The realization in the United States that the war in Iraq has been lost is perhaps the most momentous fact of international politics in 2006. The time of American unilateralism is objectively over. Whether US foreign policy will come to reflect this fact, only the future will tell. Unfortunately, this also means that a unique opportunity has been lost. For only the US – with all its power and sense of mission – had the ability to establish a new world order at the beginning of the 21st century. To achieve this, the US would have had to subordinate its power to the goal of shaping the new order, much as it did after World War II in 1945.
Instead, America succumbed to the temptation of unilateralism. National greatness for a world power always arises from its ability to shape the world. If a great power forgets this, or loses the ability to act accordingly, it begins to decline. It is almost tempting to think that America’s great Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union, with its sudden disappearance 15 years ago this month, left its own Trojan horse for America – the poisoned gift of unilateralism. Without a fundamental turnaround in American political consciousness, the unilateralist amnesia of US foreign policy will have far-reaching consequences and leave a huge vacuum in the global system. No other nation or group of nations – not China, the European Union, India, or Russia – has the power and the sense of mission to take on America’s role.
Only America was (and potentially still is) able to fuse realism and idealism, self-interest and ethics, in its foreign policy. Only the US pursued a foreign policy that conceived of freedom and democracy as its mission. This was not always and everywhere the case – certainly not in Latin America. But where it did apply, America’s strength and willingness to seek international cooperation created an order whose institutions still hold the world together. The United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the law of nations and international criminal law, even today’s free and united Europe – all are crowning achievements of US foreign policy. They mark the moments in history when America’s power was used to further a global order, while also pursuing America’s own interests in the most effective and sustainable manner. America’s departure from this great tradition did not begin with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Indeed, as early as the final years of the Cold War, the US began to view the whole system of international treaties and institutions as an obstacle to enforcing its own interests.
America’s foreign policy elite increasingly came to perceive of the US as a Gulliver tied down and oppressed by political midgets, with their laws of nations, treaties, and multilateral institutions. The existing world order – created by the US itself – was first devalued in American eyes, then weakened, and finally consciously attacked. Thus, the current debate in the US about the consequences of defeat in Iraq still falls short – because, despite all the critiques of American policy, that debate is still premised on the unilateral use of American power. This applies to the views of the Democratic opposition as well as to the recently released Iraq Study Group report. What is needed is a conscious and deliberate return of US foreign policy to multilateralism. This mental turnaround is, indeed, essential if things are to improve, because the situation in Iraq represents, above all, a defeat of America’s unilateralist orientation. The Middle East, North Korea, Darfur, Central and East Africa, the Caucasus – in none of these places can the US still act successfully on its own. And yet, without America and its power, the prospects in all these places are still bleaker: more dangers and more chaos. The situation is the same with respect to global growth, energy, resource management, climate change, environment, nuclear proliferation, arms control, and terrorism. None of these problems can be resolved or even contained unilaterally. Yet no attempted solution will get very far without the US and its decisive leadership.
This also applies to the future of the law of nations, the newly created international criminal law, and the UN. Unless these rules and institutions are further developed, globalization, too, will take an ever more chaotic shape. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the US the “indispensable nation. She was right then, and she is still right today. Only one power can rob the US of its unique position: America itself. The question today is whether the current crisis of American consciousness marks the beginning of America’s decline or, let us hope, the beginning of a return to multilateralism.
Will America hark back to the spirit of 1945 or, despite being sobered and disappointed, decide to stick to its lone and lonely path? No other power will be able to assume America’s role in the world for the foreseeable future. The alternative to American leadership is a vacuum and increasing chaos. But within one or two decades maybe China will define the rules, if the US continues to reject its multilateral responsibilities.
For all these reasons not only America’s friends have a vital interest in a US return to multilateralism.
Given the dangers of unilateralism for the current world order, so do America’s enemies. Joschka Fischer was Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005. A leader in the Green Party for nearly 20 years, he is now a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)