George W. Bush rightly insists he is not an isolationist. By any measure, his administration is committed to engaging abroad. But his rejection of a host of international treaties is isolating America and undermining American leadership around the world. The list of agreements the Bush administration has walked away from is long and growing. The White House has denounced the Kyoto protocol on global warming as “fatally flawed,” declared the ABM Treaty limiting missile defenses a “relic” of the past, abandoned an agreement to strengthen the ban on biological weapons, looked for ways to remove its signature from the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and attempted to withdraw the nuclear test ban from Senate consideration. The administration does not oppose the goals of these treaties. It, too, wants to limit global warming, maintain stable relations with Russia, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and punish war criminals. Rather, the administration argues that these treaties will not solve the problems they seek to address. Indeed, some will make matters worse.
The claim that these treaties are not perfect has merit. The Kyoto protocol is badly designed and expensive to implement. The ABM Treaty prevents the United States from protecting itself against the emerging missile threat from countries such as North Korea. The draft inspection protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention will not catch determined cheaters. America’s adversaries may try to use the International Criminal Court to harass U.S. citizens. And the nuclear test ban cannot prevent countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But, if these agreements are not the best way to address problems the administration acknowledges are real, what are the alternatives? Here the administration has been strangely silent. On global warming, it has proposed only to conduct more studies. It has failed to say what even the basic elements of a “new security framework” with Russia would look like. It has offered no strategy for catching countries trying to build germ weapons. It has proposed no plan to punish war criminals. And, rather than strengthening the prohibition against nuclear testing, some in the administration actually want to resume testing.
The administration’s failure to offer alternatives suggests that its criticisms about details of the agreements it rejects are a stalking horse for a broader critique of the relevance of treaties to advancing American interests. Indeed, the emerging theme of the Bush administration seems to be that treaties themselves jeopardize America’s interests by constraining its power and limiting its freedom to respond effectively to challenges abroad.
For all the administration’s talk about preparing for a new world, this approach to foreign policy is anything but new. It traces its lineage back to Henry Cabot Lodge’s policy of the “free hand” eight decades ago. In rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, Lodge and his supporters argued that minimizing constraints on America’s ability to conduct foreign policy maximized its security.
The policy of the free hand was shortsighted in Lodge’s day. It is even more so today. Tackling the many global challenges requires the key nations of the world to cooperate. Going it alone won’t work. Many of the problems we face today—from global warming to weapons proliferation to unstable international financial markets—can be solved only if countries work together. Without such cooperation, the Earth will continue to warm, dangerous weapons will continue to proliferate and financial panic will continue to plague the world economy.
What’s more, by focusing on the costs of cooperation the administration ignores the costs of refusing to cooperate. Reciprocity matters—in world politics as much as in everyday life. If the United States refuses to work with the rest of the world on issues that matter to our friends and allies, we should not be surprised when they decline to cooperate on issues that matter to us.
We have already seen signs that the Bush administration’s policy of the free hand is alienating our friends. By agreeing on how to implement Kyoto without us, Europe and Japan have left the United States on the outside looking in. And lackluster support from our friends in Europe and elsewhere cost us a seat on the UN commission dealing with human rights.
Despite these evident failures, Bush shows no signs of changing course. Far from listening to what our allies have to say, he prides himself for standing his ground—even if no one else shares the spot. But pursuing a policy of the free hand is dangerous. An isolated America will be a less secure America.