A Real War on Terrorism

The Mindless Altruism of Unilateralism
Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 11 2002 10:42 AM

A Real War on Terrorism

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This is the seventh in a nine-part series on how America should fight the war on terrorism.

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Why do so many Middle Eastern Muslims aim their dislike at America, when only 50 years ago Britain and France were the preferred targets? The standard foreign-policy explanations—American support for the Shah of Iran, for Israel, for current Arab authoritarians, and so on—have merit. But there is something bigger going on, too. Namely, Proposition No. 9: We are seeing, and will continue to see, the globalization of resentment. Thanks to television and other technologies, the world has become a small town, even a neighborhood, and America is by far the richest kid in it. Do you remember how you felt about the richest kid in your neighborhood?

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

There's a chance that you liked him or her. It is not the ineluctable fate of rich kids to be resented by everyone. However, it is their fate to be resented pretty widely unless they comport themselves with careful attention to their inherent resentability. Here America is failing—and failure could really start to chafe as popularity, thanks to technological evolution, becomes more and more essential to national security.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush said something that, post-9/11, sounds prescient. He said the world's most powerful nation ran the risk of being seen as arrogant; he pledged that under his leadership America would become "a humble nation." Yet since he took office, America's reputation for arrogance—painstakingly built up over decades by countless American politicians, tourists, and crybaby tennis stars—has only grown. "Today," Michael Hirsh wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, "Washington's main message to the world seems to be, Take dictation."

Hence Policy Prescription No. 9: Honor President Bush's pledge—make America a humble nation. Sometimes this will just be a matter of rhetorical fine-tuning. It would be nice if Bush started fewer sentences about the future behavior of other nations with "I expect ..." and more with "It is America's hope ..." But for the most part, convincing the world of American humility will be a meatier endeavor. It will mean actually taking into account the views and interests of other nations, just as we expect other nations to take ours into account; it will mean providing cooperation as well as seeking it.  

The technical term for this, of course, is "multilateralism," and to urge the Bush administration toward it isn't exactly to stake out virgin op-ed turf. Bush has been scolded for unilateralism on issues ranging from global warming (rejecting the Kyoto Protocol) to war crimes (rejecting the International Criminal Court) to war (seeming to disdain U.N. authorization of an Iraq invasion). But the standard op-ed arguments undersell multilateralism's virtues.

The routinely cited virtue is that if America cooperates with other nations, and takes their views seriously, they'll be more likely to do the many things America asks in its war on terrorism, such as surveillance or extradition or freezing dubious funds; unilateralism, in contrast, will eventually leave America stranded, needing friends and having none. But this argument, while valid, overlooks a second problem with Bush's unilateralism, and a subtle but deep contradiction in his foreign policy.

Bush typically justifies his coolness toward international agreements in terms of strict national interest. America, he says, would bear a disproportionate share of the burdens of these agreements; European and other nations would get off cheap and thus be, as economists say, "free riders." This is in some cases true. Even Bill Clinton, liberal multilateralist, couldn't reach a final agreement with Europe over how the costs of the Kyoto Protocol would be distributed. The free rider issue pervades multilateral negotiations, and any responsible president should worry about it.

But Bush's repeated failure to even suggest alternatives to the high-minded treaties he rejects has the perverse effect of letting Europe be a free rider in a larger sense; he is exacerbating a long-standing American image problem that ultimately works to Europe's benefit. Increasingly, in the iconography of globalization, America is the robber baron and Europe the conscientious reformer; or America is the bully and Europe the kind constable. So, Europe, though fully enjoying the benefits of globalization, incurs less than its share of the wrath that globalization (rightly or wrongly) arouses. When the French farmer and anti-globalization activist José Bové is looking for a building to vandalize, he chooses a McDonald's. If his disciples someday inflict destruction on a larger scale, expect them to stick with the same nationality, unless America's image undergoes the kind of make-over that the Bush administration is emphatically not engineering.

Of course, anti-globalization activists and radical environmentalists are not the terrorism threat du jour. But, as we've seen, they could be someday, as could any other group intensely disenchanted with the modern world. Besides, even when hatred and resentment of America don't turn into terrorism, they still complicate the war against it, to the extent that they influence the policies of foreign governments whose cooperation America needs. And across the globe, mass opinion influences policy more and more powerfully, thanks largely to the democratizing or at least pluralizing effect of information technologies. (Obviously, America shouldn't swallow a slew of dopey left-wing policies just to be popular. But in the case of global warming, as well as such hot-button issues as the export of hormone-treated beef and genetically modified foods, the current American positions could use at least some revising, even by the lights of mainstream economic theory.)

And, anyway, if this particular image problem—America as globalization's id, Europe as its superego—sounds only speculatively connected to the war on terrorism, there's another realm in which Bush's unilateralism has let Europe play free rider, a realm with undeniable relevance to the war on terrorism. Namely: the war on terrorism. Intent on freedom of action, the Bush team often eschews meaningful alliance in the military part of this war and so winds up sealing America's status as most hated nation in the Islamic world.

Bush's idea of a judicious division of labor is that America drops almost all the bombs on Afghanistan—inevitably doing some "collateral damage"—and then, after the war,  British troops come in and hand out most of the free food. America is Gen. Sherman, and England is Clara Barton. Similarly, the Bush administration feels that the United States—on its own, if necessary—should invade Iraq to help free the world of the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That's generous, since doing so makes the United States more likely to be the target of any such weapons that nonetheless find their way into the hands of terrorists.

Hence Policy Prescription No. 10: Share the blame. Invite allies to participate more fully in the conspicuous application of violence. Let their planes drop more bombs. And whenever possible, get formal multilateral approval for military action. If we must invade Iraq, let's at least try to provide Al Jazeera with some videotape of the French ambassador to the United Nation voting to authorize the invasion. 

Administration Iraq hawks might laugh at this prospect: the French voting to back an invasion of Iraq? But if President Bush had taken advantage of the moral and political capital America possessed right after 9/11, he almost surely could have gotten the Security Council to authorize an Iraq attack with at least some degree of explicitness. To be sure, the attack would have been authorized to proceed only in the event that Iraq continued to rebuff U.N. weapons inspections. But let's face it: As much as many Bush advisers would like to skip an inspections ultimatum and just cut to the regime change, invading Iraq won't in any event be politically doable if Saddam Hussein unconditionally readmits U.N. inspectors. So, Bush might as well, all along, have cast his war plans as being on behalf of the U.N.-mandated weapons inspections, and thus on behalf of international law. Instead, by insisting on regime change regardless of the regime's future behavior, and casting the war as part of a new doctrine of pre-emptive invasion, Bush has cast America as an international outlaw.

This sort of public-relations blunder is not what you'd expect from a man who promised to give America a worldwide reputation for humility. It's what you'd expect from someone who hasn't truly grasped how the growing importance of world opinion has recast the logic of international cooperation.

Admittedly, with Iraq Bush does face a dicey version of the free rider problem: The free riders don't acknowledge that they're free riders; European nations don't believe—or at least don't admit to believing—that they'll benefit from a war against Iraq. But if Saddam Hussein is indeed as clear a threat to the whole world as the Bush administration claims, then this predicament arguably reflects a failure of pedagogy and world leadership on Bush's part. (Besides, there may be ways of educating free riders even at this late date.)

Of course, we're assuming here that the administration's public position is its private one—that it honestly believes that Saddam Hussein is a threat to Europeans and Americans alike. The administration may in truth have a different view: that Europe is right to see the risks of inaction as low because Europe isn't a likely target of large-scale terrorist attacks, anyway; it's Americans who will die if Saddam doesn't.   

In this view, war in Iraq wouldn't entail a free rider problem; America would be invading Iraq single-handedly because America is terrorist enemy No. 1. But in that event, the logic behind war is a little circular. After all, the reason America is terrorist enemy No. 1 is that we keep doing things like invade Iraq. And even when we proceed in a more ostensibly multilateral fashion, we insist on doing all the conspicuous heavy lifting ourselves. According to standard accounts, it was because Osama Bin Laden saw American troops in Saudi Arabia after the Persian Gulf War—not French troops, not British troops—that he became obsessed with America and wound up destroying the World Trade Center.

This circular logic has a rough parallel in the case of the International Criminal Court. The administration fears the ICC because it thinks that the court would become a channel for worldwide anti-Americanism—that ICC prosecutors would unfairly single out Americans for prosecution. Yet one major source of this anti-Americanism is that America keeps refusing to do things like join the International Criminal Court.

The administration also has a more specific fear about the ICC: that past American officials could be prosecuted for such adventures as supporting the 1973 Chilean coup that ushered in the era of Augusto Pinochet. But here, too, the logic is broadly circular: We fear joining a multilateral legal system because in the past we've followed extralegal (a polite term for illegal) unilateral policies.

At some point we have to break the vicious circle and quit citing our past unilateralism, or its consequences, as the reason for avoiding future multilateralism. Because the globalization of resentment, combined with the growing downside of unpopularity, means that, more and more, we're going to have to use multilateral institutions to diffuse wrath. Allies have many uses, and one of them is to absorb their share of shrapnel.

Suppose, for example, that we do ever find Osama Bin Laden alive. Presumably he'll be tried in an American court. Where else would the Bush administration have him tried—in the International Criminal Court? But, actually, an ICC trial would better serve American interests. First of all, Bin Laden's residual band of supporters would then have more trouble convincing potential recruits that his conviction had been an American miscarriage of justice. Second, the security nightmare accompanying the trial—complete with the quite real threat of high-casualty terrorism—would be The Hague's problem, not New York's.

And why shouldn't it be? If indeed the war on terrorism is in the long run a campaign on behalf of global civilization—and it is—why should America shoulder all the burden? This seems like a reasonable question, but there's no hard evidence that it's ever occurred to anyone in the Bush administration.

The irony is that this administration prides itself on its cool rationality (an attitude especially evident in the three most influential players on the Bush foreign-policy team—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz). The Bushies dismiss multilateralism as a feel-good policy favored by large-hearted,woolly-minded liberals, people who would be out of their depth at a Rand Corporation game-theory seminar. Yet it's the Bushies who are the inept game theorists. They're failing to defend America against the parasitism of free riders. George W. Bush hasn't made America humble, but he has certainly made it a gracious host—in the biological sense of the word.

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