During the Cold War the role of the United States in creating, supporting, and operating the United Nations reflected the official abandonment of pre-occupation with legal system-building and of aversion to engagement in the political and military aspects of international affairs. Nevertheless the Cold War record contains numerous indications of the survival of these sentiments. The mood engendered by the Vietnam War was characterized by the revival of the tendency to conceive national virtue in terms of innocence rather than of responsibility. Fighting for peace, the central motif of the twentieth-century ideal of collective security, tended to be regarded not as paradoxical but as inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. Self-critical Americans are inclined to interpret the performance of the United States in the early years of the United Nations as a record of shameful manipulation and abuse of the organization, not of constructive leadership and loyal support.
The image of the responsible defender of international order was overshadowed by the image of the irresponsible adventurer and imperialist. In the eyes of self-pitying Americans, the national image was that of an overloaded and insufficiently appreciated bearer of international burdens. Those who put the matter as the abdication of a discredited tyrant and those who put it as the retirement of a weary servant were advocating the same thing: the diminution of the American role in world affairs. The appeal of this prescription was strengthened by the rise to dominance in the United Nations of political forces and factions that the United States could neither lead nor control; America's opportunity to exercise leadership declined as much as its inclination to do so.
Traditional American misgivings about involvement in international political organization was thus confirmed. Discounting the excesses of guilt and self-pity, it must nevertheless be concluded that participation in the United Nations entailed the disappointment of national hopes, the frustration of national efforts, and the dirtying of national hands. It required that the luxury of pure adherence to principle be sacrificed in favor of the more ambiguous and less satisfying morality of responsibility. The glamour of sharing in the formulation of a grand design gave way to the never-finished work of international housekeeping and the never-solved problem of managing the affairs of an almost unmanageable international system. It was not surprising that the United States failed to find this work inspiring or pleasant.
From the late 1960s to the 1980s—strongly influenced by the disastrous involvement in Vietnam, the country's subsequent severe economic problems, and, due to East-West détente, the diminishing Soviet threat—the shift from isolationism to international engagement that occurred during World War II was temporarily reversed. Instead attention was focused once more upon the dangers of overcommitment and the advantages of unilateralism. The pursuit of the national right to make foreign policy decisions unfettered by promises to, or participation by, other states was vigorously asserted by the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations. But widespread talk of "American decline" and the loss of will to preserve the standing of the United States as one of two superpowers proved premature. Instead the crisis situation brought about by the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Gulf War of 1990–1991 to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion saw impressive American leadership and the country's constructive reengagement with IOs like NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations. Above all, leading U.S. involvement in the "two-plus-four" negotiations (the two German states and the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, and France) for bringing about German unification within the NATO, European Union, and United Nations framework, along with constructive American engagement with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, did much to achieve a relatively peaceful and stable transition to the post–Cold War era.
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union in December 1991, with the United States remaining the only global superpower and by far the most powerful nation on earth, once again American suspicion of restrictive international commitments and American preference for unilateral activities increased dramatically. The symbolic significance of American membership in the United Nations and its many suborganizations was drastically reduced. Washington's reluctance to pay its full dues to the United Nations was indicative of the United States's ambiguous position toward its involvement and responsibilities in international affairs. While the American superpower was unwilling to pay its dues to the United Nations, the UN itself was in debt to some poor countries such as Bangladesh, owing it $15 million. Between 1994 and 1999 the United States built up a bill of $2.3 billion, arguing that it was asked to pay too much to the United Nations. By late 2001 Washington still owed a substantial amount to the world organization; it was committed to pay the outstanding amount of $582 million in 2001 and the remainder of $244 million in 2002. In 1999 and 2000, after passage of the Helms-Biden act, the United States paid some of the $1 billion it had promised to contribute belatedly to the UN coffers. In return the United States had asked for and obtained various UN reforms and the elimination of the rest of the American debt and a reduction of its future annual dues. (Instead of 25 percent, the United States would now finance only 22 percent of the UN's regular budget; it would also reduce its contributions for UN peacekeeping missions from 31 to 27 percent of the overall costs.) While the Senate accepted this, the repayment of the remaining debt was controversial among Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who wished to impose further conditions and asked for greater UN reforms. The attitude of the House of Representatives was partially also a reaction to the fact that the United States was voted off the UN Human Rights Commission in May 2001 by some UN members (including some of America's European allies) who were running out of patience with Washington's less than constructive role in the human rights body and the administration's general lack of support for the United Nations.
Washington's manifold policy of suspicion toward the United Nations, Franklin Roosevelt's harbinger of hope, must serve as just one example for the claim that an increasing concentration on domestic affairs and a neglect of American involvement in IOs was indeed the dominant feature of American policy in the 1990s. The few years of renewed international activism at the end of the Cold War—President George H. W. Bush's somewhat rash announcement of a "new world order" in 1990 and the occasional brief burst of peacemaking activities that characterized the foreign policy of the Clinton administration after 1993—must be regarded as exceptions rather than the rule. Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole's assessment in the mid-1990s reflected the deep and widespread American unease about IOs. Dole believed that frequently IOs either "reflect a consensus that opposes American interests or do not reflect American principles and ideas."
Yet as G. John Ikenberry wrote in 1996, while the bipolar order of the Cold War years came to an end in 1989–1991, the dense economic and political "web of multilateralist institutions" and thus the "world order created in the 1940s is still with us." Despite a tendency to focus on the domestic enjoyment of the prosperity and rising share values of the multiplying "dot com" companies of the Clinton years, the United States was unable and indeed unwilling to abdicate its global leadership. In fact globalization demanded the opposite, and the administration made sure that the United States would continue to dominate the World Bank and the increasingly important International Monetary Fund. The efforts the Clinton administration made for the full implementation and expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and for enabling China to become a member of the World Trade Organization, allowing it to enjoy most-favorednation status, are further examples that indicate that the Clinton administration had no intention to revert to economic isolationism.
The same applied to the political sphere. The Clinton administration was careful to denounce any talk of a new isolationism in the post–Cold War world, including alleged American disinterest in Europe in favor of a Pacific-first policy. In fact, despite the administration's ambiguous if not outright negative attitude to the United Nations and the many petty trade wars with the European Union, the post–Cold War world at times saw a vigorous and often constructive reengagement of the United States in many parts of the world. However, this became frequently mixed with a strong dose of American unilateralism. Clinton called this "assertive multilateralism." For example, despite much international pressure, for largely domestic reasons the Clinton administration insisted on preventing a UN treaty controlling the trade in small arms. The administration's ambiguity toward the United Nations had disastrous consequences in the East Timor crisis of 1999–2000, when the lack of U.S. support induced a withdrawal of UN troops, which in turn led to the wholesale slaughter of many East Timorese people in the Indonesian civil war. Clinton's unsuccessful and unilateral bombing raids on buildings in Sudan and elsewhere in response to terrorist attacks on American diplomatic and military targets abroad also turned out to be ill-advised; they may well have contributed to inflaming even more hatred of the United States in the Islamic world.
Still, American peacemaking efforts in cooperation with IOs during the Clinton era often added a constructive element to the frequently chaotic and very violent developments in such embattled regions as the Middle East and the Balkans. It is unlikely that the successful NATO pursuit of the 1999 Kosovo war and the ousting and subsequent handover of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2001 would have been achieved without strong American involvement. The Clinton administration's attempts to act as a neutral arbiter in the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and in the reconciliation between South and North Korea were also relatively successful. This explained the regret voiced in many parts of the world of Clinton's departure in January 2001. Paradoxically, despite Clinton's contempt for the United Nations and his many other unilateral activities, the president's reputation as an international peacemaker far surpassed his embattled and scandal-ridden standing within the United States. Yet his years in office may well be primarily remembered for his administration's ability to maintain and increase America's prosperity and the achievement of a substantial budget surplus rather than for a farsighted foreign policy.
After the drama of the presidential election of 2000, which was only narrowly decided by the Supreme Court in December, it was not Vice President Al Gore but Texas governor George W. Bush who moved into the White House. The new president immediately surrounded himself with many right-wing and unilateralist if not isolationist advisers. Many of these people were very experienced policymakers who had already served under Bush's father in the early 1990s and even under Presidents Ford and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet his administration did not appear to consist of a vigorous modernizing team prepared to tackle the international problems of globalization and fragmentation. In a 1999 article in Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice, who became Bush's national security adviser in January 2001, tellingly talked at length about the importance of the pursuit of America's "national interest" but rather less about American international involvement and engagement in IOs. She wrote that a Republican administration would "proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interest of an illusory international community." Indeed, the Bush administration treated the United Nations with even greater disdain and suspicion than Clinton had done. During its first eight months in office the new administration walked out of five international treaties (and withdrew from the conference on racism in protest at anti-Israel passages in the draft communiqué in South Africa in early September 2001). Among the treaties the United States opposed were the Kyoto Protocol on climate change supported by much of the rest of the world and a treaty for the enforcement of the important Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. The administration also withheld support from the establishment of the World Court to be based in The Hague. Although Washington agreed with the principle of establishing such a court, it did not wish any of its nationals ever to appear before it. The Bush administration also threatened to abandon several other contractual pillars of the postwar world, notably the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty concluded between Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev to contain the nuclear arms race.
Above all, Bush's insistence on implementing a national missile defense (NMD) to protect the United States (and perhaps its NATO allies) from nuclear attacks from rogue states like North Korea and Iraq caused great unease in the Western world. Not even Britain, traditionally America's closest ally, was able to show much enthusiasm for a missile plan that had not been tested successfully and would cost billions of dollars and resembled Reagan's ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), a plan that had not been tested successfully and would cost billions of dollars. America's allies reasoned that not least for financial reasons the implementation of Bush's missile shield scheme would in all likelihood prevent the United States from giving equal attention to the development of other defensive and military schemes that deserved greater priority. Moreover, the Bush administration showed scant regard for international institutions like NATO by making clear that the missile shield decision had already been made. While America's allies would be consulted and informed and would hopefully participate in the project, any allied advice to abandon the project would not be heeded. Unilateralism was triumphing. Multilateralism and constructive open-minded engagement with IOs had been abandoned for good.
Or so it seemed. Then, in September 2001, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred. This was not only a severe shock to the American people, who for so long had felt secure on a continent that was geographically very distant from most of the world's battlegrounds, it also shook the Bush administration to its core. Alexis de Tocqueville's statement in his famous Democracy in America (1835) that the United States was a nation without neighbors, securely enveloped in a huge continent and thus separate from the problems of the rest of the world, became out of date within a matter of hours. Despite its superpower status, and probably even because of it, it was recognized that America was no longer invulnerable. The Economist wrote presciently that the United States and the entire world realized that America was "not merely vulnerable to terrorism, but more vulnerable than others. It is the most open and technologically dependent country in the world, and its power attracts the hatred of enemies of freedom everywhere. The attacks have shattered the illusions of post-cold war peace and replaced them with an uncertain world of 'asymmetric threats.'"
The value of American reengagement with IOs was recognized in many quarters almost immediately. Suddenly the United States was not merely the provider of benefits to the international community but could also greatly benefit itself from a close cooperative engagement with IOs. Within a matter of days the Security Council of the United Nations had unanimously condemned the attack in the strongest terms and pledged its support to the American intention to embark on a prolonged war against international terrorism. The European Union and many other IOs followed suit. NATO went even further. For the first time in its history the North Atlantic Alliance invoked article 5 of its charter, which obliged each member to take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force" if a member state was attacked from abroad. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were interpreted as a military attack on a NATO member state, which obliged all NATO members to come to the common defense of NATO territory. This was unprecedented; above all, it demonstrated the value of IOs to the hitherto unilateral Bush administration.
While it was unlikely that the Bush administration would not resort to unilateralist activities in the fight against international terrorism, it was equally improbable that even a state as powerful as the United States could win this fight by itself. Engagement with international organizations like NATO and the United Nations and cooperative multilateralism appeared to be decisive. Thus the occasional bouts of American neo-isolationism that could frequently be observed in the 1990s were thought by many to be largely a thing of the past. This, however, would also depend on whether or not the unity of NATO and its member states could be upheld for a prolonged period of time. Quite understandably, both the American people and the Bush administration were sufficiently enraged by the appalling attacks that cost the lives of more than six thousand people and caused damage in excess of $30 billion to "go it alone" if Western and indeed international unity could not be preserved. While the danger existed that the attacks might have the opposite effect and induce America to withdraw from international engagement altogether, this is unlikely; after all even an entirely isolationist America would continue to be exposed to the threats posed by international terrorism. Multilateralist engagement with international organizations and acting in concert with its allies appeared to be the best chance of reestablishing a degree of national and international security. However, it was thought abroad, at least, that this could well take the form of the controversial American "assertive multilateralism" that the world had to put up with during the Clinton years.
Still, after 11 September it appeared that unilateralism and isolationism were no longer regarded as viable political concepts. In view of the Bush administration's active engagement with the international community to fight the "war against international terrorism," the Financial Times concluded that multilateralism was "no longer a dirty word." Similarly, British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed the belief that the answer to the unprecedented challenge confronting the world was "not isolationism but the world coming together with America as a community." It was generally recognized that the world had to look beyond bombing Afghanistan, the country that hosted the terrorist network responsible for planning the attacks, and other military options. An American correspondent put it succinctly in a letter to the International Herald Tribune in early October 2001: "The Bush administration's unilateralism has been revealed as hollow. Rather than infringe our sovereignty, international institutions enhance our ability to perform the functions of national government, including the ability to fight international crime."
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