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Doctrinaire Unilateralism

By Sam Parry
June 14, 2001

George W. Bush, one of the least traveled presidents of modern times, has adopted a foreign policy that combines a narrow U.S. self-interest with a go-it-alone unilateralism.

Bush's backers have hailed his "new unilateralism" as a bold reassertion of U.S. supremacy unencumbered by concerns about the sensibilities of other nations. "After a decade of Prometheus playing pygmy, the first task of the new administration is precisely to reassert American freedom of action," declared conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who tries to put Republican foreign policy within the frame of grand doctrines.

Toward this goal of reasserting U.S. power, Bush has repudiated what Krauthammer called the "bizarrely self-flagellating" Kyoto global-warming treaty and made clear the administration's intent to junk the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so the U.S. can fulfill Ronald Reagan's dream of a Star Wars missile defense.

"Rather than contain American power within a vast web of constraining international agreements, the new unilateralism seeks to strengthen American power and unashamedly deploy it on behalf of self-defined global ends," Krauthammer wrote. [Washington Post, June 8, 2001, emphasis in original]

One of those global ends is the determination to secure sufficient oil from around the world to avoid any significant cutback in U.S. energy use. Besides walking away from the Kyoto protocol and its demands for reductions in greenhouse gases, Bush signaled a readiness to deal with oil-producing nations regardless of their records on human rights and democracy.

Bush's foreign policy also defines itself as being against what Bill Clinton was for. In this case, the counterpoint is Clinton's complex multilateralism that sought to understand and defuse, with limited success, intractable world conflicts from Northern Ireland to North Korea, from the Balkans to Israel-Palestine.

At the center of the Bush foreign policy -- what we have dubbed the Dubya Doctrine -- is a dim view of the American people, as a population that doesn't want to think much about the rest of the world and cares only about maintaining a comfortable lifestyle with adequate supplies of cheap gasoline. Bush has called his approach a defense of "the American way of life."

Whether Bush is justified in this lowest-common-denominator opinion of the American public or not, he is facing a growing challenge from an increasingly unified Europe, which is developing a competing vision for the future of mankind. Europeans are demanding more government support for what they regard as crucial social services, from education to health care to environmental protections.

By and large, Europeans also are appalled by Bush's ascension to power in defiance of the popular will of the American voters, who favored Al Gore by more than a half million votes. In addition, they see Bush as insensitive to human rights because of his role as Texas governor presiding over scores of executions.

There is also evidence that the continent's negative reaction to Bush is contributing to the momentum of Europe's support for more activist government. The landslide reelection of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair - the first Labor government to win two full terms in a row in British history - was a stunning setback for European conservatives. They had hoped Bush's rise to power would give new energy to their own faltering conservative movements.

Given Bush's lack of popularity in Europe, however, the opposite may have been true. Britain's Conservative Party may have lost support from voters intent on opposing American-style conservatism. The Tories won only 166 seats in the Parliament and now stand 167 seats behind Labor.

A big problem for conservatives around the world is that their tax-cutting, free-market agenda is losing popularity globally. Even U.S. voters, arguably the most conservative in the developed world, favored Gore and his center-left policies over Bush and his conservative agenda.

Underscoring this erosion of conservative support is the fact that the dominant issues of the British election dealt with how much to increase investments in public services such as education and universal health care, not in restraining government's role.

The Tory effort to sell a huge tax cut did not win much traction, nor do polls in the United States suggest that the American people are overly enthusiastic about tax cuts that Bush has made the heart of his domestic agenda. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg points out, Americans prefer increasing investments in services over a tax cut by a 2-1 margin. [Washington Post, June 8, 2001]

While Bush succeeded in pushing his $1.35 trillion tax cut through Congress, polls indicate that Americans remain cool to his overall policies (a Zogby poll released on June 12 showed that only 29 percent of the American people would support Bush's reelection, while 38 percent would prefer someone else and 33 percent were undecided). Bush could continue to suffer political consequences especially if the national economy continues to falter or if national deficits return, a prospect raised when congressional Republicans restored almost $1 billion for federal programs that the White House had cut. [See Washington Post, June 8, 2001]

Projecting Power

Bush's political weakness at home and the widespread opposition to his presidency in Europe raise questions about his ability to project U.S. power in the years ahead.

While U.S. conservatives scoff at the notion of a diminished international role for Washington, the street demonstrations greeting Bush's first overseas trip as president could be a foretaste of what lies ahead, as U.S. prestige declines among the family of nations.

During a May trip to Scandinavia, I encountered blunt worries - if not outright disgust - about the Bush administration. On the ride from the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, I commented to the driver about the many windmills that dotted the landscape.

The driver responded that it was too bad the United States had such a "fool" in the White House, or the U.S. might consider adopting a similar strategy for alternative energy. I had been in Denmark less than an hour and someone had already called my country's president a "fool."

I encountered similar attitudes in meeting people along my travels through Sweden and Norway. When they recognized I was an American, they asked how Bush could have become president after losing the popular vote. They also seemed knowledgeable about the irregularities in Florida and distressed about the complacency of Americans in not mounting stronger protests against the undemocratic outcome.

These sentiments appear to be widespread. A recent poll in Britain, the European country considered most like the United States politically, found that Bush had only a 25 percent approval rating and a greater than 60 percent disapproval rating. The poll indicated that the European people, even more than European leaders, are concerned about Bush's unilateral decision to pull out of the Kyoto agreement and about his intentions to build a missile shield.

While Charles Krauthammer and other U.S. conservatives may have contempt for multilateral initiatives, Europe and other regions are choosing that path, seeking greater international cooperation not less. Blair's landslide victory and the protests against Bush in Europe could mark the practical limits for Bush's robust "new unilateralism," much as Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party was a turning point in Bush's early control of the political agenda in Washington.

Bush's ability to assert American power around the world, it turns out, also has been undermined by the questionable means he used to seize power.

In the past, American leaders liked to say that the real strength of America came not from its military might or its potent economy, but from the power of its democratic ideals. The protests against Bush's trip to Europe could be proving that there is more truth to those old sentiments than many cynics believed.

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