For almost three years now, the world has
been given quite a different view of the United States than the one to which it had been accustomed.
It has seen global leadership abandoned and
replaced with what now is known as American unilateralism - the Bush administration's disdain for international agreements
and sometimes for diplomacy itself. The unilateralism has been a virtual addiction - a constant in an otherwise inconsistent
The change began in the first few weeks after
President Bush took office. After an election campaign during which he preached that we should learn humility in dealing with
other nations, he rather arrogantly pulled the United States out of the Kyoto treaty on climate change - a protocol we had
signed but not yet ratified. This new self-centered policy found its ultimate - though hardly final - expression when Bush
told the U.N. Security Council that the United States was going to invade Iraq, with or without the council's approval.
It was also in the early days of his administration
that Bush announced we would scrap the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. In fairness, it must be noted that withdrawal
from the ABM treaty was implicit in Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program. But research on our interceptor missile
had not reached the stage where it would violate the treaty. Whatever the merits of the case, when Bush revoked the treaty,
he both frightened and angered other nations, including some of our allies, who fear an ABM arms race and a new global instability
when and if our antimissile missile proves successful.
Bush's rejection of the International Criminal
Court, established to try war crimes, arguably has merit, given that American troops make up the lion's share of peacekeeping
forces these days and might well make easy targets for politically motivated prosecution. President Bill Clinton had signed
that treaty but for the same reason did not send it to the Senate for ratification. An exception might have been made for
American peacekeepers, but the other signatories refused to permit that. Ironically, anger about perceived American arrogance
might well have sunk any hopes for compromise.
Bush's unilateralism has not confined itself
to matters of war and peacekeeping. As the 2002 midterm elections approached, the President, who had long identified himself
as a free-trader, slapped tariffs on steel imports - a move that clearly helped Republican candidates in several swing states.
Now the World Trade Organization has slapped back, ruling that the tariffs violate free-trade agreements to which the United
States is a party. That ruling opens the way for retaliation by other WTO members. The European Union alone is threatening
to impose $2.2 billion in sanctions on U.S. goods. This time, it appears, the President has bitten off more than he is willing
to chew, and it seems he is looking for a way to back down. It turns out that there is a price to pay for being a loose cannon
on the international deck, and we now are beginning to pay it.
And finally, there is the reminder of another
aspect of the Bush administration's unilateralism - its treatment of alleged terrorists being held incommunicado at Guantanamo,
Cuba, without charges and denied the benefit of legal assistance. Critics claim their treatment violates international law.
The Supreme Court now has decided to hear a suit brought by lawyers for British and Australian nationals held on the island.
Essentially, the administration claims the
prisoners are beyond the reach of international law and of the U.S. legal system. And lower federal courts so far have agreed
that they lack jurisdiction, even though Guantanamo is leased by the United States.
Now the high court might simply confirm those
rulings. However, its very decision to hear the case seems an assertion that it, not the executive branch, determines where
the writ of the American legal system runs - and suggests that Bush's almost reflexive unilateralism might also have constitutional
1996-2003 Knight Ridder