We Ignore Our Allies

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

November 13, 2003

Editor’s Note: The following introductory text is Newsweek’s.

It turns out the revolution is being televised, at least according to a new book by two former Clinton administration staffers. It’s being broadcast daily on cable networks and the evening news roundups of developments in Afghanistan or the quest for Middle East peace. It gets the national spotlight every time one of George W. Bush’s officials makes, or rephrases, the case for ousting Saddam.

In a new book called America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution Press), Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay argue that the president has single-handedly “launched a revolution in American foreign policy” and redefined how America engages the world.

Daalder and Lindsay—of the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively—charge that Bush and the hard-line conservatives in his administration “frequently expressed their contempt for opinions different from their own” when crafting foreign policy. In the first eight months of his presidency, they note, Bush opposed a string of international agreements from the Kyoto Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention to the International Criminal Court, effectively withdrawing the United States from a 60-year-old commitment to cooperation with allies and international organizations. In the two years since the September 11 attacks, Washington has consistently gone it largely alone on the world stage, easing off from Middle East peace negotiations, invading Afghanistan and ousting Iraq’s dictatorial regime.

The authors believe that this unbinding of America is the policy of, above all other administration neoconservatives, Bush alone. And its roots, they say, lie in his belief that America is too powerful (and the world too dangerous) for the lone superpower to be burdened by cooperating with others. In the short term, this approach to crafting policy is quick and efficient. In the long run, they argue, resentment will foment abroad and “America will then stand alone—a great power unable to achieve its most important goals.”

Daalder spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker about the costs, benefits and genesis of Bush’s foreign-policy revolution. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is the Bush revolution in foreign policy?

Ivo Daalder: The revolution is his decision to abandon a 60-year-old bipartisan consensus on how the United States should engage in the world. This is a revolution of means, not ends. It is a revolution that says we are better off going it alone that we are going it with others. It is a revolution that abandons the partnership of allies and the importance of international institutions and even international law as a guiding precept of American foreign policy. It is the conviction that an America unbound is a more secure America.

Are there any benefits to an America unbound?

The great benefit is a short-term efficiency gain. If you work on your own and move ahead by yourself, you are more able to achieve the goals that you want in the short term to achieve. The example being because we went on our own in Iraq, we were able to muster our military means much more effectively.

The Bush administration did go to the United Nations Security Council twice.

We did go to the Security Council twice and clearly there was an attempt to try to use the old-fashioned international institutions and co-opt them in our own effort. This administration is not at all averse to going the multilateral route if that route is the confirmation of our own course. What is different is that we are not willing to abandon our course, to at all modify our course in order to get international support and international cooperation.

But you open the book in June with George Bush celebrating his victory and his “extraordinarily effective” foreign policy. Should he still feel vindicated considering the recent problems the military has been having in Iraq?

There are certain things that his foreign policy has clearly achieved. This is a bold decisive take-no-prisoners kind of leader who is able to muster an extraordinary amount of political power and move the agenda in his way. He set the agenda for the world, and much of the world has followed in accepting that agenda even begrudgingly. What was perhaps not as apparent in June when he did his trip around Europe and the Middle East and is more apparent now: There are significant costs to the way you pursue this revolution. The biggest cost is that we may in fact be less effective than we thought we were in places like Iraq, not only because we are failing to gain the international support that would ease the burden, but, frankly, we are failing to get the support which is necessary to achieve our objectives. As long as we control everything, we are unlikely to succeed because our control breeds the kind the resentment, the kind of resistance, we have seen in the last few months.

How does what’s happening on the ground in Iraq and even Afghanistan square with his famous disdain for nation-building?

I think with regard to nation-building that you are seeing the true George Bush emerging despite the rhetoric, which is highly neoconservative. What you see in Afghanistan and in Iraq is a retrenchment. In Afghanistan we’re not engaged in nation building—we are engaged in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. We leave the task of nation-building to others. I think the same is going to happen in Iraq.

How did September 11, as you write, “reaffirm” his view of the world? A lot of people say that it precipitated a shift away from many of his foreign policy pledges.

It reaffirmed it in the sense that the way he wanted to approach the world, which was America on its own—remember we abandoned Kyoto, we ignored our allies and alliance partners, we moved away from strictures and constraints of a multilateral world—prior to 9/11. What 9/11 did change was not his approach to the world, but the importance of foreign policy to his presidency.

A lot of his foreign-policy rhetoric has less to do with protecting U.S. interests and more with a struggle between good and evil. Is Bush’s faith intrinsic to this unbinding of America, or is it a separate issue?

It’s impossible to know. Being a person of strong faith reinforces the tendency to view the world in black and white. And also, I think, reinforces his strong sense of self-confidence that what he has embarked upon is the right way. He is so convinced of his own righteousness that he is unable to regard others, particularly critics, as legitimate. It struck home to even him when he went to visit with the moderate Muslim leaders in Indonesia. [They] painted a picture of American behavior in the world that was quite different than what he believed was the right picture. He came out of that meeting surprised that other people don’t have the same image of the United States as he does.

Does that strike you as naive?

What it reflects is not much understanding of other people. It reflects the fact that he doesn’t travel much around the world. When he does travel, he doesn’t spend a lot of time learning about other people’s views perspectives and cultures; he is not a well-read, well-rounded intellectual, but somebody who has a few very, very strongly held beliefs that are important for the determination of policy.

Recent polls suggest that Bush’s approach to foreign policy was immensely popular immediately after September 11, but is becoming increasingly unpopular among voters. Are we likely to see a more solicitous foreign policy as the elections draw near?

Well, he does want to get re-elected. The question is: is he willing to change his foreign policy in ways that suit his electoral prospects? I don’t think so. But I think the revolution is somehow hitting a brick wall. And he has to choose whether to go left, back to the prerevolutionary, cooperative form of foreign policy that his secretary of State might advocate, or do less, but continue to go down the same path. My view is that he’s going to do less.

How does an unbound America approach the Middle East peace process?

This president sides with those who are the victims of terrorism and believes that unless there is a fundamental reform in the Palestinian community and in the Palestinian national authority, there is nothing we can do to move the peace process forward. Therefore nothing has happened. There has been no engagement. As long as you don’t have what he would regard [as] a viable partner on the side of the Palestinians, there is nothing we can do.

Doesn’t Bush’s State of the Union pledge to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to combat HIV/AIDS signify some multilateral engagement?

You have had a number of instances in which the president—whether it’s the Millennium Challenge account or the AIDS commitment or his human slavery arguments—[adopts] a political strategy to demonstrate the compassionate part of his conservatism. He is trying to soften the hard edges of his foreign policy, but they’re all instances in which his rhetorical commitment tends to be a one-shot deal in a major speech. His actual deeds and follow-through tends to be far less. In the AIDS issue, they didn’t come close to even submitting, and have continued to oppose, efforts to meet his $3 billion-a-year-over-five-years commitment.

What does Bush’s decision to oust Saddam—and especially how he made his case to the public—say about his brand of foreign policy?

At home, an argument that frankly overstated the nature of the threat in order to justify military action has undermined his credibility with the American public, because the threat we thought was there didn’t turn out to be there. It does exist in North Korea. It does exist in Iran and tended to be downplayed. That’s in part because it’s easier to deal with an Iraq, where we thought we had good military options, than it is in North Korea where we have none.

Can the Democrats take anything away from the way Bush’s foreign policy has unfolded?

There are great lessons for the Democrats, and I would argue that they were less in policy terms that they are in process terms. This president has demonstrated how to lead, how to get things done. One of [his] most important characteristics is his refusal to negotiate with himself. Once he sets a course he tries to push it at as hard as he can and will only change course when it is absolutely clear that he won’t get what he wants—and then he changes only barely. Democrats have a tendency to negotiate with themselves, to put forward proposals that they regard as acceptable to the other side rather than to negotiate and push those proposals only once you have laid down your marker.