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2001 In Review: After 'Unilateralist' Start, Bush Sets World Agenda

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Prior to 11 September, much of the world viewed the new administration of U.S. President George W. Bush as "unilateralist" -- narrowly pursuing America's own interests. But since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, much has changed in the tone and substance of Bush's approach.

Washington, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. President George W. Bush took office in January, leaders at home and abroad worried the former Texas governor would disengage the U.S. from key foreign commitments to pursue a policy of "American interests first."

Nearly a year later, with the U.S. leading an international coalition in a fight against global terrorism, it is ironic to recall that Bush's foreign policy was once widely labeled "unilateralist."

Bush's approach early on appeared to contrast strongly with that of former President Bill Clinton, whose Democratic team coined the term "humanitarian intervention" and hailed it as the future of American action overseas. Bush seemed intent on signaling that America would go it alone.

The new tone was evident even before Bush entered the White House.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush's future national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, suggested the U.S. might withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the Balkans -- a hot spot that Rice said was mainly Europe's problem.

Once in office, Bush's foreign policy squad -- mixing newcomers like Rice with more seasoned personnel like Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney -- kicked off its term by expelling 50 Russian diplomats in a Cold War-style spy scandal.

That confrontational approach -- so different from Clinton's -- was highlighted again in blunt statements from Washington after a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided near the Chinese coast on 1 April. Tensions between the two countries began to ease only after the U.S. crew of 24 was released from custody in southern China.

In further contrast to Clinton, the Bush team initially adopted a hands-off approach to the crisis in the Middle East. While Bush has now changed tack, sending a peace envoy to the Middle East, critics accused him of letting the region stew in its own turmoil.

Bush didn't stop there. In the first half of 2001, he threatened to block or withdraw from several treaties with broad international support.

Chief among these was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement. Russia and much of the world see the accord as a cornerstone of arms-control efforts and credit it with preventing a costly arms build-up during the Cold War. But Bush consistently urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to scrap the accord or face a possible American unilateral withdrawal.

This comment from October is just one example of Bush's prodding: "I have told Mr. Putin that the ABM treaty is outdated, antiquated, and useless, and I hope that he will join us in a new strategic relationship."

Bush's team said it would decline to sign the Kyoto pact on global warming, as well as United Nations accords on biological weapons and small arms. Significantly, it also suggested America would pursue a missile-defense shield regardless of European or Russian objections.

French President Jacques Chirac called Bush's stance on Kyoto "disappointing and worrying." European media dubbed Bush, an ex-oilman, the "toxic Texan" for his apparent disregard for the environment.

The situation became so serious that Rice had to publicly deny last June that there was a rift between Brussels and Washington over Bush's approach. European Commission President Romano Prodi -- days before Bush's first official trip to Europe on 14 June -- said he hoped the U.S. could "resist the temptation" of unilateralism.

Indeed, by early September, analysts warned that European and U.S. differences over a host of issues -- arms control, trade, the environment, and the death penalty -- had put the trans-Atlantic relationship at serious risk.

But such talk ceased on 11 September.

When terrorists struck, killing more than 3,000 people, Bush was forced to launch a historic diplomatic bid to build world support for his war on terrorism, eventually assembling an antiterror coalition linking dozens of countries.

As the U.S. and its European allies closed ranks to fight terrorism, Washington's policy toward other nations, especially Russia, appeared transformed -- as did the image of Bush, from a foreign affairs amateur to a leader of world stature.

Russia's claim that it was fighting a terror insurgency of its own in Chechnya found a newly receptive ear in Washington. The Bush team toned down its criticism of the war in Chechnya and succeeded in winning Russian support for stationing U.S. troops in formerly Soviet Central Asia -- something that would have been unthinkable just weeks before.

The two leaders celebrated their new partnership over barbecued spare ribs at Bush's Texas ranch in November.

It's not yet clear how profound the Bush transformation has been and whether once the immediate terror threat is ended, the president will return to a policy that at least appears unilateralist in its aims.

Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, says Bush was only ever "selectively unilateralist" and that the president knew all along he would have to cooperate with other countries. Carpenter says 11 September only amplified that trend:

"What you had was an administration that was selectively unilateralist, and I think that is the way the administration intended to conduct its foreign policy throughout its tenure in office. 11 September altered that somewhat, in that the administration felt that it had to pursue cooperative initiatives to a greater extent than it had anticipated when it came into office. But it is simply a difference of degree, not of kind."

Carpenter says this is clear in looking at the transformation of the U.S.-Russia relationship: "You could see [Bush] reaching out to President Putin in his first meeting [in Slovenia in June], and U.S. policy toward Russia on the missile-defense issue, on cuts in offensive armaments, and a number of other issues. That kind of change was well underway before 11 September. 11 September just intensified and accelerated a trend that was already in place."

James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank, suggests Bush's unilateralist style helped him in dealing with Russia: "When you look at the unilateralism that runs through the Bush administration, in some cases it's unilateralism that's providing bargaining leverage. One can see that in the issue of national missile defense."

Lindsay, however, suggests that international criticism of Bush -- especially on issues like the environment -- has been only temporarily hushed out of solidarity after the terrorist attacks.

With Russia nearly on board with Bush's strategic agenda, analysts say that other countries have been compelled to withhold their objections to Bush's security demands -- as well as their criticism of an inexperienced president who seemed intent on "going it alone."