Why America Must Rejoin the World

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, profoundly changed the US, spawning a new focus on foreign policy. The Bush administration's new national security strategy, issued in September 2002, identifies the combination of terrorism, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction as the primary threat confronting America. Most people agree with the new focus of American foreign policy, but debate the means by which it is carried out. Is the threat so great that America must act alone, or should the US act only with the support of international institutions, even if that holds the country back? Events in Iraq illustrate this debate, but it has deeper roots.

In his 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush said about America, "If we are an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." He was right, but unfortunately many of America's friends saw the first eight months of his administration as arrogantly concerned with narrow American interests, focused on military power, and dismissive of treaties, norms, and multilateralism. The administration's peremptory announcement that the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change was "dead" contributed to a reaction from other countries that cost the US its seat on the UN Human Rights Commission.

September 11 th supposedly changed all that. Congress finally paid America's UN dues, and the president turned his efforts to building a coalition against terrorism. But the rapid success of the war in Afghanistan led some in the administration and some commentators to conclude that unilateralism works. The columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, urges a "new unilateralism" where America refuses to play the role of "docile international citizen" and unashamedly pursues its own ends.

The new unilateralists make a mistake in focusing too heavily on military power alone. True, America's military power--backed up by a budget equivalent to the next eight countries combined -is essential to global stability, and an essential part of the response to terrorism. But the metaphor of war should not blind us to the fact that suppressing terrorism will take years of patient, unspectacular civilian cooperation with other countries in areas such as intelligence sharing, police work, tracing financial flows, and cooperation among customs officials.