When the young Walter Lippmann, later to become the foremost advocate of American engagement in the world, travelled to Europe in June 1914, he had not even the faintest notion that a terrible war was imminent. "It was possible," he wrote, "for an American in those days to be totally unconscious of the world he lived in." He dallied in the Lake District for a while, then crossed to Belgium, planning to go on through Germany to Switzerland for a walking holiday. He remembered "being rather annoyed when I went into the railway station and found that the German border was closed because Belgium had had an ultimatum."
Lippmann recorded this anecdote in a book he wrote in 1943 arguing that the United States could no longer operate as if it was a country separate and aloof from all others, that it had a stake in world order, and that it had to respect what order existed. The tenaciousness of the American sense of separateness can be seen in the fact that the issues which Lippmann raised are, in not too different form, the same ones which face Americans today. The blissful ignorance of the world which he sketched is gone. If there is ignorance now it is wilful rather than blissful. But America still acts internationally according to its own rules and accepts only partially and reluctantly rules made by others. This tendency, now more often and more accurately called unilateralism rather than isolation ism, was in abeyance during the years when the US marshalled a network of alliances against the communist states. Even then, some argue, the appearance of collective decision making was usually misleading. In any case, once the Russian and Chinese enemies had disappeared, the US rapidly regressed, spurning treaties over which other nations had long laboured, misbehaving in international organisations, and acting with others usually only in ad hoc alliances of which it was the main organiser. And all this was under a president, Bill Clinton, who began in office committed to the UN, to international law, and to multilateralism in all spheres.
The difference between Americans and others can be illustrated by the case of the Statute of Rome, which sets up an international criminal court. The Americans, it is well known, did not like the idea that their servicemen might face charges in such a court, but their deeper objection was constitutional. The US constitution would not permit the actions which an American government might have to take under the statute. France and Germany had similar constitutional difficulties. Both chose to change their constitutions. But, in the words of one American opponent of the statute, writing in an illuminating recent publication from the Royal Institute of International Affairs, "The US ... is not going to amend its constitution to accommodate the latest international fad ... the US shall stand by its old ways which have served it well for over 200 years." There is surely no clearer case of ancestor worship in the western world than this.
A partial accounting of American delinquency during the Clinton years includes the failure to pay its full UN dues, the refusal, since Somalia, to place American troops under direct UN command, the refusal to sign the landmines treaty, the refusal to sign the Statute of Rome, the refusal to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty, and the pursuit of a national missile defence scheme which, if realised, would almost certainly undermine most of the existing arms limitation agreements with Russia. While refusing to be bound by rules agreed on by large groups of nations, the US has meanwhile come up with sanctions against some 60 countries which have offended it in one way or another. The Congress, it appears, believes it has a right to legislate for the world, but the world has no right to legislate for the US.
It cannot be simply said that in choosing between Gore and Bush, the American people are choosing between an internationalist and a unilateralist road. Clinton has already been forced into serious compromises, with which Gore is associated and, if he is elected, he too would have to contend with a legislature in which unilateralism is entrenched. Bush is not absolutely shackled to the unilateralist idea and, in office, realism would no doubt often prevail. The difference is rather that Gore would fight the unilateralist tendency, while Bush would be inclined to go along with it.
The second debate between the candidates, on foreign policy, showed both men tiptoeing around the charged question of "humanitarian" military intervention. In a strange way this has become for many Americans the most important international issue. In spite of the fact that the US has committed its forces to such interventions very much on its own terms and conditions, the notion persists there, or at least is assiduously cultivated for political reasons, that America has been forced into these onerous tasks by an international community which is at the same time demanding and ungrateful. The concentration on the military question also obscures the fact that what the world needs from the US is not a constant readiness to come up with troops, but constant and responsible attention, while resisting the temptation to act in a solitary and capricious manner.
It has been disturbing in recent weeks to watch this American argument over foreign policy unfold without much awareness that a huge crisis may be just around the corner. The American effort to manage the Middle East, an effort which goes back at least 40 years and which Clinton had tried to round off with a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, could be in terminal trouble. Yet many Americans see this only as a tragedy or a problem for the people who live there, rather than as a failure for which America may well be largely responsible and one which could affect all of us for the worse. In other regions where the US has made similar efforts to manage and control events, notably East and South-east Asia, serious trouble could also be brewing. There is hardly a region or a country where American policy could be deemed a clear success. These policies, whatever their individual worth, belong in the broad unilateralist tradition, serving American interests in ways which often ignore the real needs and the real sentiments of the countries concerned. That they may therefore not truly serve American interests either is an idea whose time ought to have come. Acts have consequences, as DW Brogan, in his introduction to Lippmann's book, implied when he called for an end to "the illusion that the United States has complete freedom of choice, that the American people can order as much peace, security and prosperity as they want, on their own terms, in their own time."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000