Unilateralism has trumped diplomacy in US policy

Multilateralist tradition in US diplomacy has given way to unilateralism which could have far-reaching consequences for world politics

    When John Brady Kiesling, a 20 year-old veteran of America’s diplomatic corps, resigned in protest over US policy toward Iraq in late February, his resignation letter made its way to cyberspace, shuttled around the globe by anti-war movements. The American press, who gave it scant coverage, focused also on his anti-Iraq stance. However, current and former American diplomats see a larger issue at stake in the Kiesling letter: the future of American diplomacy.  


    In the three page, strongly-worded resignation letter addressed to Secretary Colin Powell, Kiesling wrote: “Why does our President condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this Administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials? Has ‘oderint dum metuant’ [‘Let them hate as long as they also fear’, a saying attributed to 1st century Roman emperor Caligula] really become our motto?” He added with alarm: “We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."


    Bush: penchant for

    Early April another diplomat resigned from government service in protest at President George W. Bush's preparations to attack Iraq, the second to do so in less than a month. John H. Brown, who joined the US diplomatic corps in 1981 and served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow, said in a letter toSecretary of State Colin Powell made available to the media: "I cannot ingood conscience support President Bush's war plans against Iraq.


    "Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century," the diplomat added.


    One American diplomat, who asked not be named, said: “Kiesling struck a chord with many of us in the State Department. It wasn’t what he said about Iraq because the views on that issue are diverse, but many of us share his sentiment that the White House predilection for unilateralism and the tone of belligerence from some non-diplomat officials threatens to undermine years of carefully cultivated relationships around the world.”


    Retired American diplomats, more free to speak their minds openly, also expressed solidarity with Kiesling. Retired Ambassador Bruce Laingen, who currently heads the American Academy of Diplomacy, says: “Among retired foreign service officers, there is much agreement with the sentiments Kiesling expressed. Though I personally don’t agree with everything he wrote, I take his point that this President is excessively unilateralist in his apparent views.”


    Web of relationships


    Kiesling, like so many of us, believes in multilateralism”, another diplomat, recently returned from Asia, added, “and he believes that we can’t just tell the world: it’s our way or the highway. That goes against the ideological tradition of post World War II American foreign policy.”  


    Post World War II American diplomacy has been marked by a decidedly multilateralist outlook, creating the “web of relationships” that Kiesling describes. American diplomats helped create the international institutional and financial architecture that links the modern world: the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization. Multilateral regional security organizations, like NATO, have been a bedrock of American and Western European security. They also helped the US achieve its key goals: for example, containing the Soviet Union. A flurry of global treaties, signed and often initiated by the United States over the past 50 years, sets world targets on how nations should treat prisoners of war to numbers of strategic warheads. This system, this “web of relationships” was imitated by others, spawning other regional, security and financial networks.  


    The system never worked perfectly, and the United States – like many other nations – often broke the rules and spirit of multilateralism, but the ideal of multilateral engagement remained a permanent fixture of American diplomacy. Today, that idea is under siege by an administration widely regarded as the most unilateralist in the post World War II era. Multilateralism, it seems, is no longer the default option in the American diplomatic operating system. 


    Even before Washington’s attempt to build a war coalition on Iraq and the tragedy of September 11, the Bush administration signalled a “go it alone” attitude. Withdrawing from the Kyoto environmental protocol saying the treaty was “dead,” demanding an exemption for Americans to the treaty for an International Criminal Court while threatening to withdraw funds for UN peace-keeping operations unless their demands were met, and refusing to sign a number of treaties, including the benign 1989 Convention on Children’s Rights (only the US and Somalia have not signed), Washington has displayed a stark unilateralist streak.


    Military budgets up


    The message, to many internationalist and European ears, has been: We are not interested in your treaties and conventions. The message in US war planning on Iraq unilateralists, particularly the neo-conservative intellectuals and policy-makers who closely influence President Bush’s foreign policy thinking argue that the Cold War is over, the US is the only superpower, and new threats loom over the horizon. Without decisive US leadership, even if the world doesn’t like it, America – and the world – face serious security problems. They often point to Bosnia as an example: Europe dithered, America acted, and the war ended.


    White House foreign policy strategists often describe their new outlook as “peace through strength.” As a result, America’s military budgets have dramatically risen. Within a few years, America will spend more on defence than the combined defence budgets of the next closest 20 countries.  


    In this equation, “peace through strength,” and the strident, unilateralist rhetoric emerging from Washington, what role will American diplomacy play? What role for America’s diplomats?


    Retired Ambassador Theodore Eliot, who serves as dean emeritus of a prestigious school of diplomacy in Boston, says: “Today, in this era of global interdependence and the very serious threats we face, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we must, in fact, be more multilateral-minded, not less. Now, more than ever, we need skilled diplomacy. That’s why I am so frustrated by this unilateralist bent of this Administration.”


    Of course, one must not write the obituary of the American diplomat. Despite the White House’s initial instincts and the protest of the Defence Department, President Bush – largely persuaded by Secretary Powell – agreed to use diplomacy at the UN to seek agreement on a new Security Council Resolution.


    However, the Bush Administration’s reluctance to use the UN became evident as UN diplomats complained that Washington was “just going through the motions” and setting deadlines not just on Iraq, but also on allies. Senior Bush Administration officials, for their part, often express frustration with what they view as the slow, plodding, often inefficient UN consultation process.


    Bruce Laingen, who spent 444 days as an American diplomat hostage in Iran, puts it this way: “Multilateralism requires patience. This administration does not seem to have the patience required.”  


    Transatlantic insults, like Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks that France and Germany are part of “old Europe” have added to American diplomats’ concerns. Amid a rising tide of global anti-Americanism and the heightened terrorist threat, most diplomats also face the most stringent security measures in history, making life as an American diplomat more tense than before.


    In the end, America’s diplomats will have to adjust – just like everyone else – to Washington’s substantial shift in diplomatic tone and outlook, a shift that breaks from nearly five decades of post World War II multilateral diplomacy linked to multilateral collective security.  


    Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based journalist, is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. 


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