American Diplomacy And the New Shape of the World

The past year has seen a momentous change in the way the world is ordered—a change very much for the worse, according to a good deal of supposedly informed opinion in the United States and the great majority of commentators everywhere else. To assert and advance its own interests, America has repudiated the institutions and the very principle of lawful cooperation among nations, it is argued. This would be immoral, the charge continues, even if it were not directly counterproductive—but it is that as well. America's new posture, the critics agree, has made the world a more dangerous place, not least for America itself.

The destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime was the most forthright demonstration of this new thinking. The Bush administration explicitly rationalized the war in terms of a new security doctrine that calls for pre-emptive action against emerging threats. This is a policy that, to put it mildly, is difficult to square with current understanding of international law. But the Iraq adventure, say the critics, has been a failure: The insurgency refuses to be put down; the lives of most Iraqis are harder now than before; the resentment against the occupiers is growing; and the danger to America and the West posed by Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction turns out to have been a fabrication.

In any case, it is further argued, Iraq was no isolated instance of America's strident new unilateralism. The White House had declared early in President Bush's term that it wanted nothing to do with the Kyoto accord on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. And it has set its face against the International Criminal Court, which most other governments see as a great step forward for enlightened multilateralism and the global rule of law. On all three issues, America is accused of having told the rest of the world that it cares nothing for its opinion, and of requesting it to kindly get lost.

Well, it is an impressively long list of charges—but every one of them, in my view, is false. America's new posture has not made the world a more dangerous place. On the contrary, the Bush administration has recognized, as few other governments so far seem willing to, just how dangerous a place the world has become, and proposes to do something about it. Self-evidently, this will not make the world safe. Nothing can do that. But it is better to confront a danger than to deny it—and denial, however elaborate the presentation, is really all the critics have to offer.

This is by no means to say that the administration has got everything about its Iraq policy right. As I have argued before, the whole truth about the case for the war—about what we did not know as well as about what we did—was not honestly laid before the public. I doubt that this was a matter of bad faith: The administration seems to have believed, as did almost everybody, that Iraq had WMD. But it was not frank about the limits of the intelligence available. It also seems likely that the administration made too much of the links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. These errors are important not just in themselves, but also because they will make it harder to muster domestic and foreign support for the next necessary pre-emptive strike.

It is also true that the administration and its allies have found postwar Iraq tougher going than they expected. Some very hurried adjustments of the stabilization strategy have been needed. These changes seem to make sense on the whole, but it would have been far better if the new approach—notably the accelerated handover to Iraqis, before a fully functioning democracy has been established—had not looked as though it were being forced on the United States by the pressure of events. On the other hand, though, the war itself went far better than most of the skeptics had expected. And if I were an Iraqi, I would rather be struggling with the current postwar violence and disruption, bad as they may be, than living under the terror of Saddam Hussein.

Flawed as the Iraq policy may have been in some respects, the premise of American policy—that national security cannot be entrusted to bodies such as the United Nations—is absolutely right. The critics forget that America tried long and hard to mobilize U.N. support for action against Iraq. It was to no avail. The United States chose unilateralism after the multilateral alternative failed. Remember, too, that before Iraq, the U.N.'s record had been awful. In Rwanda, it failed to intervene when it should have. Elsewhere, as in Srebrenica, interventions it did undertake were disgracefully bungled. In Kosovo, it claimed credit for success after the event, retrospectively endorsing actions undertaken at America's initiative, having failed to authorize them at the time.

And Iraq itself, of course, bears clearest witness to the U.N.'s impotence during the 1990s. For years, Saddam flagrantly breached the terms of the 1991 cease-fire. The U.N.'s response was to maintain sanctions, a policy that hurt Iraqis rather than Saddam and that, after more than 10 years, was looking impossible, morally and tactically, to sustain. The war removed Saddam, a despicable and dangerous tyrant. The United Nations never would have.

Some of the administration's critics are willing to admit that the U.N. has its faults, and even to acknowledge that America's government owes its first duty to America's citizens. Nonetheless, they argue that the United States, in its own interests, should lead efforts to reform the U.N.—and to breathe life into multilateralism more generally. With American goodwill, and not without, a global order based on law and international cooperation could be built. That is the claim. By the same logic, the Kyoto accord may be flawed, but America should strive to fix it rather than merely walk away. And again, despite safeguards already built in, some supporters of the International Criminal Court concede that it may leave Americans unfairly exposed to unwarranted or malicious prosecution; so strengthen the safeguards, they insist, rather than trying to wreck the whole process.

This kind of argument is based on two very serious mistakes. The first is a delusion about goals. The premise here is that the United States and its putative U.N. partners have the same priorities, or at any rate that the goals they have in common matter more to them than the aims that divide them. After September 11, in fact, one might have hoped that this were true: The whole civilized world, it is clear, really does face a terrible common foe. Yet many countries still see the main purpose of the U.N. and its satellites as not to meet such threats but to contain the power of the United States. French diplomacy before the Iraq war made it plain that France sees untrammeled American power as a greater threat to its interests than Saddam Hussein ever was. France is not alone in this.

Likewise, the real purpose of the Kyoto accord, so far as many of its advocates were concerned, was not to achieve meaningful reductions in global warming. (Fully implemented, as even its supporters admit, the accord would not have done that.) It was to punish the United States for its supposedly excessive consumption of energy. And the reluctance of America's U.N. partners to grant the full range of guarantees and concessions that the United States sought in connection with the International Criminal Court had nothing to do with fears about diminishing the court's effectiveness. It had everything to do with demonstrating that America, despite its power, would be held to account.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that intelligence and good faith prevailed around the world, and that different countries' goals and priorities were sufficiently well aligned to make formal and institutionalized multilateral approaches at least feasible. Would that clinch the argument? Not at all, because the multilateralists' second fatal error is to suppose that structured multilateralism is intrinsically superior to the unilateralist alternative of ad hoc "coalitions of the willing."

Why is this a mistake? Because the kind of institutionalized multilateralism that the U.N.'s champions dream of is inescapably undemocratic. America's government can be ultimately accountable to the American people or ultimately accountable to the U.N.; it cannot be accountable to both. Of course, America's critics regard the country's obsession with sovereignty and self-government as anachronistic and pathological. I regard it as admirable. That may be because on my side of the Atlantic, I am witnessing possibly the boldest peacetime attempt in history to dismantle national sovereignty and self-government and replace it with a formal order of rule by bureaucracy. The European Union lacks nothing for ambition, but, as its citizens are finally coming to realize, this grand project of the elites has very little interest in their democratic rights.

Take a good look at Europe. There you see multilateralism in full bloom. Give me democratic unilateralism any day.