U.S. Foreign Policy: Nationalists Once Again Triumphant

Ivo H. Daalder
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

March 15, 2005

In the most recent battles between the Bush administration’s realists and neoconservatives—over Iran, the U.N. ambassadorship, and jurisdiction of the World Court—the nationalists have once again emerged victorious. This should not come as a surprise. For realists and neoconservatives have always been a minority in an administration in which nationalists, from the president on down, hold all the major positions of power.

In the months since the president’s re-election last November, most commentators have depicted the internal foreign policy debate within the administration as pitting realists against neoconservatives. And what a roller coaster ride it has been.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s resistance to appoint John Bolton as her deputy and her selection instead of Bob Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, was widely seen as a realist victory. Realists were also believed to be on the winning side when Rice and Bush decided to make rebuilding the alliance with Europe their first priority for the second term.

In contrast, Bush’s second inaugural address, with its soaring commitment to democracy and forceful opposition to tyranny, was seen as the ultimate neoconservative triumph. The president’s more recent insistence on the immediate withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon was similarly viewed as a win for the administration’s neoconservatives.

The same type of analysis marked last week’s decisions on relations with Iran, the nomination of Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations, and the decision to withdraw from a protocol to the Vienna Conventions on Consular Relations.

Neoconservatives were believed to be ascendant when Rice announced that Bolton would represent the United States at the U.N. Bolton—whose more memorable pronouncements about the world organization include the statement that “there is no such thing as the United Nations” and “if the UN secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories it would not make a bit of difference”—is widely viewed as the neoconservatives’ darling. His appointment would therefore put to rest any notion that Bush was turning realist.

But that impression lasted all of two days, as presumed neoconservative dominance was soon countered by the announcement that the president would support European efforts to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In return for its commitment to support sending the issue to the U.N. Security Council in case Iran fails to dismantle its uranium enrichment program, Bush agreed to endorse a small number of economic carrots (including Tehran’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the sale of spare parts for Iran’s ailing civilian aircraft) if Iran shut down its enrichment program. While Bolton might say, “I don’t do carrots,” Bush apparently was willing to try.

Then came the one-step-two-step on the Vienna Convention. First, realists were believed to have been triumphant in convincing the president to accept a ruling by the International Court of Justice that the United States should give 50 Mexicans on death row a new hearing because they had not been given access to consular officers, as required by the convention. Bush directed his attorney general to instruct the states holding the prisoners to review the cases.

The next day, however, the administration announced that it would withdraw from the convention’s protocol that required parties to accept World Court jurisdiction on issues pertinent to the convention. This thumbing the nose at an international accord the United States had not only originally proposed, but also had used when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was sacked in 1979, was seen as evidence that in this administration the neoconservatives have the last word.

But while Washington engages in its favorite parlor game of deciding whether the realists or the neoconservatives are up or down on any particular day, the nationalist forces driving this administration’s foreign policy are given a free ride. And let there be no doubt: though there are debates about tactics within the administration, the nationalist direction of its foreign policy was set long ago by the president—and he hasn’t swerved from it since.

The nationalists’ direction is clear: America is a great power that exists to do great things. America will use international institutions and abide by international law when they advance its great mission; but it will abandon institutions and ignore international laws if they constrain its freedom to act. America will deal with like-minded countries, but it will never rely on anyone else for its security. And America will never place its trust in tyrants or anyone else who opposes freedom.

Seen this way, the seeming contradictions in Bush’s foreign policy vanish. We will support democracy, but we will not do much to promote the democratic aspirations of other people. We will talk nice to our friends and allies, but not actually change our policies in order to promote joint strategies. And when we do change course—as with Iran—the adjustment is tactical, designed to avoid being blamed by Europe if diplomacy fails to stop the mullahs’ desire for nuclear weapons. For the administration neither hopes for nor expects negotiations to succeed.

The Bolton nomination only confirms the nationalist direction of Bush’s foreign policy. Bolton has yet to meet an international institution or treaty he likes, and the only difference between him and many other top officials is that he is willing to say so out loud. But the administration’s actions—like the decision to withdraw from yet another treaty—speak louder than words. They are neither realist nor neoconservative. They’re just destructive of America’s true interests.