Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Perils Of Unipolarity And Permission Slips, Part II

In Part I of this series, I provided the background concerning the watershed moment that unipolarity has thrust upon us, as well as the framework from which the United States derived "legitimacy" for its foreign policy actions in the post-WW II - but pre-unipolar - era. In this segment, I want to look at the ways in which the Bush administration has deviated from the course followed by almost every administration during the preceding 60 years. While the contention that there has in fact been a divergence has caused some controversy, in either scenario, it must be acknowledged that the context of unipolarity is quite different.

A Paradigm Shift

According to the Tucker and Hendrickson article that I have been quoting in discussing these topics, the four pillars of legitimacy are as follows:

Washington's long-held commitment to international law, its acceptance of consensual decision-making, its reputation for moderation, and its identification with the preservation of peace.
The authors, as well as John Ikenberry who I have thrust into this conversation, contend that the Bush administration has led a deliberate campaign to undermine those four pillars. This is the result of a deep philosophical opposition to international law, and its institutional manifestations. For years, neoconservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) have been advocating disengagement with, if not utter withdrawal from, the United Nations and other international bodies and treaties. The United Nations is viewed with suspicion and mistrust - seen as an agent of constraint on U.S. power with nefarious motives. These views, in some form or another, are held by such administration insiders, and PNAC/AEI members/signatories, as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams, and others. This overarching posture vis-a-vis international institutions was described in this manner by Tucker and Hendrickson:

Seen against the backdrop of these factors, the startling loss of legitimacy that has occurred in the administration of President George W. Bush is not so mysterious. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration revealed a deep suspicion of international law. Its undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, had noted in the late 1990s that "it is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so-because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States." This augured a fundamentally contemptuous attitude toward the principles that had previously sustained U.S. legitimacy. But what were straws in the wind before September 11 soon became a virtual tornado as the Bush response to the attacks became clear.

In short order came a series of pronouncements and a set of doctrines that stood in stark contrast to the ideals and principles that had attended the United States' rise to superpower status. By declaring that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," President Bush cast profound doubt over whether his administration would even bother to consult with traditional allies. Rather, it seemed intent on issuing diktats to which they were expected to conform. A new doctrine of preventive war, misnamed the "strategy of preemption," took the place of the doctrines of containment and deterrence that had preserved the nuclear peace during the long contest with the Soviet Union.

Even when the administration approached international institutions it did so with an air of feigned regard but real contempt. The White House made clear that it intended to invade Iraq even in the teeth of Security Council opposition and repeatedly warned that the UN would pass into irrelevance unless it bowed to U.S. demands. The Bush administration also asserted that war against Iraq was justified to depose a tyrant and free the Iraqi people-a position that strongly suggested that Bush accepted in principle the legitimacy of war against any government failing a democratic litmus test.
In addition to denigrating the tenets of international law, and the importance of consensual decision making, the invasion of Iraq also has tarnished our reputation for moderation in foreign policy, and threatened the stability and peace so recently secured by the collapse of the Soviet Union - the basis for the third and fourth pillars. Tucker and Hendrickson summarize the paradigm shift thusly:

Throughout its history, the United States has made gaining international legitimacy a top priority of its foreign policy. The 18 months since the launch of the Iraq war, however, have left the country's hard-earned respect and credibility in tatters. In going to war without a legal basis or the backing of traditional U.S. allies, the Bush administration brazenly undermined Washington's long-held commitment to international law, its acceptance of consensual decision-making, its reputation for moderation, and its identification with the preservation of peace.
Critics are quick to point out that the Bush administration did not deviate from past practices in as stark a manner as Tucker and Hendrickson suggest. They point to a litany of other "illegal" activities that did not have the support of the world community. For example, David Adesnik of Oxblog had this to say:

Hello? Vietnam? The Contra war? CIA coups in Guatemala, Chile and Iran? The invasions of Panama, Grenada and the Dominican Republic? Even Jimmy Carter got in trouble with the French and Germans for provoking the Soviets by talking about human rights!

My point here is not that the United States' long history of unilateralist behavior provides a justification for anything that George Bush has done. Rather, the point is that apocalyptic predictions about the breakdown of US-European relations have been standard fare for the last sixty years. These predictions crops up every decades or so and they are always wrong.
But Adesnik, and those making this case, misses the point, and it is a topic that Tucker and Hendrickson addressed in their piece. There are two factors that differentiate the unilateralist actions undertaken by the Bush administration and those of their predecessors. First, there is an underlying philosophy of open and determined animosity to the United Nations. The effects of these attitudes should not be underestimated. During the unilateralist actions mentioned by Adesnik and others, the U.S. administrations still openly supported the United Nations, NATO and other international bodies. This was not nearly lip-service, or hollow rhetoric, and it was far from the thinly veiled contempt exemplified in statements and actions by Bush's inner circle. On the contrary these attitudes embraced by former administrations were vital in securing the patience and tacit acceptance for our non-conforming actions from the rest of the world. If our unilateralist actions are perceived as an occasional sojourn off the reservation, a reservation we still respect and value, that is one thing. If they are seen as a culmination of an overall strategy to raze the reservation, that is entirely different. Warnings about the impending irrelevance of the United Nations, and the obsolete mindset of "Old Europe" do little to assuage the fears of some of our more tenuous allies. In addition, there has been much open discussion in those same influential think tanks and foreign policy circles of pursuing future unilateralist campaigns in places such as Syria and Iran, with or without international cooperation. This seems to drive the message home that the UN will be marginalized going forward. For those reasons, past examples of unilateral actions are not analogous.

The second factor that changes the tenor of the most recent unilateralist actions is the historically unique conditions brought on by the new found unipolarity in the realm of geopolitical power dynamics. Whereas in the past the United States took certain unpopular unilateralist actions, they were undertaken in a bipolar, even multi-polar world. The world community had the knowledge that there was an ultimate check on the scope of U.S. power in the formidable Warsaw Pact, and friendly nations were also aware of the power they possessed as necessary allies for Washington to court in the context of the cold war. Now, there is no check on U.S. power and some in the administration have come to the conclusion that certain alliances are not worth the effort or compromises required to maintain them. Whereas our allies felt they had a seat at the bargaining table, and a position of regard and importance, they are feeling increasingly minimized and alienated today. This changes the character, or at the very least the perception, of the invasion of Iraq as one in a series of unilateralist actions. Perception is as important, if not more so, then the actual legality of the actions.

Tucker and Hendrickson also make the case that the current actions are really without precedent since they combine a simultaneous assault on all four of the pillars, within the context of unipolarity.

The neoconservatives responsible for this startling loss of U.S. legitimacy have defended themselves by pointing to various precedents in which the United States engaged in illegal or unilateral conduct. But although certain aspects of the Bush doctrine were presaged by earlier administrations, no preceding administration brought all of these elements together in so alarming a way. Ronald Reagan proclaimed the right in theory to overthrow undemocratic regimes, but in practice was hobbled by a resistant Congress and was himself unwilling to commit U.S. forces for this object. George H.W. Bush declared in the aftermath of the Gulf War that he possessed the authority to go to war without the authorization of the UN Security Council or Congress, but he had still sought and received approval from both institutions. Bill Clinton embraced regime change in Iraq but was unwilling to fight a major war for it, preferring the more modest (and ineffectual) strategy of supporting a military coup against Saddam Hussein. Clinton also did not rule out in theory a doctrine of preventive war to forestall the acquisition by "rogue states" of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but in practice he did not fight one. The precipitous collapse of support for U.S. aims under George W. Bush demonstrates that the nation's allies, indeed most of the world, believe that something fundamental in the U.S. global posture has changed-for the worse. [emphasis added]
In response to this paragraph, conservative blogger for the Yale Free Press, Yevgeny Vilensky, had this to say:

The argument here is essentially that, "Yeah, sure, past administrations have wanted to undermine the four pillars but were unsuccessful due to some practical constraint on their power and political capital. This administration succeeded! For shame!" But this undermines the entire point of their original claim. They didn't just claim that the US acted in accordance to those four pillars in order to obtain international legitimacy, but in fact held these four pillars as principles by which they conduct foreign policy. All of these examples of previous administrations' attempts to overthrow the four pillars as their guiding principles are irrelevant to the authors, because the administrations had mixed success. For example, the 9/11 Commission even concluded that one of the reasons that Clinton was unable to have good follow-through in capturing bin Laden and severely hampering al Qaeda's operations is that he was having political problems with the Monica mess, thereby depleting his political capital. So the only problem Tucker and Hendrickson have with the Bush administration, isn't the principle of the Bush doctrine as they seem to claim, but rather that, unlike previous administrations, he had a rather compliant Congress and public, and was therefore successful in overturning the four pillars. Seems like a pretty shallow critique to me.

The corollary to this problem with their argument is their claim that we did have international legitimacy before Bush took office, but now do not. Without attacking this claim, for I have limited time, I will accept it as true. But, if in the past, our principles were not in accordance with the four pillars (even though the end actions may have been), then how were we still able to maintain legitimacy in the realm of foreign policy?
But Vilensky misses the point, and overstates his case. It is not clear that those past presidents really wanted to overturn the four pillars, they just expressed a willingness to work along the fringes in certain contexts. The statements and policies, even if acted upon, do not amount to "overthrowing" the four pillars. Thus, this rhetoric did not raise any alarms among our allies and the world at large.

Further, this highlights the fact that Vilensky underestimates the importance of perceptions in conferring legitimacy on foreign policy. Even if it is true that Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton secretly harbored the same neoconservative fervor to destroy the four pillars, that is not how the world perceived it. Perceptions determine legitimacy and these perceptions were no accident. The actual policies and actions of those administrations showed a solid commitment to the four pillars - especially the courting of the United Nations by Bush Sr. in the run-up to Gulf War I - so legitimacy was maintained, even if by accident of circumstance. In either scenario, the world would be more concerned with an administration that actively undermines those principles, than the hypothetical scenario in which they acted in accordance with the principles, but privately desired to overturn them. The latter is not really a threat, while the former represents upheaval.

John Ikenberry echoes these concerns:

...the Bush administration does not understand the implications of the two most historic transformations in world politics in half a century - the rise of American unipolar power and changing norms of state sovereignty. The first of these transformations is the most obvious. It is the near-monopoly on the use of international force that the US has enjoyed since the demise of the Soviet Union. But the second - the erosion of national sovereignty and the rising acceptance of intervention in the internal affairs of states - is no less important. These dual shifts make US power more worrisome to other states than in the past. Moreover, Bush's foreign policy ideas make this problem worse. The ideas about unilateralism, hegemony and pre-emption are not in themselves so new or revolutionary, as John Lewis Gaddis has argued. But these ideas are being implemented in a global system that has undergone radical changes in recent decades that make the unilateral and pre-emptive exercise of US power unusually provocative and alarming.
A Conflicted Leviathan

Conservative pundits, bloggers and foreign policy wonks have been quick to argue that there is nothing to fear about unipolarity. One of the basic premises underlying the AEI and PNAC manifestos is the argument that the United States has been a force for good in the world, so a unipolar universe dominated by the United States should be an attractive concept to the community of nations. To quote Condoleeza Rice, our foreign policy post-WW II "led to a more prosperous and democratic world." And our future actions "will create conditions that promote freedom, markets, and peace." To some degree, I concur. A unipolar U.S. is a far better option than the hypothetical unipolarity of most other nations that have less of a historical commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. That being said, we should not ignore the importance of those elements, or abandon them in any way during our period of unipolarity.

John Ikenberry describes the Bush administration's conception of unipolarity as a new solution for the Hobbesian state of nature that exists between nation states. In this sense, a new leviathan is being offered, if not forced, on the rest of the world:

The Bush administration has eagerly embraced this new unipolar logic. In its vision, outlined in the September 2002 national security strategy report, the US will increasingly stand aloof from the rest of the world and use its unipolar power to arbitrate right and wrong and enforce the peace. In a Hobbesian world of anarchy, the US will act as an order-creating leviathan. Where in previous eras the problem of order could only be solved by the balancing of power, it will now be solved by US dominance.

The Bush administration proposes to pursue what might be called a hegemonic strategy with imperial characteristics. The US will remain a global military power in a class by itself. Its troops and navies will take on unique obligations to identify threats and keep the peace in Europe, east Asia and the middle east. The Bush administration is, in effect, making an offer to the rest of the world. The US will serve as the provider of global security, but in return the world must allow the US to be treated differently. It will not sign up to the international criminal court because it alone has troops in every corner of the world that make the US more vulnerable to politically inspired legal actions. It cannot sign the landmines treaty because of its role in protecting South Korea. The US will be at least partially above the law but the world will get what it values most - peace and security.
To be certain, there is something seductive in the notion of U.S. unipolarity expressed in such a manner. Who better to insure the peace and stability of the world, especially if this power were exercised in order to bring democracy, freedom and human rights to previously repressed people? I think this explains the rationale behind the support that certain liberal hawks gave the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Many on the left have never been comfortable with the compromises required by the mandates of realpolitik that were a part of the balance of power in the bipolar world. As opposed to propping up brutal dictators and totalitarian regimes, unipolarity would give the United States the ability to spread democracy. This is a vision that is not that far away from Wilsonian liberalism.

For many Americans, there is an additional attraction of this unipolar grand strategy - it gives full sway to American exceptionalism. This self-perception, as old as the nation's founding, sees America as a unique experiment; a polity more noble and enlightened than any other on earth. If in the past American exceptionalism was possible only through isolation or withdrawal from the outside world, now exceptionalism is made possible by global dominance.
The exceptionalism that Ikenberry refers to seems to correlate to Lakoff's conception of the moral order espoused by many Americans that I referenced in Part I of this series. America is the pre-eminent power in the world, which confers on it a certain moral standing and authority, which is natural to exercise and deserving of obedience. While this conception might appeal to Americans, it is uncertain that it has widespread international appeal, for understandable reasons.

One of the other problems with this conception of unipolarity in action is the faith it puts in the efficacy of military power as an agent of positive change in the world. Spreading democracy through the use of invasion is a policy that has been proven unworkable by almost every historical precedent, as I argued at length here and most recently here. It is fraught with dangers and pitfalls that present a series of paradoxes to achieving the goals. Iraq seems to fit the pattern, although hope must be maintained for a positive outcome.

Furthermore, the liberal hawks, and others, were naive to think that conservative notions of foreign policy would not affect, alter and dilute the Wilsonian principles. Here is the full text of the Condoleeza Rice quote I excerpted above:

The belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else was deeply rooted in Wilsonian thought, and there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity, but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect. America's pursuit of the national interest will create conditions that promote freedom, markets, and peace. Its pursuit of national interests after World War II led to a more prosperous and democratic world. This can happen again. [emphasis added]
There is an underlying tension between the conservative camp and the liberal camp, and it is a give and take that dates back to this nation's inception. As Ikenberry points out, "Conservative ideas about international order have always coexisted with liberal ones in the American experience, but they have not guided Washington policy at the most critical order-building junctions of the last century." Indeed, at each of the major paradigm shifts in the last century - after World War I, after World War II, and after the Cold War:

American officials evoked liberal ideas about international order. The world is now at a new juncture where again the US is in a position to shape the emerging order. But now, by accident of elections and timing, conservative ideas hold sway and these ideas are inconsistent with America's unipolar management of the system...

...there is a basic contradiction at the heart of the Bush administration's national security vision. The Bush administration wants both to serve as the global provider of security and simultaneously to pursue a traditional conservative foreign policy based on narrowly defined self-interest. That is, the administration wants to solve the Hobbesian problem of order by becoming a global leviathan but it also wants to use US power to advance nationalist goals at the expense of others and reduce its commitment to international rules and institutions. It cannot do both - it must choose...it becomes unipolarity with no strings attached. It is a unipolar bargain in which there is no bargaining.
The fact that the U.S. is willing to pursue national interest while at the same time seeking legitimacy based on the inherent normative qualities of its exercise of power presents yet another cause of concern for the international community. They are understandably skeptical about our motives and methods in many contexts. Without a strong deference to the opinions of our allies, the norms and principles of international law, an image of moderation, and a dedication to maintaining peace, it is nothing short of naivete to assume that the rest of the world would share our views about American exceptionalism. They will not just take our word for it. Something more must be done - assurances must be made.

In Part III, I will explore the options that face the crafters of U.S. foreign policy in the near future, given the exigencies presented by the threat of terrorism, as well as some of the mistakes of the recent past in addressing those problems.

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