There is in America a sense of distance from other nations, and of difference from them, which has been long remarked and debated. When the rightwing commentator Robert Kagan recently mocked a government official for seeming to suggest that America might consult the international community over the fate of Osama bin Laden, should Bin Laden be captured, he showed this at its most extreme. For some Americans, the phrase "the international community" is an overly complimentary label for a diverse gang of opponents, wreckers, freeloaders, passengers and difficult allies. Even the most liberal will sometimes slip into language which unconsciously puts the US on one side and the rest of the world on the other.
The idea that America was becoming more willful and less ready to consult and compromise was widespread even before Clinton left office. It became commonplace after Bush took over. Some commentators were particularly concerned about what they saw as a growing divide between the US and Europe. Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, wrote that the two were becoming dangerously estranged.
On issue after issue, whether it was missile defense, global warming, the international criminal court, biological weapons verification, the comprehensive test-ban treaty, the ban on landmines or money laundering, the US took the position that it either got its way or it went on its way. In the past, that would have halted progress. But, Mathews wrote: "The US has profoundly misjudged the world's new willingness to adopt international agreements - despite US opposition - when those agreements have vigorous backing from the EU."
America, Mathews suggested, had simply not picked up on the changes in attitude that followed the end of the cold war, the growth of European integration and, more broadly, the emergence of transnational activities, both good and bad, on a new scale. While noting Europe's blind spots and hypocrisies, she argued that EU countries had a much better idea of the risks and possibilities. The Clinton administration had said it was "multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must". The Bush administration seemed to be ready to reverse that proposition.
Professor David Calleo, an authority on Europe and on European-American relations, says that American leadership is "sometimes like a kind of world government but run by us and without much reference to what people think." But: "If you're going to run the world, you have to pay attention to the world." That world, he suggests, is one which contains several great powers, and it is not only Europe's strength to which the US will have to adjust in time but that of China, Russia and India - as well as to the paradoxical strength which arises, among weaker Muslim countries, from their discontent and unhappiness.
There is sharp division among students of American policy, colored to some extent by party feeling, on whether September 11 has changed the Bush administration's unilateralist instincts. Perhaps the unavoidable multilateralism of the project against terrorism, and its ongoing nature, would translate into a readiness by that administration to reconsider its views across the board. That was was certainly the hope in Europe. But the immediate evidence is thin. A former senior official of the National Security Council under Clinton says of the Bush administration: "Look, they see this as a coalition of convenience. There is no sense that this is a two-way commitment, no sense that they are incurring debts. They think people should be grateful to them rather than the reverse."
UN dues have been paid, there has been a small shift on biological weapons and the administration has taken measures to postpone a break with Russia on the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which it might not have done without September 11 and the unprecedented cooperation with Russia in central Asia which followed. But it has not moved on any of the other issues.
Bush showed characteristic treaty phobia when he evaded Vladimir Putin's proposals for a formal agreement on the strategic weapons cuts outlined at their recent summit. Mort Halperin, one of the leading advocates of multilateralism over the years, notes a similar phobia about the UN, and the avoidance of a security council resolution on Afghanistan. "Britain could have said that we want a resolution on Afghanistan. The council would have said yes. If the UK had insisted the administration would have agreed to it. After all, Bush senior went to the council for a resolution in similar circumstances."
Bush's administration cannot bring itself to refer to another UN resolution, ordering all states to surrender Bin Laden, because it dates from the Clinton era. Indeed its refusal generally to touch on any of the achievements of the Clinton period, especially if they involve multilateral efforts or "nation building", is marked. "They can't bring themselves to make a big thing out of what the US and NATO did in Bosnia and Kosovo," a Washington journalist said, "which would be an important asset in persuading Muslims of America's good intentions, because they refuse to acknowledge anything that the previous administration did."
The almost perversely unilateralist side of this administration was illustrated for one visiting group of Europeans, a party of British MPs, when they questioned John Bolton, under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, about the recent UN vote on moving forward on the comprehensive test-ban treaty, which stood at 148 to one, the one being the US. Bolton apparently replied that he was very proud of that vote.
The other side of the administration, of course, is represented by Colin Powell and by such behind-the-scenes figures as Brent Scowcroft. Jim Mann, of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, has written that expectations of a sudden shift toward multilateralism were facile. Nevertheless, he believes that the Bush administration may end up working out its own kind of internationalist approach. "It won't be classic multilateralism, but it will be different from what this administration started off with."
Another observer of the administration says: "People are overwhelmed. They have been working seven days a week, 20 hours a day. As things calm down and they look at the issues and grasp that nearly all of the threats we face are transnational and need international solutions - terrorism, aids, drugs, global warming, you name it - I think they will change."
This argument from exhaustion is not conclusive. The hard evidence so far mainly supports the pessimists. The optimists rest on intuition. The fundamental question of the Bush administration's future international orientation remains open.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001