigns and initiatives, many of them coming from Europe and from American civil society itself, aiming at strengthening treaties and institutions to cope with global challenges.

What happened in Bonn on Monday, when countries rescued the Kyoto protocol by agreeing to mandatory reductions of greenhouse gases, showed that the world had changed. These countries, including non-European ones, are ready to make painful decisions for addressing global problems. But America has stayed its course, refusing to join the rest of the world.

Will America, increasingly out of touch with the international community and losing the moral high ground, gradually shed its exception and cooperate? Or will every new international agreement have to be on America’s terms and accommodate America’s domestic interests? The future of global cooperation will be largely decided by the answer to this question