A Man for All Seasons

Thursday, January 30, 2003
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this is an image

President George W. Bush has demonstrated impressive flexibility in reshaping his approach to foreign policy to deal with the new international challenges brought to the fore by the terrorist attacks.

Before September 11, President Bush embraced a humble mission for the United States in the world. This country, he believed, had to “preserve the peace” by seeking to maintain the basic balance of power between nations. Now Bush has abandoned the preservation of the old system. Instead, he seeks to change it by promoting liberty, freedom, and eventual democracy in countries ruled by autocrats. In doing so, Bush lines up next to “idealists” or “liberals” such as Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, and Immanuel Kant and implicitly distances himself from realists focused solely on the balance of power such as Richard Nixon, Thucydides, and his own father, the 41st president.

In a second remarkable change, Bush has become a supporter, at least rhetorically, of nation building. Before September 11, the Bush administration derided nation building as a Clinton-era distraction from the more important issues in international politics. Now Bush has clearly identified the connection between rebuilding the failed state of Afghanistan and American national security interests. If Congress approves his proposals, Bush will be the author of the greatest increase in the American foreign aid budget since John F. Kennedy.

Third, the Bush administration before September 11 expressed disdain for multilateral institutions. But in a speech last September before the United Nations, Bush outlined an ambitious proposal for revitalizing the United Nations and increasing American cooperation with this most important multilateral institution.

To be credible, President Bush needs to do more to demonstrate his commitment to the promotion of democracy, nation building, and multilateralism. Bush must show that he wants to see political reform in Saudi Arabia as well as in Iraq. Words about promoting liberty ring hollow if they apply to only some people. To show seriousness on nation building, Bush should press for increases in the peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. Those working to rebuild Afghanistan unanimously complain that the lack of security throughout the country is the number-one impediment to their work.

To make credible his pledge to reinvigorate the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, the president should complement his pledge to enforce U.N. resolutions on Iraq with a rededication of American participation in other international regimes. Bush could start with the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, an agreement that American officials helped craft.

Because many are suspicious of the president’s recent embrace of democracy promotion, nation building, and multilateralism, he must demonstrate a sustained commitment to his new foreign policy strategy. If Bush has shown a willingness to consider new ideas about foreign policy, his critics—both at home and abroad—have demonstrated amazing conservatism. In a reversal of positions, those most opposed to Bush’s new approach to foreign policy now seek to “preserve the peace” by defending the status quo. The core flaw in this is the assumption that the old international system was working. It was not.

Before September 11, the United Nations had failed to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq. If the international community cannot act to execute its will when dealing with such grave issues as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, then it has no credibility on anything. The international community is ineffective in dealing with despotism, poverty, and human rights violations because it seeks to preserve state sovereignty above all else. Fifty years ago, this was a progressive idea, which brought about the end of colonialism. Today, it is a regressive idea, which preserves the sovereignty of dictators who defy international law, denying the sovereignty of their people.

It is odd to hear the international community invoked so often as the defender of high ideals and then see representatives from Iraq in the U.N. General Assembly. Should the United States really be a member of the same organization that includes Saddam Hussein? Eventually, autocracy should go the way of slavery and colonialism as simply unacceptable.

To be effective, the international community and the United States must rely on each other. U.N. Security Council resolutions can be enforced only if the United States helps enforce them. The United Nations can only assist in the building of new states and prevent the destruction of vulnerable regimes if the United States participates and vice versa. The international community has no army and no economy, but even the mighty and rich United States can’t afford to remake the world alone. For an effective partnership, change has to come from both sides.