Bush’s Unilateralism Risks Alienating America’s Allies

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 2, 2001

On his visit to Washington last week, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did his best to show that he could get along with the new Bush administration. Asked to comment on this relationship, Schroeder diplomatically stressed the many areas where Germans and Americans agree, and mentioned only Bush’s rejection of the 1997 Kyoto agreement, designed to curb global warming, as an area of disagreement.

In fact, however, Bush’s blunt rejection of the Kyoto protocol—on the eve of Schroeder’s visit—was only the latest in a series of unilateral foreign policy decisions that are causing concern in Berlin and other European capitals. Coming on the heels of Bush’s decisions to end talks with North Koreans designed to curb their missile and nuclear programs, proceed with the deployment of ballistic missile defense, expel 50 Russian diplomats (to retaliate for the actions of an American spy) and cut back on spending on Russian denuclearisation programs, the decision to walk away from the climate change agreement must have been seen by the German chancellor as a sign that the United States is turning its back on multilateral engagement in favor of a policy of defending American interests much more narrowly defined.

The declared intention not to get involved in the day-to-day management of issues like the Middle East peace process, Macedonia and Northern Ireland, despite the escalating and potentially explosive crises in such places, only reinforces this perception. It is a curious attitude to adopt for an administration that campaigned on a platform of “restoring the strength of our alliances.”

This is not to say that clarity and credibility are not essential components of American foreign policy. North Korea’s criminal regime should know that the international community’s willingness to accept its nuclear blackmail is not infinite, and that it requires cooperation from the North Koreans as well. Similarly, Moscow must understand that Western aid and support must be linked in some way to Russian economic and political reform and cooperation on nonproliferation. And Bush’s determination on missile defense has helped make clear that the United States will not shy away from protecting itself against a growing threat because of complaints from China, Russia, or even Western Europe. But there is a huge difference between driving a harder bargain, and not being willing to bargain at all, and that is the line that Bush seems in danger of crossing.

The Bush policy, like that of Ronald Reagan twenty years ago—and it is no coincidence that Reagan era veterans populate the new Bush team—is based on the notion that America’s allies and adversaries alike are passive actors. Once the U.S. position is clear, the logic continues, others will fall into line because of superior American power and greater moral rectitude. This type of thinking, however, can easily backfire. Not only are potential adversaries unlikely to bend to American will simply because a new line is announced, but even Washington’s European allies are losing confidence in cooperation with the United States.

The European Union has already announced its dismay at Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto agreement, as forcefully expressed in an official letter from the EU presidency, as well as by Schroeder personally, last week. The EU has also signalled its displeasure with the way Bush’s ending talks with North Korea undercut South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung, and has decided to send its own envoys to Pyongyang.

In Europe itself, Bush has fortunately backed away from his campaign rhetoric about withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans. But his passivity with regard to the escalating crisis in Macedonia signals to the Europeans that he still sees Balkan peacekeeping as an inappropriate mission for U.S. armed forces. Contradicting the logic of ending U.S. engagement in the Balkans, however, the Bush team has shown little interest in supporting the Europeans’ effort to develop their own peacekeeping capacity. Such lack of support, combined with the unilateral action on all the other fronts, risks reinforcing the very European desire for “independence” from NATO and the United States that Bush seems so determined to prevent.

Any administration, especially when the party has been out of power for nearly a decade, needs a certain amount of time to settle in. When the Clinton team came to power in 1993 (after 12 years in opposition), they wrongly assumed that multilateralism could solve all the world’s problems, and they listened to European allies so much that they forgot to lead the Alliance. But Bush is now making the opposite mistake. Leadership consists not of withdrawing from all the hard issues and pursuing parochial interests, but of earning support in defense of common interests by accepting that an alliance is a two-way street. The new Bush team needs to learn this before it is too late.