Bush Is No Cowboy. But If He Were, It Wouldn't Matter.

At the United Nations on October 16, after a long and intensive effort, the Bush administration won the Security Council's unanimous imprimatur for the American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The following day, National Public Radio's Mike Shuster portrayed the Security Council's resolution as a diversion from the real story—namely, the administration's determination to go it alone.

Shuster: "The compromises the U.S. has been willing to make have been minimal and, although the Security Council voted unanimously yesterday to support another U.S. resolution on Iraq, it appears that little will change."

Shuster was unfazed by the administration's insistence on handling the North Korea nuclearization crisis multilaterally, or by its efforts to engage the United Nations in the effort to stop what looks like a nuclear weapons program in Iran. Shuster: "In order to confront these challenges, the Bush administration has been forced, unwillingly it seems, to seek help from other nations and try the multilateral route through six-party talks on North Korea and pressure from the much-maligned International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran."

So if Bush goes it alone, he is a unilateralist. Whereas if he attempts to work with other countries, he is a unilateralist. Clear enough?

Does not play well with other children. That judgment, familiar from generations of report cards, has become the leading point in the centrist critique of the Bush administration's foreign policy. That there is something to the charge is undeniable. But that there is much less to it than meets the eye is equally certain.

The core claim of the does-not-play-well critique is that Bush's penchant for treating other countries as an afterthought unnecessarily raises the cost, and reduces the effectiveness, of America's foreign policy. The key word in that sentence is the unassuming adverb "unnecessarily." At every juncture, the question is: Was there an alternative that could have achieved the desired outcome at a lower diplomatic cost?

One commonly proffered alternative is simply for the administration to talk nicer. In their valuably comprehensive and critical new book, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, of the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively (both are veterans of the Clinton administration), charge that Bush and his advisers "frequently expressed their contempt for opinions different from their own."

Actually, there has been plenty of contempt flowing in the other direction—for example, from German politicians who campaigned on America-bashing platforms or who likened Bush to Hitler. Still, point taken. Superpowers should hold themselves to higher standards, and there is just no denying that the Bush team has at times been needlessly abrasive and has paid a price.

Words, however, are not the real problem, as Daalder and Lindsay acknowledge. "More grace by itself would not have been enough to allay the fears of [America's] friends and allies," they allow. It is indeed hard to imagine that the Security Council's decisions on Iraq would have come out much differently if the American secretary of state had been a low-key, consensus-seeking statesman—someone like Colin Powell. (What? Colin Powell is the secretary of State? You don't say!) The larger problem, Daalder and Lindsay write, is Bush's determination to throw America's weight around. "Bush preferred to build his empire on American power alone rather than on the greater power that comes with working with friends and allies."

Really? Obviously much of the world opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but to speak of America as isolated or Bush as unilateralist seems an exaggeration, to be charitable. The administration tried hard to get the Security Council to put teeth in its own resolutions against Saddam Hussein. It went to the council not once but twice, when unilateralists said the right number of times was zero. It received support from dozens of countries, including some European biggies (Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland). It sought and obtained the Security Council's blessing for the occupation. It received $13 billion in reconstruction pledges from many countries. It is getting help from 24,000 foreign troops in Iraq, most of them British and Polish, but with support from more than 30 countries. (More than 50 foreign soldiers have died in Iraq.)

And on other fronts? The administration is insisting on a multilateral approach to North Korea—not grudgingly, as NPR's Shuster would have it, but in the teeth of allies' reluctance to get involved. It is trying to mobilize the United Nations on Iran. It has set up a multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict weapons, with France and Germany among the eight European participants. It recently won a multilateral agreement with 20 Asian and Pacific countries to curb the trade in shoulder-fired missiles.

Bush is not going it alone. He is setting his agenda and then looking for support, rather than the other way around. That is what presidents and countries typically do. It is certainly what France does—and how. France's intransigence on farm subsidies has been the single greatest impediment to progress at the World Trade Organization. France's determination to set up an independent European military-planning center risks splitting NATO. France's refusal to comply with the European Union's fiscal rules may result in the rules' collapse. France freely uses its E.U. clout to bully dissenting European countries. It does not shrink from calling on them to "shut up." It did not shrink from announcing it would unilaterally veto any Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, "whatever the circumstances." This is not exactly team playing, although critics of American unilateralism rarely see fit to mention it.

America, a stronger country than France, should behave more responsibly, and does. The root problem, however, is substance, not style. The problem is that much of the world resents America's dominance and disagrees with many of Bush's policies, especially the Iraq war.

The reality of American dominance is not about to change, and few Americans would favor changing it. Signing up for the International Criminal Court and other global ventures is no answer, because America would still be at odds with other member countries over the goals such organizations would pursue—witness the U.N. and the WTO, among others. People who say that Bush should tie the United States into a web of stabilizing alliances and global organizations, as Presidents Roosevelt and Truman did, miss the point. The old alliances worked not because they were multilateral but because of the West's common interest in resisting Communism. That common interest is gone.

The only way to placate today's angry Europeans is to change the ends, not just the means, of U.S. foreign policy. And the only way to have avoided the trans-Atlantic falling-out over Iraq would have been for Bush to condition America's use of force upon the approval of the Security Council (read: France). No responsible American president, of either party, would have done that.

Exhibit A: In September of 2002, Al Gore, then still a possible Democratic presidential contender, warned of the perils of acting unilaterally against Iraq. He urged Bush to take his case to the Security Council and ask for a resolution demanding "prompt, unconditional compliance by Iraq within a definite period of time." And if the Security Council failed? "Other choices"—Gore meant force—"remain open." After all, "Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter, and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power."

Bush, of course, followed Gore's advice. If that was unilateralism, then few are the presidents who would forswear it.

September 11 brought horrible clarity to the fact that America needs desperately to keep the world's most dangerous weapons away from the world's most dangerous people. Most other countries, being less of a target, care much less (Israel possibly excepted). They worry more about unconstrained U.S. power. This divergence of interests is manageable, but it is also fundamental. A Democratic president might change the tone, which might make some difference on the margins; but the choices would mostly be just as tough, and the stresses just as painful.

Bush is not a unilateralist, but even if he were, multilateralism is no free lunch. What critics of American unilateralism are really unhappy with is not Donald Rumsfeld's big mouth or Dick Cheney's big stick. Their complaint is with the hard geopolitical facts of life in a new and uneasy time. It's the world, stupid.