The hawks around George W. Bush believed the United States had been in a slow decline for at least thirty years. Their remedy called for the United States to flex its considerable military muscle, abandon all pretense of multilateral consultations with hesitant and weak allies, and proceed to intimidate both friends and enemies alike. Then it would be in the world driver’s seat again. Instead, Iraq is a growing drain of lives and money, traditional allies are profoundly estranged, national security is more precarious than ever and economic power continues to erode. In short, the hawks have achieved the opposite of everything they intended on the world scene, except toppling Saddam Hussein.
Democratic presidential candidates and even Republican moderates are now calling for a return to the multilateralist foreign policy of previous administrations. They want to bring back the golden era of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Madeleine Albright. Is this a plausible alternative?
For the past thirty years, every administration, from Nixon to Clinton, including Reagan and Bush’s father, pursued the same basic strategy, a policy I call “soft multilateralism.” This policy had three elements: (1) offer our major allies “partnership”; (2) push hard to persuade potential nuclear powers not to “proliferate”; (3) persuade governments of the South that their economic future lay not in state-managed “development” but in export-oriented “globalization.” None of these policies were entirely successful, but each was at least partially so.
Let’s look at each of the three elements. First, when the United States found it was no longer economically dominant but had become merely one part of a so-called triad (the United States, Western Europe and Japan/East Asia), each more or less competitive with the others, it had to change the way it handled these allies. Instead of treating them as subordinates it sought their collaboration as “partners.” The real object was to slow down any and all emerging ideas that would permit political independence (such as, for example, creating a European army outside of NATO). The United States used two arguments with its allies to keep them in line. One was the continuing need to have a common front vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The second was their common interest in repelling attempts by developing countries in the South to reorganize the world-economy in a direction that was less favorable to the North.
The allies went along, but only partially. For example, in the 1980s Western European leaders (even Margaret Thatcher) signed a gas pipeline deal with the Soviet Union over US protests. But in general, European steps were timid. What undermined US political strength the most was the demise of the Soviet Union, which removed the major emotional argument that had kept the Western Europeans and the East Asians in line. It was only then that South Korea could launch a “sunshine policy” toward North Korea, against US wishes. In response, the United States pushed the expansion eastward of both NATO and the European Union, thereby bringing into these institutions countries that were in no mood to become politically independent of the United States and served therefore as a drag on such aspirations by the previous members. Glass half full.