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Bush's Unilateralism Has Deep Roots In U.S. History…Have We Learned Nothing?

Bush's Unilateralism Has Deep Roots In U.S. History


March 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Times Union

A year after President George W. Bush launched a U.S. military invasion of Iraq, troubling questions remain about the unilateral policy that he adopted.

Although the President did, grudgingly, consult the United Nations about the issue of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, he seemed interested only in the world organization's approval of his belligerent approach. When the U.N. Security Council recommended giving U.N. weapons inspectors more time to do their job, he declared its position irrelevant. When key U.S. allies pressed for greater patience, he denounced them. Having failed to convince most other nations of the need to invade Iraq, he ignored them and opted for war.

This unilateral approach to world affairs has deep roots in U.S. history.

In his Farewell Address of 1796, President George Washington urged Americans to have "as little political connection as possible" with foreign nations.

And for more than a century, the United States followed that advice. Scrapping the alliance with France that had helped the United States win independence, the new U.S. government steered clear of alliances with foreign nations and set out on its own independent course in world affairs.

This unilateralist policy did not mean that the United States avoided wars. Indeed, it fought bloody wars against Great Britain, Mexico, Indian nations, Spain and the Philippines in the years before 1917. It also dispatched troops to Panama, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba and other small nations to take control of them. But it did not act in concert with other nations. Instead, it acted on its own.

An alternative trend, internationalism, began to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observing that unrestricted national independence was leading to international anarchy, farsighted individuals argued that national sovereignty would have to be curtailed in the interest of international security. One of their key proposals -- a world security organization -- grew increasingly popular, and was championed by President Woodrow Wilson in the form of a League of Nations.

After the vast destruction and carnage of World War I, Wilson worked with the leaders of other great powers to establish the League. Only the diehard resistance of isolationist forces in the United States (the unilateralists of their day) managed to block U.S. participation in it. During the 1930s, isolationists also did an effective job of blocking any other kind of collective security arrangement that might have prevented fascist aggression.

But World War II, which left 50 million dead and the world in ruins, finally convinced Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt and most Americans that the establishment of an effective world security organization was imperative. As a result, the United Nations was launched in the United States with great fanfare in 1945. The internationalists, it appeared, had won the argument and unilateralism was dead.

But, like a bad habit, unilateralism did not entirely disappear. It merely went underground and assumed new forms.

Although U.S. government officials gave lip service to the United Nations, they refused to provide it with much power. Instead, they championed U.S. military buildups and occasional U.S. military action, including wars. Sometimes they took a compromise approach by participating in alliance systems, like NATO, which -- though falling far short of a world organization -- at least tempered U.S. policy by bringing allies into the decision-making process.

And now unilateralism has burst into the open again through the policies of the Bush administration. Playing on popular fears of terrorism, the administration has withdrawn from treaties signed by its predecessors, ignored the advice of its closest allies and snubbed the United Nations.

This unilateralism has been most evident in its handling of the Iraq situation. U.N. action, including action by U.N. inspectors, had stripped the Iraqi regime of most of its military power, including all its weapons of mass destruction. In this context, U.N. officials and U.S. allies repeatedly urged restraint upon the restless Bush administration. Ultimately, however, the administration did exactly what it wanted to do: wage an unprovoked war against Iraq.

Justifying this, President Bush said that the United States did not have to ask anyone's permission before launching a war. But, of course, under the U.N. charter, it was precisely such permission that was required. And the U.S. government did not receive it.

It's easy enough to understand why the leaders of great powers, emboldened by their vast military strength, have been tempted to take unilateral action. But as we should have learned after two world wars and numerous smaller ones, it's a hell of a way to run a world.

Lawrence S. Wittner is a history professor at the University at Albany and the author of "Toward Nuclear Abolition" (Stanford University Press).

Have We Learned Nothing?

February 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Akron Beacon Journal (OH). All rights reserved.

Does history repeat itself? If one looks back 100 years ago, it does. Just compare the Spanish-American War in 1898 with today's Iraq war.

In 1898, the president and Congress were looking for reasons to start a war with Spain, which controlled Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and the perfect excuse came when the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing many U.S. servicemen. The Spanish were blamed for the explosion, and Congress quickly declared war. ``Remember the Maine'' was the battle cry.

A Navy investigation years after the war placed the likely cause a coal-dust explosion in the engine room, an accident. The war lasted a few months, with 385 Americans killed. U.S. troops were sent to the Philippines to liberate the people who had been under the control of the Spanish dictators. The troops would occupy the Philippines until the country had the type of government we thought was best for it.

Many Filipinos wanted a different type of government. American soldiers were ambushed and killed. The Philippine Insurrection began. The battles, ambushes and bombings went on for almost three years. Total American dead from this occupation was 4,234 -- almost 11 times more than were killed during the war. The American president who was commander in chief during the war and insurrection, William McKinley, was assassinated by an American citizen on Sept. 6, 1901 -- the insurrection not yet over.

The first three of the past events have already been repeated, with the weapons of mass destruction rallying cry (which now looks to be untrue), the short war with a low number of combat deaths, and the occupation ambushes and bombings.

Let's all hope the last two events don't repeat.

Sam Hevener

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