Bush's Flawed Revolution: "If We're an Arrogant Nation," Said George W. Bush, "They'll Resent Us." He Was Right

By Daalder, Ivo H.; Lindsay, James M. | The American Prospect, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Bush's Flawed Revolution: "If We're an Arrogant Nation," Said George W. Bush, "They'll Resent Us." He Was Right


Daalder, Ivo H., Lindsay, James M., The American Prospect


GEORGE W. BUSH HAS LAUNCHED A REVOLUTION IN American foreign policy. In less than three years in office, he has discarded or redefined many of the key principles governing how America engages the world. He has relied on the unilateral exercise of American power rather than on international law and institutions to get his way. He has championed a proactive doctrine of preemption and abandoned the tested strategies of deterrence and containment. He has preferred regime change to direct negotiations with countries and leaders that he loathes. And he has promoted forceful interdiction and missile defenses to counter weapons proliferation, all the while downplaying America's traditional support for nonproliferation treaties and regimes.

While recognizing that Bush has made radical changes to American foreign policy, many are now convinced that he is in the midst of a U-turn. The mounting American death toll in Iraq, the soaring price tag of Iraqi reconstruction and Europe's talk of constraining American power have convinced Bush of the errors of his unilateralist ways-or so the argument goes. The shadow of the presidential elections will further prod him to embrace more moderate and sensible policies. In 2004, George Bush Junior's foreign policy will not look much differnt from George Bush Senior's.

This new conventional wisdom, however, is wishful thinking. It assumes that Bush's foreign-policy choices reflect political expedience--or the pressures of aggressive presidential advisers--more than principle. Yet Bush, like Ronald Reagan, brought to the Oval Office a deeply felt and coherent foreign policy worldview. Bush's critics missed it at the time--and continue to miss it--because they focus on how little he knows rather than how intensely he believes. It is a worldview that emphasizes the need to act, disparages the counsel of the cautious and promises that events will vindicate those willing to stand alone. Because Bush really believes he is right, he is unlikely to chart a new course abroad for the United States as long as he remains president. The Bush revolution will continue, and continue to inflict substantial damage to America's ability to influence events overseas for the duration of his presidency.

WHAT PRECISELY IS THE BUSH REVOLUTION IN FOREIGN policy? At its broadest level, the revolution embraces one fundamental pillar of the foreign-policy vision that Wood row Wilson laid out nearly a century ago even as it rejects another. When Wilson called for a League of Nations, he rejected the idea that the United States would harm its interests or sully its values if, to borrow the famous words of John Quincy Adams, it went abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." For Wilson, the danger lay in not acting. So, too, for Bush. "Time is not on our side," he warned in his "axis of evil" speech. "I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Where Bush departs from Wilson, and from much of the practice of American foreign policy over the past halfcentury, is on how to exercise America's immense power overseas. Bush rejects the traditional Wilsonian faith in international law and institutions. To the contrary, he and his advisers are convinced that in a dangerous world, the best--if not the only way to ensure America's security is to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international rules and organizations. Because of its power, America is threatened like no other nation. And it would be folly to count on others to protect the United States; countries invariably ignore threats that do not imperil them. Moreover, formal arrangements--be they alliances or other multilateral security institutions inevitably impede Washington's ability to make the most of its unrivaled power. Bush, in short, believes that maximizing America's security requires minimizing constraints on its freedom of action.

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Bush's Flawed Revolution: "If We're an Arrogant Nation," Said George W. Bush, "They'll Resent Us." He Was Right
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