SUNS #5155 Monday 8 July 2002 (www.sunsonline.org)
United States: Bush declares
independence - from world opinion
Washington, 4 July (IPS/Jim Lobe) -- Exactly 226 years ago,
when British colonists declared their independence from the
arbitrary and monarchical rule of their mother country, they
felt compelled to publicly justify their decision out of "a
decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind".
The heart of the Declaration of Independence, an eloquent
and groundbreaking disquisition on the nature of human
rights, was a bill of particulars against the British king
for a host of offences.
It was designed not only to rally the support of other
colonists but also to appeal to opinion overseas, including
to the British Parliament and Britain's continental rivals,
notably France, whose backing the underdog revolutionaries
desperately needed to wage their war.
Now, more than two centuries later, the administration of
President George W. Bush appears to be implicitly declaring
a second independence, only this time it isn't from any
sovereign overlord but from international law and the
multilateral system that Washington itself helped create
over the past 50 years.
Unlike in 1776, today's administration feels no obligation
to justify its path out of respect for anyone's opinion. Nor
does it feel obliged to list a bill of actual grievances it
has suffered at the hands of international law and the
multilateral system - because it doesn't have any.
"We should be proud to be alone," declared Eliot Cohen, a
geo-strategist at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced
International Studies (SAIS), when asked recently about the
administration's "Lone Ranger diplomacy".
A confidant of the Pentagon hawks who appear increasingly to
be driving the unilateralist direction of the president's
foreign policy, Cohen told 'Business Week' that "Bush will
not be swayed by diplomatic squawking (by US allies)".
"There is a sense that US policy is operating on the
premise: what choice does (the rest of the world) have?"
says Steven Miller, an expert on international security at
"The administration's worldview particularly favours the
unilateral exercise of power," he adds, "with a certain
triumphalism that is not always wise or warranted".
The comparison with the newly independent US is ironic, to
say the least. Many of its founders, aware of the sense of
"missionary spirit" that grew out of the colonies' Puritan
beginnings and subsequently boosted by its success in
winning independence, warned against overweening ambition.
They argued that the new country should focus on internal
development, particularly of its Republican and
entrepreneurial virtues, rather than going abroad "in search
of monsters to destroy", as former President John Quincy
Adams put it.
He warned that Washington's involvement in foreign
adventures risked making the US "the dictatress of the
world" as "fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly
change from liberty to force".
Until the Spanish-American War, Washington pursued a course
that stressed international law and co-operation, in part
because, as a relatively weak state, it depended on good
relations with stronger European powers.
"America's eighteenth and early nineteenth-century statesmen
sounded much like the European statesmen of today, extolling
the virtues of commerce as the soothing balm of
international strife and appealing to international law and
international opinion over brute force," says Robert Kagan,
a leading Bush backer and unilateralist at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).
Even after its rise to superpower status in the wake of
World War Two, Washington preferred a course, at least
officially, that promoted international law and multilateral
institutions, particularly as a means to restrain the Soviet
"In effect, the United States spun a web of institutions
that connected other states to an emerging
American-dominated economic and security order," says John
Ikenberry, an international relations specialist at
"But in doing so, these institutions also bound the United
States to other states and reduced - at least to some extent
- Washington's ability to engage in the arbitrary and
indiscriminate exercise of power," he adds. "But what
Washington got in return was worth the price."
Don Kraus, executive director of the Campaign for UN Reform,
elaborates: "It is the fabric of international law that the
United States has swathed itself in that has allowed it to
escape the fate suffered by great empires of the past -
being torn down by a group of middle powers."
Because Washington was willing to constrain its freedom of
action and, within that international system, pay "a decent
respect" to the opinions and interests of other powers, they
in turn concluded that it was more productive to engage the
United States than to confront it.
But "America's soaring power in the 1990s has put this open
and rule-based, post-war order to the test," Ikenberry
warned in an article published shortly after Bush withdrew
from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and three months
before the 11 September attacks on New York and the
The attacks seem to have hardened Washington's unilateralist
instincts. The administration has withdrawn from the
Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and begun construction of a
national missile defence system.
It has sabotaged a number of arms-control initiatives,
updated its nuclear doctrine to include targeting of
non-nuclear states, renounced the US signing of the Rome
Protocol that created the International Criminal Court (ICC),
and threatened to veto UN peacekeeping operations if it does
not get a blanket exemption from the ICC's jurisdiction.
"We've created a set of rules, and one of the rules is that
rules are for others," says Miller.
Two hundred twenty-six years after feeling compelled to
justify its actions "out of a decent Respect to the Opinions
of Mankind", the impression given by the Bush administration
is "Americans, 'yes', the rest of the world, 'we don't
care'," says Pierre Hassner, an international policy
specialist at the Paris International Studies and Research