With over 1,000 US deaths in Iraq, and the huge pressures that the occupation of that benighted country has put on American troops around the world, it is clear that - for the first time in decades - foreign policy issues may determine the outcome of a US presidential election. Ordinary Americans are asking themselves the same questions that people around the world are asking: how should America's global supremacy be used? What price must be paid for that supremacy to be maintained? What limits on the use of US military power are acceptable or necessary?
These have long been dominant questions in America's strategic debate. But, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, they became confused with another debate, one far more important for a US electorate that feels threatened: how can alliances and multilateral institutions protect Americans? John Kerry's great virtue has been to resist confusing the demand for security and peace with the hegemonic impulses of America the hyper-power.
Nationalist and neo-conservative currents within the Bush administration believe that unilateral action best serves US interests because it handcuffs American power the least. On this view, the security of the US can be guaranteed through energetic military action, with or without allies. Hence the Bush administration's tendency to weaken the ties of America's permanent alliances, including those that NATO represents.
Unilateral announcement of troop reductions in Europe and Asia, where US forces primarily serve (as in South Korea) to dissuade aggression, can only be seen as a corollary of this tendency. The Bush doctrine's bedrock notion is that of "pre-emptive war," a doctrine that lacks international legitimacy and that therefore can usually count on only a limited number of allies.