The tragedy of 9/11 inflicted on the American body politic a pain that will not ease and aroused an anger not easily appeased. The world grieved with America, understood its pain, shared its anger and generally supported the ensuing “war on terrorism.” The sympathy and goodwill is in danger of being dissipated. Outsiders had hoped that the tragedy of 9/11 would lead America to rediscover the virtues of multilateralism. The opposite happened instead: Washington felt liberated from the need to make any concessions to multilateralism.

This produced a mini-crisis last July with regard to the International Criminal Court. The tension and contradiction between unilateralism and multilateralism have come to a head again over Iraq. The Bush address to the General Assembly in September was less an American concession to UN multilateralism than a demand for international capitulation in the face of the US threat to go to war.

This is justified by the charge of Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. How do we justify the paradox of the state with the most powerful arsenal of one type of WMD (nuclear weapons) threatening to use force to stop others from acquiring any one of the three types of WMD?

In addition, Washington is refining the critical roles that nuclear weapons play in its military doctrines and strategies. Under the proposed new targeting system of “adaptive planning” based on “offensive deterrence,” it proclaimed the option of launching a pre-emptive strike in future contingencies with precision-guided conventional bombs or “special purpose” nuclear weapons against hostile countries that pose a threat, either imminent or apprehended, of a WMD attack on the United States. Nuclear weapons are thus stealthily advancing up the ladder of escalation from the weapon of last resort to a weapon of choice, matching the shift from wars of self-defense to wars of choice.

But can the threshold of nuclear weapons use be lowered without thereby also lowering the threshold of proliferation? Does contemplating and preparing for the use of nuclear weapons with lower yield and reduced fallout against an anticipated WMD threat constitute a preparatory step too far? Mission creep for such weapons–extending their role from deterrence solely against nuclear weapons to countering all WMD–has two consequences: It lumps together biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in one conceptually fuzzy category, and it weakens the nuclear taboo. Why should Iran, which has suffered from missile-launched chemical attacks, not have the same right to nuclear defense?

Moreover, the proclamation of an essentially imperial doctrine of unchallengeable military supremacy and “full-spectrum dominance” will greatly magnify the allure of nuclear weapons as weapons of defense-cum-deterrence for poor/weak countries. Accepting the permanent dominance of any one group is contrary to human nature. The combination of US high-tech superiority, reliance on long-distance, over-the-horizon warfare and casualty aversion adds value to nuclear weapons as leveraging tools that can affect the calculus of US military decisions. No one is likely to challenge Washington as such in the foreseeable future, but some will want to acquire the means to make the United States pause before attacking them, and there is no better means to do this than deliverable nuclear weapons.

It defies history, common sense and logic to believe that a group of countries can keep a permanent monopoly on any class of weaponry. It is difficult to convince others of the futility of nuclear weapons when some demonstrate their utility by the very fact of possession and doctrines of usability. If the United States, whose military expenditures will equal those of all other countries in the world combined after the increases recently announced have taken effect, can make a persuasive case to retain nuclear weapons, then such an argument should be even easier for those countries that live in insecure neighborhoods and lack the panoply of conventional military tools.

The UN, not very good at fighting wars, has been especially good at an unremitting effort to find political, economic, legal and institutional alternatives to military force. The strategic logic underpinning multilateral institutions is of a world united in action on the road to a common destiny. The pursuit of multilateral agreements is based on a careful judgment that such agreements contribute to separate national interests.

In-your-face rejection of these agreements, rooted in America’s self-conception as a virtuous power that should not be bound to rules that apply to everyone else, is damaging to long-term US interests. Do American policy-makers really believe they can construct a world in which all others have to obey universal norms and rules but Washington can opt out whenever it likes from whatever it dislikes? Alternatively, do they really believe that a world in which every country retreated into unilateralism would be a better guarantee of US national security than multilateral accords?

The UN is the main embodiment of the principle of multilateralism and the principal vehicle for the pursuit of multilateral goals. It is the symbol of our hopes and dreams for a better world, where weakness can be compensated for by justice and fairness, and the law of the jungle is replaced by the rule of law. The UN lies at the center of contemporary institutions of global governance. Even the “war on terrorism” requires international cooperation among law enforcement, drug enforcement, border control and financial regulatory authorities. Such cooperation is greatly facilitated by international agreements, rules and regimes.

After World War II, the United States was the chief architect of the normative structure of world order based on the international rule of law. There was, alongside this, deep and widespread confidence in the United States as a fundamentally trustworthy, balanced and responsible custodian of world order, despite occasional lapses or eccentricities. In the past couple of years, the United States has engaged in a systematic belittling and hollowing out of a whole series of arms control and disarmament agreements, and of efforts at ushering in new ones. Arguably, it has also been engaged in a similar frontal assault on the principle of global norms–from arms control, climate change and international criminal justice to conventions against torture and for the rights of children and planned parenthood; and on the very concept of an international community. How, then, can it be the chief enforcer of global norms on behalf of the international community?

In sum, Washington seriously underestimates how its own policies and actions contribute to a worsening of the proliferation challenge. The world has signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; Washington exempts itself from NPT clauses requiring nuclear disarmament. Small states put their faith in the protection of international law; Washington disdainfully dismisses international law as a minor inconvenience, not a bar to any action being contemplated. Small states pin their hopes for security from predatory powers on a functioning UN system; the United States declares the UN to be irrelevant unless supportive of what Washington desires. Small states have supported disarmament for a world that was progressively delegitimizing the unilateral use of force to settle international disputes; what are they to make of threats of unilateral pre-emptive strikes? As Washington throws off fetters on the unilateral use of force and the universal taboo on nuclear weapons, it simultaneously increases the attraction of nuclear weapons for others–like North Korea–and diminishes the force of global norms and regimes in restraining such countries’ nuclear ambitions.

There will indeed be occasions and opponents where diplomacy must be backed by the credible threat of force, but war for the wrong reasons will delegitimize the instrument itself. The key to getting the use of force right lies in due process (collective decision-making), due authority (the United Nations) and due diligence (just-war principles). For then force will indeed be put to the service of law.