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PRINT EDITION
Going it alone
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Any hope that Washington was ready for multilateral diplomacy was dashed with yesterday's renunciation of the ABM Treaty, says political scientist JAMES LAXER
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By JAMES LAXER
  
  
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Friday, December 14, 2001  Page A21

F
or the past two centuries, U.S. presidents have oscillated between, on the one hand, warning the world that if you mess with America's interests we will come and get you, and profound isolationism on the other. Both the instinct to save the world and to withdraw from it grow out of the underlying American belief that the United States is a special nation with a special destiny.

How else, at a time when the U.S. has been building a global coalition against terrorism, can we explain the stunning slap at America's allies and de facto partners, that came with George W. Bush's formal announcement yesterday that Washington is jettisoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? The announcement starts a six-month clock ticking, after which the United States is free to test and deploy an antimissile defence system, even though Europe, Russia, China (and, some days, even Canada) have warned that this could trigger a dangerous, new global arms race.

The ABM announcement demolishes the conventional wisdom that the terror attacks of Sept. 11 taught the Bush administration that unilateralism is not the way to go for the United States.

Prior to Sept. 11, Mr. Bush and his advisers steered clear of multilateral agreements. Since that dark day, according to some, the administration has done a U-turn, devoting enormous energy to bringing other nations on side. Almost daily, the President has been seen in Oval Office photo-ops with foreign leaders. In fact, we've had the optics of multilateralism without the substance.

True, the Bush administration pressed Congress to pay long-overdue contributions to the United Nations and called on the Senate to ratify two conventions that deal specifically with terrorism. But the White House remains adamantly opposed to the Kyoto environmental accord, the nuclear test ban treaty, the land mines treaty, an international accord to limit the world's trade in small arms, the biological warfare protocol, and the proposed International Criminal Court.

In his war on terrorism, Mr. Bush has enunciated two key principles as the cornerstone of his approach. The first is that "every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." The second principle is that the U.S. claims for itself the right to take military action against any country that harbours terrorists.

The antiterrorist coalition has been constructed in a similar spirit. The United States is using a hub and spoke system to co-ordinate its relations with members of the coalition. This means, for instance, that the Americans tell Defence Minister Art Eggleton what role they want Canada to play in the campaign. The other coalition members get the same treatment. There is no collective decision-making within the coalition, let alone accountability to the United Nations.

The goals of the coalition are also conceived in Washington. The great debate at the moment is whether to launch an assault on Saddam Hussein's Iraq once the campaign in Afghanistan is concluded. But that debate is being conducted entirely inside the Bush administration.

Washington has rested its case for military action on the right of self-defence -- the same rationale used to justify its abrogation of the ABM Treaty. In theory, the right of self-defence could be used by any nation; in practice, the United States is the only nation that has the means to mount a military campaign in any region of the world, or to imagine arming itself against missile attack. (The power to do such things rests on the fact that the United States spends as much on its military as the next eight nations combined.)

In reality, the doctrine of self-defence, proclaimed by American leaders as though it is universal, is a right that belongs to the United States alone. The Bush administration is actually proclaiming the right of global hegemonic power to intervene under its own flag anywhere in the world when its interests are threatened.

That is not to say that the United States does not pay heed to the power of other nations. In 1982, Britain sent its navy to the south Atlantic to repel the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. But that mission could only be carried out with Washington's tacit permission. In the current crisis, the Bush administration has paid special attention to Russia and China, the countries with the second and third largest military budgets.

Washington has found common ground with Moscow and Beijing in the struggles of all three countries against Islamic fundamentalism. Now, though, the diplomatic gains made with Russia and China could be jeopardized with the abrogation of the ABM Treaty.

America is a new kind of global power. While profoundly shaping the fate of every person in the world, the United States still wants to build walls around itself so it can bask in splendid isolation. A system of global or regional collective security can only work when nations submit to collective decision-making. That is exactly what the unilateralist United States is not prepared to countenance for itself.
James Laxer, a political science professor at York University, is the author of Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America.


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