Bush’s Flawed Revolution

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

November 1, 2003

George W. Bush has launched a revolution in American foreign policy. In less than three years in office, he has discarded or redefined many of the key principles governing how America engages the world. He has relied on the unilateral exercise of American power rather than on international law and institutions to get his way. He has championed a proactive doctrine of preemption and abandoned the tested strategies of deterrence and containment. He has preferred regime change to direct negotiations with countries and leaders that he loathes. And he has promoted forceful interdiction and missile defenses to counter weapons proliferation, all the while downplaying America’s traditional support for nonproliferation treaties and regimes.

While recognizing that Bush has made radical changes to American foreign policy, many are now convinced that he is in the midst of a U-turn. The mounting American death toll in Iraq, the soaring price tag of Iraqi reconstruction and Europe’s talk of constraining American power have convinced Bush of the errors of his unilateralist ways—or so the argument goes. The shadow of the presidential elections will further prod him to embrace more moderate and sensible policies. In 2004, George Bush Junior’s foreign policy will not look much different from George Bush Senior’s.

This new conventional wisdom, however, is wishful thinking. It assumes that Bush’s foreign-policy choices reflect political expedience—or the pressures of aggressive presidential advisers—more than principle. Yet Bush, like Ronald Reagan, brought to the Oval Office a deeply felt and coherent foreign-policy worldview. Bush’s critics missed it at the time—and continue to miss it—because they focus on how little he knows rather than how intensely he believes. It is a worldview that emphasizes the need to act, disparages the counsel of the cautious and promises that events will vindicate those willing to stand alone. Because Bush really believes he is right, he is unlikely to chart a new course abroad for the United States as long as he remains president. The Bush revolution will continue, and continue to inflict substantial damage to America’s ability to influence events overseas for the duration of his presidency.

What precisely is the Bush revolution in foreign policy? At its broadest level, the revolution embraces one fundamental pillar of the foreign-policy vision that Woodrow Wilson laid out nearly a century ago even as it rejects another. When Wilson called for a League of Nations, he rejected the idea that the United States would harm its interests or sully its values if, to borrow the famous words of John Quincy Adams, it went abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” For Wilson, the danger lay in not acting. So, too, for Bush. “Time is not on our side,” he warned in his “axis of evil” speech. “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

Where Bush departs from Wilson, and from much of the practice of American foreign policy over the past half-century, is on how to exercise America’s immense power overseas. Bush rejects the traditional Wilsonian faith in international law and institutions. To the contrary, he and his advisers are convinced that in a dangerous world, the best—if not the only—way to ensure America’s security is to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international rules and organizations. Because of its power, America is threatened like no other nation. And it would be folly to count on others to protect the United States; countries invariably ignore threats that do not imperil them. Moreover, formal arrangements—be they alliances or other multilateral security institutions—inevitably impede Washington’s ability to make the most of its unrivaled power. Bush, in short, believes that maximizing America’s security requires minimizing constraints on its freedom of action.

These fundamental beliefs about how America should act in the world have informed Bush’s conduct of foreign policy in three distinct ways. The first is his disdain for the sorts of formal multilateral arrangements developed by presidents from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, and his preference instead for exercising American power unilaterally. This is not to say that Bush flatly opposes working with others. But his preferred form of multilateralism—to be indulged when unilateral action is impossible or unwise—involves ad hoc coalitions of those who are willing to follow Washington’s direction.

Second, preemption should no longer be the last resort of American foreign policy. In a world in which terrorists and rogue states can lay their hands on weapons of mass destruction, Bush has said, “We cannot let our enemies strike first.” Indeed, Washington should be prepared not only to preempt imminent threats but also to prevent potential threats from materializing. Vice President Dick Cheney stressed the need for preventive actions on the eve of the Iraq War. “There’s no question,” he said, “It is going to be cheaper and less costly to do it now than it will be to wait a year or two years or three years until [Saddam Hussein has] developed even more deadly weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons.”

Third, the United States should use its unprecedented power to change the regimes in rogue states. The idea of regime change is not new to American foreign policy. Just think of Mohammed Mossadegh, Fidel Castro or the Nicaraguan contras. What is different in the Bush presidency is the willingness, even in the absence of a direct attack on the United States, to use U.S. military forces to topple other governments. This was the gist of both the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars—the belief that the most effective way of dealing with rogue states is to send in troops to change who rules them.

“If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” Bush observed about other countries during his second debate with Al Gore in 2000. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” But Bush ignored this axiom once in office. Resentment, not respect, best characterizes how most other nations have reacted to the Bush revolution. As recently as three years ago, substantial majorities in European countries viewed America favorably. Polls now show that in Italy and France, only a third of the public holds a favorable view; in Germany and Russia, only a quarter; and in Spain and Turkey, less than a fifth.

Hostility toward the United States is even greater in much of the rest of the world, especially in Arab and Islamic countries. In Jordan, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and among the Palestinians, near majorities say they believe that Osama bin Laden would do the right thing in world affairs. By contrast, overwhelming majorities say they have no confidence in Bush’s leadership.

The president and his advisers worry little about America’s deteriorating image abroad. On the contrary, they express surprise that foreigners resent the United States. This surprise derives from a deep conviction in the White House that America is a uniquely just great power and should be seen as such abroad. “I’m amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about,” Bush said in October 2001. “Like most Americans, I just can’t believe it. Because I know how good we are.”

Bush had little reason to be amazed. Many of his foreign-policy initiatives are, on the merits, deeply unpopular abroad. And his administration has consistently failed to launch diplomatic efforts to soften differences and emphasize shared interests. To the contrary, whether it has been Bush ostracizing other heads of state, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice presumptuously declaring the Kyoto Protocol “dead” or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld equating Gerhard Schröder’s Germany with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the Bush team has been all elbows. The administration’s disdain for the sensitivities of others has encouraged speculation that it has taken the tyrant’s motto as its own: Oderint dum metuant—”Let them hate as long as they fear.”

The whole Iraq experience has underscored that the way that America leads is as important as the fact that it leads. The cumulative effect of the United States behaving as the “SUV of nations,” as columnist Mary McGrory has put it, hogging the road and guzzling gas, has been to alienate even America’s closest allies. Many of them now see their role not as America’s partner but as a brake on the improvident exercise of its power. Ironically, the casualty in all this has been America’s ability to lead—to the point that the White House has now resorted to listing Micronesia and Palau as members of the coalition in Iraq because many major allies have refused to participate.

Although Bush’s imperious style entails great and needless costs for American foreign policy, it is far from the only shortcoming of his revolution. To be sure, Bush would be wiser to show what Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” But graciousness alone is not enough. The deeper problem is that the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution—that America’s security rests on an America unbound—is mistaken.

For all the talk of the United States as a superpower, the world at the start of the 21st century is beyond the ability of any one country to control. Many of the most important challenges America faces overseas—defeating terrorism and countering weapons proliferation, promoting economic prosperity and safeguarding political liberty, sustaining the global environment and halting the spread of killer diseases—can be tackled successfully only with the active cooperation of others.

The question for the United States is how best to secure that cooperation. Bush believes that other countries will tackle these challenges because it is in their national interest to do so. Countries that object to Washington’s direction will ultimately fall in line once they see the benefits of American action. When the United States leads, Bush argues, others will naturally follow.

The Iraq War has illuminated the flaw in this thinking. No doubt many countries, including all the members of the United Nations Security Council, shared an interest in seeing that Iraq did not possess nuclear and other horrific weapons. But that common interest did not automatically translate into participation in a war to oust Saddam Hussein from power—or even into support for such a war. A few countries actively tried to stop the march to war, and many others simply sat on the sidelines.

Little changed after the toppling of Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square. Although most countries believe that stabilizing postwar Iraq is vitally important—for regional stability, international security and their own national safety—they have not rushed to join the reconstruction effort. American troops now constitute more than 80 percent of all foreign troops in Iraq. Twenty-nine other countries have contributed about 23,000 troops, but nearly half of those are from Britain. Many of the remainder have contributed troops only after Washington agreed to pay for their transportation and support—giving a whole new meaning to the concept of burden sharing. The American taxpayer is left to foot the bill, which is $79 billion so far, with another $87 billion slated for the coming year.

The lesson of Iraq, then, is that sometimes when you lead, few follow. This, ultimately, is the real danger of the Bush revolution. America’s friends and allies might not be able to stop Washington from doing as it wishes, but neither are they necessarily willing to come to its aid when their help is wanted or needed. Indeed, the more others question America’s power, purpose and priorities, the less influence America will have. If others seek to counter the United States and delegitimize its power, Washington will then need to exert more effort on its own to reach the same desired end—assuming it can reach its objective at all. If others merely step aside and leave Washington to tackle common problems as it sees fit, the costs to American taxpayers will increase. That risks undermining not only what the United States can achieve abroad but also domestic support for engaging the world. Americans, wary of being played for suckers, will balk at paying the price of unilateralism. They could rightly ask, if others were not willing to bear the burdens of meeting tough challenges, why should we? In that respect, an unbound America could lead to a less secure America.

Bush’s way is not America’s only choice. In fact, Washington has chosen differently before. America emerged from World War II as the world’s predominant power. It could have imposed an imperium commensurate with its power. But Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman wisely recognized that American power is more acceptable, and thus more effective and lasting, if it is folded into alliances and multilateral institutions that serve the interests and purposes of many countries. So they created the United Nations to help ensure international peace and security, set up the Bretton Woods system to help stabilize international economic interactions and spent vast sums of money to help rebuild countries (including vanquished foes) that had been devastated by the war. Rather than hobbling American power, these efforts legitimated and sustained it, building up a reservoir of goodwill that made it easier for the United States to act unilaterally, as on occasion it inevitably would have to.

Bush shows no signs of recognizing the wisdom of FDR and Truman. He prefers to build an empire on American power alone rather than on the greater power that comes from working with friends and allies. Even as critics decry the costs of Iraqi reconstruction and rising anti-Americanism abroad, Bush trumpets the ability of the U.S. military power to unseat the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In that regard, his Sept. 7 address to the nation and his speech to the United Nations two weeks later were vintage Bush. He admitted no error in how he went to war or on what occurred in the aftermath. Instead, he insisted others had an obligation to put things right in Iraq by deploying many troops and contributing many billions of dollars for reconstruction. He did not offer them a meaningful say over the creation of a new Iraqi government or over who should govern the country in the interim.

From the first day he entered office, Bush has embarked on a revolution whose motto has been “foreign policy done my way.” For all the feints and seeming tactical changes in policy—”yes” to a UN resolution one day, “no” to sharing real power the next—that sentiment will no doubt continue throughout the remainder of his presidency. And so, no doubt, will continued frustration and anger abroad at the arrogance of American power. The final bill, unfortunately, will be ours to pay.