Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Unilateralist America

(This article was originally written in 2001)

In office for just ten weeks, President George W. Bush has already boldly staked out an America first global policy. Allies and foes alike be damned, unilateralism is the order of the day in Washington.

The recent announcement by Christine Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that the Bush administration has "no interest" in implementing the Kyoto accord to fight global warming was an unmistakable unilateralist salvo. Explaining the decision not to adhere to the Kyoto protocol, which calls for a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse enhancing gases, President Bush declared that "we will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America."

Because the United States is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, its decision to walk away from the accord, agreed to by over eighty nations, is a body blow to any concerted global action to counter the threat of global warming. What Bush is telling other nations is that America is perfectly prepared to pollute to keep its economy competitive with other economies. The flip side of the Bush position is equally plain: if other nations choose to cut back their greenhouse emissions, in a common global cause, that is their business. If they suffer economic costs because the U.S. refuses to get on board, so be it.

A willingness to take the threat of global warming lightly is far from being the only arena for the Bush administration’s unilateralism. George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency as a strong adherent of the building and deployment of a missile defence system for the United States. Since taking office, the Bush administration has informed allies and strategic competitors that it intends to proceed with missile defence, no matter what others think.

The alleged purpose of a missile defence system is to protect the United States against potential threats from "rogue" nations such as Iraq and North Korea. The deployment of a major missile defence system would violate the U.S.-Soviet Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. But George W. Bush and his key advisors, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice think the benefits of missile defence outweigh the risks. In their eyes, missile defence will be the keystone in the arch of American global military supremacy.

The Russian and Chinese governments see missile defence as a blatant American attempt to neutralize the weight of their nuclear arsenals. America’s European allies (and the Chretien government some days of the week) fear that a U.S. missile defence system could trigger a deadly new arms race and could even drive Russia and China into a strategic partnership.

Prior to Bush’s election, the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate turned thumbs down on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As in the cases of greenhouse gas emissions and missile defence, the U.S. sought one set of rules for itself and another for the rest of the world. The superpower that wants to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons has itself refused to ratify a key convention that has this as its goal.

What’s the world to do with a unilateralist superpower? This question brings to mind the old riddle "Where does the biggest gorilla sleep?" The answer---"Wherever he likes."

According to the conventional wisdom of our time, we live in an age in which new technology and global commerce are eviscerating the sovereignty of nation states. The problem with the conventional wisdom is that this is also an age of empire in which a single power exercises a sustained and determining influence on the outcome of crucial global questions, ranging from the economy and culture to the environment and defence.

Just over a year ago, when George W. Bush was locked in a fierce contest with Senator John McCain for the Republic presidential nomination, I saw him make a speech to an audience of suburbanites at the airport in Rochester, New York. Aspiring to lead the nation that spends as much on defence as the next eight powers combined, Bush drew the loudest applause from his audience when he declared that "America needs a sharpened sword. I will rebuild the United States military. The evil empire may be gone, but madmen and missiles are still there."

The Clinton administration, the first post Cold War U.S. administration, at least made a show of reaching agreements with other world powers on key questions, although Canadians will recall that signing on to the ban on land mines was not one of them. The Bush administration is opting instead for splendid isolation. While the president and his key advisors are ever so polite in their contacts with foreign leaders, they have resolved that their minds will not be changed on crucial issues. President Bush made this plain to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the matter of the Kyoto accord when the two men met recently in the White House.

The problem of what to do about a unilateralist superpower is unprecedented. Even imperial Britain at the height of its power in the mid 19th century did not dominate the world the way the U.S. does today.

In a few weeks, Canada will host the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, a meeting which will bring together the heads of all of the governments of North, South and Central America (with the exception of Cuba). The main goal of the summit is to discuss and implement the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), to be an extension of NAFTA to the whole hemisphere.

As Canadians ought to know, in the midst of a softwood lumber dispute with our powerful neighbour more than a decade after "free trade" was achieved with the U.S., the dirty little secret of trade deals with the Americans is that they are not prepared to share sovereignty with their neighbours. Signing deals with weaker countries like Canada, Mexico and the rest of the Americas will not prevent the U.S. from acting unilaterally to protect its interests whenever it feels the need to do so.

What we really need is a summit of the Americas to figure out what to do about the unilateralist United States.

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