Allies worried by the Bush administration's foreign policy should remember that unilateralism is not isolationism.
One of the things foreign diplomats liked about the Clinton administration was that it could normally be expected to show up at the multilateral table. While present, the US might have been prone to distraction, or might have shifted its position a disconcerting number of times. But it was certainly active: 40 per cent of all UN Security Council resolutions were passed in the Clinton era.
America's partners - in the arenas of international security and trade - were ready to forgive Washington its attention deficit disorder. They cared more that the administration always made a comforting display of respect for process.
The big fear about the new Bush administration is that it will not be such a good sport. George W. Bush has promised to pursue a "distinctly American internationalism". Outsiders worry that this means a retreat to prewar-style Republican isolationism. The US, they say, will favour a policy of unilateralism.
They are right, at least on the unilateralist question. Mr Bush, like his father, believes that a good president invests heavily in strong alliances. But he does not worship multilateralism per se. In other words, the Republican president will first define a mission - say, the controversial missile defence project - and then work with allies until he gets support; not the other way around.
This sort of unilateralism is bound to antagonise old negotiating partners from time to time. It may infuriate Russia and France, which rely on international parleys to maintain the illusion that they are as important now as formerly. But the Bush-style unilateralism is not necessarily isolationist. It can be the opposite. A decisive America can help itself and its allies and alliances better than an accommodating but indecisive US.
The choice of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary and Robert Zoellick as trade representative gives some idea of how positive unilateralism will work in practice. Each has, in the past, revealed the same modus operandi: goal first, process afterwards.
Start with Mr Rumsfeld. In the 1980s, while in the private sector, he publicly supported Ronald Reagan's Star Wars proposal. He even attacked its critics as "grossly irresponsible" and accused opinion-makers of being "like sheep" in their unanimous hostility to the project.
This was bold, offending as it did the representatives of multilateralism and process - in this instance, the left-leaners in America's arms control establishment and the Soviet Union. But Star Wars did much in the long run to benefit America's west European allies and even Russia's citizens. As former Soviet officials now confirm, the threat helped bring down the Soviet Union, scaring the Kremlin into concessions it might otherwise never have considered.
More recently, Mr Rumsfeld demonstrated the efficacy of unilateral leadership again - domestically and internationally. The 1998 Rumsfeld Report, commissioned by a congressional committee, alerted America to the possibility of missile attack by rogue states and warned that developing a missile defence programme was necessary.
The allegations were inflammatory, outside the US mainstream. But the US media began to take an interest in the idea and soon Bill Clinton was backing a form of missile defence.
Mr Zoellick has demonstrated a similar "action first" attitude, most vividly as one of the point men on German unification. When, overnight in November 1989, it became clear that unification might be possible, Mr Zoellick and his boss, James Baker, the secretary of state, wasted no time. Rather than spend thousands of hours mooting the future with the diplomatically appropriate interlocutor - the Soviet Union - they laid out their own specific goal: a German unification that would strengthen Nato. Then they set about obtaining it - swiftly.
The Soviet Union, they decided, would not be so heavily involved. The union of the Germanies would be a "takeover" by West Germany rather than a "merger" of two equal Germanies. The new, greater Germany would be locked into Nato.
Mr Zoellick et al worked hard to win over the Soviets but stuck to their plan even in the face of Russian opposition: "you cannot do this without us," Yuly Kvitsinsky, the Soviet Ambassador to the US, famously said. When Margaret Thatcher and the French voiced concern, the administration did not ignore them either: George Bush senior travelled to meet Mrs Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand. But the US also made it clear that it would not diverge from its path.
Mr Zoellick also played a role in other such unilaterally led initiatives, such as winning allies for the Gulf war. That the impetus for war came mainly from the US did not prevent the Bush administration from rapidly constructing an effective coalition.
Forthright unilateralism can feel frightening, particularly for partners more accustomed to common-denominator consensus. But decisiveness and leadership also offer formidable advantages. The first is timeliness. In the case of Germany, for example, the US and Helmut Kohl, West German leader, divined that their window of opportunity might soon shut and that they must act while Moscow and East Berlin wavered. American leadership made such action possible. For America's allies, US decisiveness offers the added advantage of revealing what the US thinks. Europe or Asia may not always like the Bush administration's positions. But because they are truly US positions - rather than mutable compromises struck to placate multilateral teams - the US is more likely to stick to them. And consistency in a powerful ally is a valuable thing indeed.
© Copyright 2001 Financial Times
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