Internationalism - Retreat

There is a larger issue here: the last third of the twentieth century witnessed a general deterioration of support for internationalism. The causes were many. They have included the upsurge of nationalism that accompanied the appearance of the evangelical religious right; disillusionment concerning foreign entanglements stemming from the American defeat in Vietnam; the decline of the industrial economy resulting from foreign competition in low-wage countries; the failure of the UN in highly publicized peacekeeping ventures (most importantly, Somalia and Bosnia during the early and mid-1990s); the increase in international terrorism; and the rise of anti-American policies at the UN (seen in programs like the New International Economic Order of 1972 and the New World Information and Communications Order of 1978). A former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described the late twentieth century as "the twilight of internationalism."

He may have exaggerated the reaction against internationalism, but he was onto something important. Since 1994, the United States has sharply curtailed its support for UN peacekeeping missions. Facing criticism of U.S. peacekeeping activity in both Somalia and Bosnia, President William Jefferson Clinton sharply scaled down American support (including both military and financial support) for these missions. Some 74,000 peacekeeping troops from seventy-six countries served in 1994; by 2000 this number had shrunk to less than 20,000. Presidential Decision Directive 25, the most important State Department policy paper concerning peacekeeping since the Congo crisis of 1960, placed stringent criteria on peacekeeping, reversing calls for more U.S. involvement uttered just two years earlier by Bill Clinton as he campaigned for the presidency.

Nor was the disillusionment with internationalism confined to peacekeeping. After the 1970s it spread to the UN generally. During the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan began to withhold American dues to the UN, a process encouraged by Congress when it passed the 1983 Kassenbaum Amendment unilaterally cutting the American share of UN assessments. The growth of conservative nationalism during the 1990s intensified anti-UN sentiment, especially after the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995. Dues and peacekeeping assessments went unpaid, threatening America with the loss of its vote. Congressional critics of the UN more or less blackmailed the Secretariat not only into bureaucratic reform (which was overdue), but into further reducing the percentage of revenues paid by the United States. Tellingly, few internationalist voices inside or outside Washington expressed strong objections.

Other important developments during the last third of the century also reflected the decline of internationalism. In 1977 the United States withdrew from the ILO for what turned into a three-year absence. A similar story was repeated at the International Atomic Energy Agency between 1981 and 1983. Washington withdrew from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1984 and from the UN Industrial Development Organization in 1995. American officials may have rightly deplored the politicization of these agencies. Nevertheless, Washington's decisions to withdraw altogether symbolized the priority that Congress and the White House increasingly gave to national rather than international interests.

American internationalism, of course, ranges far beyond the subject of the UN. Regional organizations, most importantly the Organization of American States (OAS), which rests on three treaties ratified in 1947 and 1948, have also been a part of this story, but without the centrality or the visibility of the League of Nations or the UN. Indeed, Article 51 of the UN Charter sought to make room for regional collective defense, a matter that was central to some of the negotiations regarding the UN Charter during World War II. Moreover, American obligations under the OAS charter regarding nonintervention have occasionally clashed with U.S. Cold War objectives, a clash that led some Western Hemispheric countries to seek recourse at the UN. This was especially the case regarding crises in Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1962), and Grenada (1983). During each episode U.S. officials gave short shrift to UN and OAS objections regarding American intervention.

Washington also gave little heed to OAS demands to highlight the principle of collective economic security, which many in Washington viewed as a regional variation of the New International Economic Order. Although U.S. policymakers have never been sympathetic to resource transfers from rich nations to poor (with the possible exception of technology transfers), some of the Latin American demands for wealth sharing contributed to Washington's willingness to negotiate the free trade agreements of the 1990s. This was an area in which internationalist sentiment coincided with what every presidential administration from Reagan to George W. Bush has viewed as U.S. economic interests.

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