U.S. Chooses To Go it Alone Despite Risks

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

December 18, 2001

WASHINGTON – President Bush’s decision to formally withdraw the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty shows that American unilateralism is alive and well. In that regard, at least, Sept. 11 changed little in U.S. foreign policy.

Some expected and many hoped after the terrorist attacks that Mr. Bush would adopt a more multilateral approach to foreign policy. It was a hope shared even by Mr. Bush’s father, who said on Sept. 14:

“Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call to duty and defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism, or in anything else, for that matter.”

Initially, it looked as if the elder Mr. Bush was right. Within hours of the attacks, the United States asked the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning those responsible. With Washington’s encouragement, America’s NATO and Rio Pact partners fulfilled their treaty obligations and pledged to come to the U.S. defense. Instead of lashing out alone, the Bush administration assembled a broad international coalition to fight the scourge of terrorism.

Despite these steps, it soon became clear that the administration’s commitment to multilateral action was tactical rather than strategic. When the cooperation of others was essential, Washington graciously accepted help.

But the administration was nonetheless determined to set the pace and level of allied cooperation. And where foreign cooperation was not necessary, the administration went its own way.

Judging that it could win the war in Afghanistan largely on its own, Washington rejected multiple offers of military assistance from key European allies, trivializing NATO’s commitment to collective self-defense that was so rapidly invoked on Sept. 12.

And if some had hoped the Bush administration also would abandon its rejection of key international treaties after Sept. 11, they, too, were sorely disappointed.

After standing alone in Bonn in July as other nations finalized an agreement on reducing greenhouse gases as part of the Kyoto protocol, the administration had promised to generate new proposals of its own. Yet the U.S. delegation arrived for the next round of talks in Morocco in October empty-handed. Its only task appeared to be to ensure nothing happened that might harm U.S. interests.

Unilateralism has also been rife – even triumphant – in arms control.

Last month, the United States was the only signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty not to attend a conference of countries that had signed or ratified the pact. The administration opposes the test ban, arguing that it is unverifiable and could constrain future U.S. nuclear needs.

More recently, a U.S. delegation stunned members of a review conference in Geneva on the Biological Weapons Convention by declaring Washington’s opposition to any multilateral effort to strengthen enforcement and compliance with the convention, which bans the development and possession of germ weapons. This opposition came even though the anthrax-laced letters made the United States the victim of a bioterrorist attack.

And now the Bush administration is set to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which has helped stabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship for nearly 30 years. Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested he is willing to modify the treaty to allow more robust testing of missile defenses. But that was not enough for the Bush administration. The United States apparently must be unfettered in this, as in most other matters.

Mr. Bush’s unilateralist impulse, while consistent with his behavior before Sept. 11, is shortsighted. In seeking to eliminate potential constraints on U.S. freedom of action, the administration gains a free hand in the short run at the likely cost of losing partners over the long term.

The United States may have the power today to go it alone, but by insisting we do so now we will forfeit the help of others when we need them tomorrow.