Bush’s Foreign Policy Revolution: A Radical Change

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 Lindsay
James Lindsay Executive Director - Catholic Volunteer Network

September 26, 2004

President Bush has launched a foreign-policy revolution that 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 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. It has been a radical change of direction—one that has left America worse off.

“If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” Bush observed about other countries when he debated Al Gore. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” But Bush ignored this advice once in office. Resentment, not respect, best characterizes what the Bush revolution has generated abroad. Many people overseas now see the United States behaving as the “SUV of nations,” as the late columnist Mary McGrory once put it, hogging the road and shoving everyone else out of the way.

The president and his advisers express surprise that foreigners resent the United States, convinced, as they are, that everyone knows that America’s motives are pure. But their surprise is misplaced. Many of Bush’s foreign-policy initiatives are, on the merits, deeply unpopular abroad. And his administration has consistently failed 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 Schroeder’s Germany with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the Bush team has been all elbows.

The administration’s highhandedness has been costly. Many longstanding U.S. allies 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 join it.

Although Bush’s imperious style entails great and needless costs for American foreign policy, it is far from the only shortcoming of his revolution. The deeper problem is that the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution—that America’s security rests on an America unbound from constraints imposed by others—is mistaken.

For all the talk of the United States as the only 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 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 shows the flaw in this thinking. While many countries shared an interest in disarming Saddam Hussein and ridding Iraq of an odious dictator, few were prepared to follow Washington’s rush to war. And even though most countries believe that stabilizing postwar Iraq is vitally important—for regional stability, international security and their own national safety—they have not joined the postwar effort. And so Americans are left supplying 90 percent of the troops, suffering 90 percent of the casualties and paying 90 percent of the bill. The lesson of Iraq, then, is that when you lead badly, 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. In that respect, an unbound America could become a less secure America.

Bush’s way is not America’s only choice. In fact, Washington has chosen differently before. When America emerged from World War II as the world’s predominant power, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman could have imposed an imperium commensurate with America’s power. They instead created the United Nations and NATO 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.

Our task today is similar to that of 60 years ago—to use our power and leadership to forge international institutions and cooperation to meet the challenges we now face. If we continue to work against rather than with our friends we will miss our opportunity to make the world a safer and better place.