Why the U.S. can't go it alone

The always brilliant Tony Judt (don't miss the Road to Nowhere links) uses a review of
The Paradox of American Power: Why The World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone to discuss how this country's focus on unilaterism and military power over all other forms of persuasion are making us less able to influence world affairs.

I will summarize his points (all emphasis is mine, not his):

  • The US is often a delinquent international citizen. It is reluctant to join international initiatives or agreements, whether on climate warming, biological warfare, criminal justice, or women's rights; the US is one of only two states (the other being Somalia) that have failed to ratify the 1989 Convention on Children's Rights. The present US administration has "unsigned" the Rome Treaty establishing an International Criminal Court and has declared itself no longer bound by the Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties, which sets out the obligations of states to abide by treaties they have yet to ratify.

  • Focusing on the ICC treaty: There are only 700 Americans currently serving overseas in UN peacekeeping missions (out of a total of 45,000 personnel), and the ICC already contained clauses, inserted explicitly to mollify Washington, that virtually exempted UN missions from prosecution. Washington's stance is particularly embarrassing because it makes a mockery of American insistence upon the international pursuit and prosecution of terrorists and other political criminals; and because it provides American cover for countries and politicians who have real cause to fear the new Court. All of our allies on the UN Security Council voted against the US on this matter; meanwhile Washington's opposition to the International Criminal Court is shared by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Israel, and Egypt.

  • In Nye's view, international relations today resemble a particularly intricate game of three-dimensional chess. On one level there is hard military power, a terrain where the US reigns uncontested. On the second level there is economic power and influence: in this field the European Union already challenges the US in trade, the regulation of monopolies, and the setting of industrial standards, and outdistances America in telecommunications, environmental policy, and much else. At the third level Nye places the multifarious and proliferating nongovernmental activities shaping our world: currency flows, migration, transnational corporations, NGOs, international agencies, cultural exchanges, the electronic media, the Internet, and terrorism. Non-state actors communicate and operate across this terrain virtually unconstrained by government interference; and the power of any one state, the US included, is readily frustrated and neutralized.

    The trouble with the people in charge of shaping and describing US policy today, according to Nye, is that they are only playing at the first level, their vision restricted to American military firepower. In his words, "Those who recommend a hegemonic American foreign policy based on such traditional descriptions of American power are relying on woefully inadequate analysis."

  • The European Union (including its candidate members) currently contributes ten times more peacekeeping troops worldwide than the US, and in Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere the Europeans have taken more military casualties than the US. Fifty-five percent of the world's development aid and two thirds of all grants-in-aid to the poor and vulnerable nations of the globe come from the European Union. As a share of GNP, US foreign aid is barely one third the European average. If you combine European spending on defense, foreign aid, intelligence gathering, and policing—all of them vital to any sustained war against international crime—it easily matches the current American defense budget. Notwithstanding the macho preening that sometimes passes for foreign policy analysis in contemporary Washington, the United States is utterly dependent on friends and allies in order to achieve its goals.

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Published on August 10, 2002 12:46 AM.

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