Commentary: Foreign Policy: Bush Is Half Right

By Bruce Nussbaum

Two new realities of life--terrorism and American military dominance--are restructuring the global order. Containment and mutually assured destruction, cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, can't work when suicidal terrorist groups, rather than rational states, are the major threat to the nation. And traditional balance-of-power tactics are meaningless when the U.S. spends more on defense than all of the next 20 nations. Indeed, by 2005, America's military budget will be greater than the rest of the world's combined.

Given this radically changed era, the opportunity to set forth a new American foreign policy--as required by Congress from each President--is a welcome event. Unfortunately, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, a 31-page report to the Congress by President George W. Bush, is not just disappointing, it's disparaging to friends and allies around the globe. Disdainful arrogance is hardly the right posture for the leader of the free world, but that is the tone of much of the report.

The tragedy is that the Texas-style swagger and go-it-alone message of the document overwhelms its many keen analytical insights and intelligent policy suggestions. The National Security Strategy paper could create the foundation for a new set of international standards to replace those that governed the Cold War. But its braggadocio undermines the seriousness of its suggestions.

Despite loose talk today about a benign new Pax Americana, many Americans and many more people overseas are uncomfortable with the image of an America acting unilaterally around the world, breaking treaties at will, giving lip service to allies and international institutions while claiming for itself the sole legitimate use of force anywhere, anytime it feels threatened. That is the text and subtext of much of the National Security Strategy report.

There certainly have been moments in U.S. history when imperialism has been in vogue. Nineteenth century Manifest Destiny is the most striking example. But the overall arc of U.S. history, from the birth of the nation in revolution against the British to battles against Spanish, German, and Soviet empires, has been to oppose the concept. Imperialism, even compassionate imperialism, just isn't part of this country's DNA.

The Bush Doctrine laid out in the National Security paper threatens to unravel the fabric of international community at a time when that community is needed to combat terrorism and restore health to a deteriorating world economy. Ironically, this international community is the very one the U.S. has spent decades building to spread American values of rule-of-law, democracy, and free markets all over the globe. It is the community U.S. corporations and consumers rely on as they turn increasingly to China for high-tech and consumer goods. By working through institutions ranging from NATO to NAFTA, from the International Monetary Fund to the World Trade Organization, the U.S. has been able to expand its power and influence via global consensus, not intimidation. Yet this system is threatened by a global backlash against perceived American unilateralism and arrogance.

The Bush Doctrine, as expressed in the report, has three basic tenets. First, the U.S. is free to take preemptive action against terrorists and states that have weapons of mass destruction. Second, no country or combination of countries will ever be allowed to challenge U.S. military superiority. Third, unilateral measures are better than international treaties and organizations in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. In short, the Bush Doctrine declares that America will no longer be constrained by the traditional norms and rules of the international community.

Each of the three policy prescriptions has its own logic--and its own problems. Every nation assumes it can use preemptive action on rare occasions to thwart attacks or even to further the national interest. French and Belgian paratroopers have intervened in Africa for years. Britain went into the Falklands.

But preemption as a core security doctrine wreaks havoc with traditional norms of self-defense. Even Israel's destruction of the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, probably preventing Iraq from having nuclear weapons during the Persian Gulf War, brought howls of condemnation from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Placing preemption at the center of security policy leaves the world wondering what the clear-cut rules for war are. The Bush Doctrine doesn't detail any new rules of engagement.

Nations are already rushing to create their own. Russia is reformulating its war rationale against Chechnya in terms of preempting terrorists. China is adopting the language of preemption in battling Muslim separatists. Will India follow in Kashmir or against Pakistan? And what of Israel? An American strategic policy of preemption without internationally agreed-upon rules could increase global violence and instability.

The notion of conditional sovereignty, introduced by the National Security Strategy paper, may undermine stability as well. Since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, the sovereignty of states has been sacrosanct. There is international agreement that nations are open to attack only when they do something that threatens or harms others. Under the Bush Doctrine, however, nations that simply amass weapons of mass destruction forfeit their sovereignty. Iraq, of course, is the first example of this policy. Its case is relatively clear, having violated no fewer than 19 U.N. resolutions to disarm. But who is the second? And what about nations whose citizens help finance terrorism, such as Saudi Arabia? The rules are fuzzy.

The second tenet of Bush's new U.S. security policy--to freeze current U.S. global superiority in place forever--is problematic, too. Here, the focus is on China, which is seen in Washington as the next rival to America. China already has intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, and its arsenal is sure to grow larger. Every rising economic power in the past has bulked up militarily as well. The Bush Doctrine would attempt to freeze China's position in the world pecking order--a policy sure to be resisted in Beijing. Indeed, it's hard to see how two countries as integrated economically as China and the U.S. can be governed in their international relations by a policy designed to keep one inferior militarily. Here again, the Bush Doctrine could generate more instability, not less.

So could the tearing up of treaties. This policy, of course, is of a piece with previous Bush Administration actions in unilaterally walking out of the Kyoto Accords on global warming, abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and putting the U.S. above the International Criminal Court. Certainly, all such international agreements have flaws. But America, as a world power, is obliged to make them better, not simply dump them. The U.S. has often disagreed with its friends and allies. But it has rarely shown them the disrespect of simply stalking out. In fighting the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush understood that leadership requires persistence and quiet strength, not intemperate impatience.

To its credit, the Bush National Security Strategy document for the first time explains why a new foreign policy is needed to confront the realities of the day. It rightly points out that failed states, states that harbor weapons of mass destruction, and states that shelter terrorists are the greatest dangers to peace today. The report raises two key questions: What threats permit a nation to take preemptive action? And what is the threshold of bad behavior that causes a country to lose its sovereignty?

Unfortunately, the National Security paper assumes that only America is permitted to ask and answer these critical questions. A better way would be for the Bush Administration to lead an international effort that engages America's friends and allies in this discussion. The document rightly sets out principles for a new international standard of conduct. We now need to clarify and codify them. An international consensus on preemption and sovereignty would greatly reduce uncertainty and anxiety about U.S. intentions and actions. It would make U.S. foreign policy more understandable, predictable, and sustainable.

America has historically found it projects power best by exercising it through international institutions operating with shared values and goals. Much has changed since September 11. This hasn't.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor.

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