President George W. Bush is leading a revolution in American foreign policy. For a half century after World War II, successive administrations believed that the United States could make the most of its vast power by working closely with allies and through multilateral organizations such as the UN and NATO. This conviction hinged on the belief that cooperation—even at the cost of accepting constraints on the freedom to act—reassured others about Washington’s intentions and ultimately extended the reach of American power.
Galvanized by the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush has abandoned this approach to how America should engage in the world. With terrorists, tyrants, and technologies of mass destruction posing a grave and growing danger, he believes that the best—if not the only way—to ensure America’s security is to jettison the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international institutions. The United States will act as it sees fit to protect itself and its interests. Other countries will either follow or get out of the way.
Bush is, in many ways, a surprising foreign policy revolutionary. During the 2000 presidential campaign many doubted he had the background or the inclination to make a mark on international affairs. He was widely depicted as ill informed and uninterested about the world beyond America’s borders. Most observers suspected that he would be guided—if not held captive—by his far more experienced advisers. His insistence during the campaign that Bill Clinton had overextended the United States abroad fueled suspicion that his presidency would drift toward isolationism.
This paper will be published as a chapter in The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment, edited by Fred I. Greenstein (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming)
I thought the analysis [in the National Defense Strategy] was good and the general main message, that we are in a great power competition, I thought exactly right… At critical moments [President Trump] will need to make the decision ... to actually uphold this world view.
It’s the first time, maybe in history, key advisers have gone into the administration to stop the president, not to enable him.