Has America Become a Bullyboy?

By John Rossant


American Unilateralism

and the Failure of Good Intentions

By Clyde Prestowitz

Basic Books -- 328pp -- $26

In October, 1999, candidate George W. Bush told a campaign audience: "If we are a humble nation, [other nations] will see that and respect us." Alas, if only Bush as President had stuck to that idea. Instead, in case after case, the new Administration seemed to thumb its nose needlessly at the rest of the world. It walked away from a welter of international agreements, such as one setting up an International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Indeed, Washington looked to be ditching the very concept of multilateralism, an underpinning of the global system since the end of World War II. In September, 2002, the Administration published the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, enshrining the doctrines of preemptive war and overwhelming U.S. military superiority. That document -- and the Iraq war that followed -- confirmed for many foreigners that the U.S. had become the bully of the block.

If you want to find out how the U.S. lost the once ample reserves of political goodwill it held around the world, Clyde Prestowitz' persuasive and well-documented Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions is the book for you. In the view of Prestowitz, a self-styled small-government conservative and a chief trade negotiator with Japan during the Reagan years, the Bush Administration is squarely to blame. "The imperial project of the so-called neo-conservatives is not conservatism at all but radicalism, egotism, and adventurism articulated in the stirring rhetoric of traditional patriotism," he writes. Compared with that language, criticisms of U.S. policy by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sound positively tame. Don't count on Prestowitz getting a job in a second Bush Administration.

The best part of this often passionate volume describes how America's intertwined energy and environmental policies have become a lightning rod for global criticism. America's love affair with oil -- it's not too strong to call it an addiction -- goes way back. The world oil industry had its origins in Western Pennsylvania in the 1850s. Then, for decades beginning in the 1890s, the discovery of huge deposits in Texas and Oklahoma made the U.S. into the Saudi Arabia of the era. But already by the late 1940s, Washington was worrying about a rising tide of oil imports and a growing energy dependency.

America, the birthplace of Big Oil, also gave rise to the environmentalist movement. In the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau communed with nature on Walden Pond, and in 1872, Congress established the first national park in the world, Yellowstone. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, awakened the nation to the problems of chemical pollution. In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, the world's first.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, there had been a shift in the epicenter of concern about ecology. Environmentalism had taken root as a political movement in Europe. Meanwhile, intent that nothing should derail its unprecedented economic expansion, the U.S. began opposing any attempts to impose restraints on carbon emissions. Although Prestowitz is critical of U.S. environmental policies, he also points out that Europeans used the Kyoto Treaty negotiations to score lots of cheap shots off the big bad U.S., as this played well to their domestic audiences. If there was a prologue to the policy split over Iraq, it was here.

In April, 2001, the freshly inaugurated George Bush announced he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Treaty, a decision that galvanized the Europeans more than almost any other move by Washington. "The Kyoto decision," says Prestowitz, "became a metaphor for American profligacy, unconcern, and arrogance."

Prestowitz' litany of U.S. snubs, gaffes, and heavy-handedness overseas makes for depressing reading. Almost without fail, Bush displayed a tin ear in responding to the concerns of the international community. Yet Prestowitz sometimes exaggerates. While he admits that many of the seeds of global anti-Americanism were planted during the Cold War -- when expediency led to alliances with such unsavory dictators as Indonesia's kleptocratic and sanguinary Suharto -- Prestowitz at times seems to suggest that America's imperialistic overreach began with the Bush Administration. Moreover, the U.S. is still attached to the principle of working multilaterally with other countries, as shown by recent efforts to win global support for the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And when internationalism stalls, it's not only the U.S. that's to blame.

What to do now? Some of Prestowitz' prescriptions make sense. For example, given that 60% of world oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf, a Manhattan Project to develop alternative energy seems like a good notion. Other positions are less sound, including his support for a single European Union defense authority. It's true that the U.S. often seems to keep Japan and Europe in a "state of extended adolescence" militarily. And the Pentagon frequently complains about European military weakness while doing almost nothing to assist the region's aerospace companies. But would a single EU defense authority always be congenial to U.S. interests? If the French ran it, probably not. And as for his suggestion that the U.S. now adopt "an unprecedented strategy of diminishing our geopolitical power," it's hard to see any Administration, no matter how humble, buying into that.

Rossant is European regional editor.

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