Are We Better Off: Losing Friends and Alienating People

U.S. diplomats and policy experts of all political stripes agree: Bush's unilateralist policies have been disastrous to our own interests.

For Americans, visiting Australia is a bit like going home. The cars tend to be big and, when the Aussies tell you a drive is long, unlike in Europe or Japan, you better believe it really will be long. Sports mania is rampant, the music is often American hits of the '70s and '80s, and the language is a kind of English. If not America's No. 1 ally, Australia runs a close second behind the United Kingdom. So I was more than a little surprised during recent meetings in Sydney and Melbourne to be told how clever Prime Minister Howard had been to get Australian troops out of Iraq before "public opposition could make itself felt." It was even more surprising to hear several government and business leaders say, "Don't ask us to choose between you [America] and China."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

These comments only confirmed a stunning diplomatic shift that first became apparent when President George W. Bush and then Chinese president Hu Jin Tao visited Australia in October. After being heckled in his speech to Parliament, Bush refused to schedule any press conferences or public appearances. The contrast with President Hu's trip a week later was telling. The communist Chinese leader not only received a warm parliamentary welcome -- he also held unscripted press conferences, toured the country, and announced major new Chinese-Australian business deals in what became a triumphal tour. As one Aussie diplomat commented to me, "Bush came, but Hu conquered."

That this shift of sentiment was not just another Australian idiosyncrasy became clear when Bush soon thereafter visited the United Kingdom. As with Australia, this trip should have been an occasion of warm celebration. Instead, it became an ordeal for all concerned. Fear of anti-American demonstrations led to cancellation of the usual horse-and-carriage ride with the queen, and again there were no press conferences and, curiously for a president bent on democratizing the entire Middle East, no speech to the Mother of Parliaments. For Prime Minister Tony Blair, a visit that should have been a political plus resulted instead in a sharp decline in public support. Bush, many thought, had dragged Britain into an unnecessary war on pretenses of a threat that did not exist.

Signs of alienation from our two closest allies are a ringing confir-mation of what many of America's top diplomats have been quietly complaining about for the past few years. As former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel Ed Djerejian says, "The bottom has fallen out of support for the United States around the world." Margaret Tutwiler, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and presently under-secretary of State for public diplomacy, echoed that view in testimony before Congress, when she emphasized that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore America's standing abroad.

Yet, most Americans are ignorant of the costs inherent in America's declining international stature. Indeed, neoconservative commentators claim that the forgiveness of Iraqi debt by France, Germany, Russia, and a number of Arab countries; the Libyan agreement to give up nuclear-weapons development; and Iran's acceptance of U.N. nuclear inspectors all prove that the demonstration of U.S. power and the will to act unilaterally in Iraq has created a new respect for America and a world order more congenial to its interests. Dissent, they say, is just a matter of envy of America's success and hatred of its freedom. But the Brits and Aussies don't hate our freedom or envy our success, and their new ambivalence toward America, coupled with that of others, suggests that if we are to avoid further damage to our vital interests, we need to get beyond self-serving rationalization and heed the call of our veteran diplomats for a deeper understanding of why the world is turning against us.

The main factor is America's new, unilateralist foreign policy that eschews consultation and allies in favor of preventive war and strategic intimidation. Whether or not the display of our raw power in Iraq has struck fear into the hearts of some "rogue nations" is unclear, but it has spotlighted America as itself acting like a rogue nation that strikes first and asks questions afterward. Gone is that sense of the United States as different from the hegemonic powers of the past because it held that might does not make right. Gone with it is the hope that in the wake of the Cold War the world could finally create a new system of rules, due process, and mutual security in place of the old politics of balance of power and hegemony. Gone too is any shred of faith in America's objectivity and sincerity.

Sadly, these losses have not been compensated by any corresponding gains. The rapprochement with Libya was under way even before 9/11, and the forgiveness of Iraqi debt had more to do with calculations of future commercial gain than with any new respect for American power, while Iran's agreement came about only through the intervention of the European Union. Indeed, the exercise of unilateral U.S. power seems to have demonstrated its limits more than anything else. In Iraq itself, even after the capture of Saddam, there is no peace, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey says, "The current Iraq is worse than Iraq prior to the war and worse than Iraq during the war." What has Erdogan worried is that, without U.N. backing, U.S. control of Iraq lacks legitimacy, a fact that puts U.S. officials in a weaker position every day. We went into Iraq with the stated goal of creating a new model of Middle East democratization. But by February, fearful that direct elections would put the majority Shiites in power, the United States was put in the ironic position of calling on the formerly disdained United Nations to help persuade the Shiites to accept some alternative method of choosing a provisional government by the June 30 deadline -- a deadline geared toward getting our troops home before our own elections. Despite overwhelming military force, America's ability to shape the ultimate political outcome in its image seems more limited every day. Indeed, even as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was talking recently about America's focus on gains for Iraqi women, the United States' handpicked Iraqi governing council was passing measures to deprive Iraqi women of many of the rights they had enjoyed under Saddam.

Nor has the threat posed by Al Qaeda been eliminated. Several U.S. and foreign experts have told me that the danger has actually increased: Al Qaeda was not much present in Iraq before the war, but it is now. Recruitment is up, and Osama has become the overwhelmingly favorite name for newborn Muslim boys in the Middle East. In the rest of the world, terror appears to have been diverted from the skies of America only to focus on soft civilian targets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Distracted by Iraq, the United States has ignored a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where America's quibbling warlord allies have paralyzed the central government while nearly doubling shipments of heroin to U.S. markets. Even more frightening is nuclear Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is likely hiding out and where his supporters would stand a good chance of winning any free election. Ironically, a United States that preaches democracy must hope that Pakistan's President Musharraf, who only narrowly escaped two recent assassination attempts, can maintain his military junta in power. For the same reason, the Bush administration must hope its democratization drive won't soon lead to free elections in Saudi Arabia, where Osama's strong network of supporters continues to recruit and raise funds.

Unilateral use of U.S. force has also not resolved the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Bush administration said the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad and promised to implement a new "road map" to peace after toppling Saddam. But it is now evident that the road map is a dead end. In fact, the ambassador to Washington of one key Arab country friendly to the United States told me recently that the road map is worse than a dead end because "instead of just stopping, we are going backward." Ned Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, adds that "given our current course, things are likely to get worse for America in the Middle East before they get better."

Perhaps the most worrisome casualty of the new American diplomacy is the U.S.-European partnership that was the driving force for a liberal global order from 1945 until 9/11. Throughout that entire period, the United States encouraged development of a more united Europe that would share the burdens of world leadership. President John F. Kennedy set the tone at Independence Hall on July 4, 1962, when he said, "We don't regard a strong, united Europe as a rival, but as a partner." Of course, there were often disagreements, but as Belgium's longtime European commissioner and business leader Etienne Davignon emphasizes, "The great thing about the United States after 1945 was that it defined its own interest not in terms of hegemony but in terms of alliances and institutions run on the basis of consultation and consensus. America sheathed its power, and by doing so gave reassurance to a frightened world and made itself immensely attractive." Now, that doctrine has been reversed. As Davignon notes, the United States no longer wants consultation and has traded alliances for "coalitions of the willing" and partnership for strategic dominance. U.S. policy is to play "new Europe" against "old Europe." That tactic, coupled with the failure to find WMD and to admit any second thoughts about the danger posed by Iraq, has caused Europe to replace the trust of the old relationship with cynicism. Says Financial Times columnist Dominique Moisi, "So, the U.S. leaders lied to their own people and to us and maybe to themselves. That's exactly what we suspected all along." While the United States and Europe are not likely to go to war, it will take some time for them to reconcile, if they ever do. Explains a former U.S. NATO ambassador, "If we don't change things soon, we can forget about cooperation with Europe." The irony is that by trying to divide, Washington may get just what it doesn't want -- a united Europe that is a rival rather than a partner.

In Asia, similar realignment is under way. The war on terror has become virtually the sole focus of U.S. policy, leading to resentment on the part of Asians who feel America is selfishly ignoring their urgent problems. As one Indonesian leader told me, "They're always banging on us to stop Al Qaeda money laundering when what we really need is help just in collecting our taxes." In Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, the failure to find WMD in Iraq only heightens the perception that the war on terror is really a crusade against Islam and an excuse to seize critical oil fields. In Japan, U.S. pressure to send Japanese troops to Iraq has created resentment that could result in a backlash if any are killed. And continued trade friction between the United States and several Asian countries has created further ill will.

It is into these troubled waters that the Chinese have sailed with offers of free trade and lucrative contracts. Over the past two years, China has become the main engine of Asian growth while eschewing any pressure regarding human rights and the war on terror. To add to China's good fortune, the Bush administration's hardline refusal to talk directly to "Axis of Evil" member North Korea has led Washington to do something it strove for 50 years to avoid: allow China to become involved again in Korean affairs. Not only has America made itself dependent on China to convene meetings at which U.S. and North Korean officials exchange views, but it has done so while the White House claims it is not negotiating with the North Koreans. Thus is China beginning to displace the United States as the region's dominant power. As one top Singaporean leader said to me recently, "China is like a new sun into whose orbit we are all being sucked." A former high-level U.S. diplomat to Beijing says, "China is rapidly displacing the United States as the guiding star of Asia."

Nor is the sentiment more favorable in the Western Hemisphere. Canadians feel injured by our dismissal of their concerns over invading Iraq and our disregard of their heroic efforts in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, former Mexican finance minister Angel Gurria emphasizes that "there is a weapon of mass destruction about to explode and America seems unaware of it. It is called Latin America." His point is that democracy and globalization are not working for Latin America, partly because of Washington's coolness toward Mexican president Vincente Fox and other democratically elected Latin leaders who opposed U.S. policies on Iraq and Cuba, and partly because U.S. markets for Latin products like sugar, citrus, and soybeans remain closed despite promises of free trade. As Gurria notes, the cost to the United States promises to be immense in terms of illegal immigration, drug traffic, crime, terror, and national security.

Last but not least on the damage list is the United Nations. Because the United States has been treating the United Nations like a hostile foreign power, virtually all U.N. diplomats agree that they can no longer act -- as they once did in places like East Timor -- to oust tyrannical governments and engage in nation building. There is even doubt as to whether the United Nations can continue to perform its extensive humanitarian and economic development work in the poorest countries. While this may please some neoconservatives, Americans should understand that if the United Nations cannot function effectively, the burdens it carries will not disappear but only fall more heavily on the United States.

Indeed, as former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas Freeman notes, the irony of the adoption of a more muscularly unilateral foreign policy is that it actually diminishes U.S. power while sharply raising the price Americans have to pay in both dollars and lives. Longtime CIA adviser and Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson emphasizes that "legitimacy is a force multiplier," and far from being diminished, U.S. power is magnified when it is embedded in institutions that rally others behind us. He adds that it is a mistake to assume, as many Americans do, that the rest of the world inevitably sees the United States as acting justly. In fact, having humiliated much of the world with gratuitous and ill-informed unilateralism, the opposite is the case, and the consequences will continue to mount until present U.S. policies and attitudes are changed. Even if they are changed, mistrust of albeit constructive new initiatives will linger, restricting our ability to protect vital national interests. A good example is the skepticism with which U.S. allies are reacting to Washington's new democracy initiative for the Middle East. And who will believe the next U.S. intelligence report on imminent threats or join the next coalition of the willing called to respond to such threats -- even if they are real?

Larry Korb, a former Reagan administration Defense Department official, points to other costs. Our forces are overextended and likely to become more so given expanding commitments and lack of significant allied contributions. Meanwhile, little attention is being paid to getting rid of loosely guarded nuclear stockpiles in Russia or to economic development in Africa and the Middle East -- where rapidly growing populations and lack of jobs make hundreds of millions of young people vulnerable to the blandishments of extremists -- or to the rising power of global crime networks.

Yet no one sees the situation as irretrievable. Much of the alienation from America actually stems from disappointment, not dislike. American diplomats I have spoken with are unanimous in the view that a new U.S. approach could work wonders in repairing the damage, but that it will take time and focused effort -- new policies but also a new willingness to listen and consult.

As Margaret Tutwiler says, this will take years to accomplish. Maybe a good time to start would be now.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.