Just when you were wondering what direction George W. Bush's foreign policy will be taking, Charles Krauthammer has it all figured out: in his Washington Post column [June 8, 2001] and in the Weekly Standard, the secret doctrine that animates our seemingly random and even haphazard foreign policy – on the surface not all that different from Clinton's – is revealed as "the new unilateralism." Ta da! But how, one might ask, is this different from the old unilateralism? Albeit "far from fully developed," the Bush Doctrine, according to Krauthammer, "is clear and carries enormous implications" – and with that one can surely agree without sharing Krauthammer's enthusiasm. For if Krauthammer is right, and the Bush Doctrine means what he says it does, then all I can say is: be afraid. Be very afraid. . . .
But Krauthammer, of course, is ecstatic. As a neoconservative who glories in the imperial pomp and splendor of what he calls "the unipolar moment," he exults in the prospect of an America unleashed on a tremulous world:.
"After eight years during which foreign policy success was largely measured by the number of treaties the president could sign and the number of summits he could attend, we now have an administration willing to assert American freedom of action and the primacy of American national interests. Rather than contain American power within a vast web of constraining international agreements, the new unilateralism seeks to strengthen American power and unashamedly deploy it on behalf of self-defined global ends."
But if these ends are "global," then what do they have to do with our national interests? And who, by the way, gets to define these "global ends"? It is the compliment paid to nationalism by the internationalists that they must always dress up their grandiose visions of a "new world order" (as Bush the Elder put it) in red-white-and-blue. But then the chameleon-like neocons, for whom Krauthammer is a major foreign policy oracle, have no trouble changing color as opportunity and luck would have it. Having started out as liberals (when to be left was chic), and wound up conservatives (just as it was becoming fashionable), there has been one and only one consistent principle upheld by this flock of migratory cowbirds: a vision of America as a global empire.
Of course, during the cold war they never put it in those terms: it was always a matter of defending ourselves against a supposedly inherently hostile and militaristic Soviet Union, or so these cold war liberals-turned-conservatives said. But now that the cold war is over, and the great emergency is over, their fulsome support for intervention abroad, far from receding, has expanded until it has taken on the grandiose trappings of a full-blown delusional system: a symptom of unbalance that Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist, somehow fails to diagnose in himself.
In the winter of 1989-90, when it became apparent that the once-mighty Soviet empire was crumbling, and neocon Deep Thinker Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming "the end of history," Krauthammer set out the goal and guiding principle of a fearsomely grandiose unilateralism:
"The goal is the world as described by Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama's provocation was to assume that the end [of history] – what he calls the common marketization of the world – is either here or inevitably dawning; it is neither. The West has to make it happen. It has to wish and work for a super-sovereign West economically, culturally, and politically hegemonic in the world."
The title of this 1989 essay, "Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World," succinctly sums up Krauthammer's megalomanic fever dream – a mad vision which frankly proclaims its worship of power and lust for conquest. The end of the cold war has brought these old-style empire-builders out of the closet, so to speak, and the "ism" that once dared not speak its own name now shouts it to the skies: the "unipolar moment" begets the "new" unilateralism, and, at the end of history, our Republic becomes an Empire in everything but name. Whatever is supposed to be "new" about the Krauthammer-Bush Doctrine, it bears an amazing resemblance to a very old doctrine, one that has been pursued by states since time immemorial, which we used to call imperialism. A nation that can afford to talk about "global ends" may pretend to be a republic, it may retain the forms of a republican (small 'r') and strictly limited form of government, but while we may fool ourselves, the rest of the world isn't taken in: they know an empire when they see it.
What, then, are these global ends the Bush administration is supposed to be seeking? Has the pragmatic Team Bush suddenly gotten religion and woken up to its imperial destiny? Well, hardly: after such a big buildup, it turns out that, rather than seize "the unilpolar moment" and establish "world dominion" once and for all, the three great assertions of the new unilateralist dispensation are all rather prosaic:
"Ends such as a defense against ballistic missiles. (We are – most Americans do not know – entirely defenseless against them today.) Indeed, the Bush administration's most dramatic demonstration of the new unilateralism was its pledge to develop missile defenses and thus abolish the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. And the most flamboyant demonstration of the new unilateralism was Bush's out-of-hand rejection of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, a refreshing assertion of unwillingness to be a party to farce, no matter how multilateral."
One glaring problem with Krauthammer's thesis that that these ends could be described as distinctly national rather than global in scope: indeed, the Europeans worry that a missile defense system will cause the US to turn "isolationist." As for the Kyoto treaty, what could be more nationalistic than a refusal to abide by an agreement the Senate won't ratify? But Krauthammer is here concerned more with method, than with content. He notes the predictable liberal Democratic response to this withdrawal from the Wilsonian internationalism of the Clinton administration, but frames the issue in terms of the unique American position as the "hyper-power," as the French like to call us. Citing a Washington Post editorial on Bush's recent forays into the foreign policy realm that opined "unilateralism [is] not an end in itself," Krauthammer concedes that this is true, "it only describes how one will conduct foreign policy," but, he insists "nonetheless, how one conducts foreign policy immeasurably affects what one ends up doing." As for what Krauthammer would like us to be doing, I need only refer back to his vision of Ultimate Unipolarity (call it UU for short), in which not only the US and Western Europe but also Japan are all conjoined in one Super-Sovereignty (SS), and you get the picture. Having achieved UU, we can frankly declare ourselves to be the one and only SS – in which the whole world is the US, the United States of the World.
You see, we aren't like other countries, or, indeed, any state or empire that ever existed. We are the culmination of the World Spirit, as Hegel (and Fukuyama) would have it, the apotheosis of human development, and our coming signals the end of ideological evolution – nothing less than the grand finale of History itself, which must now end if only because we cannot hope to surpass ourselves. With the end of the cold war, and the collapse of the old Soviet power, there is no barrier to our power, no limit to our freedom to work our will on the prostrate peoples of the world. Hubris, the old Greek word meaning an overweening pride that cometh before a fall, fits Krauthammer's crazed vision of "world dominion" to a tee. I say "crazed" not only because the sheer arrogance of such a goal makes it completely untenable and self-destructive, but also because madmen always see the portents of their own madness in perfectly ordinary events. For Krauthammer the entirely predictable rejection of a treaty based on dubious science (and even more dubious political science) marks the advent of a new era: only in Washington D.C. could such an unremarkable act be called "flamboyant," and perhaps only a columnist for the Washington Post could get away with it.
Oh yeah, we're really struttin' our stuff, according to Krauthammer. Unlike those wimps in the Clinton administration – who served under the most interventionist President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the Bushies, we are told, will not start "with a self-declared foreign policy of 'assertive multilateralism' – a moronic oxymoron that" means "you have sentenced yourself to reacting to events or passing the buck to multilingual committees with fancy acronyms." To hell with our allies – again, it's almost wonderful to see how a chameleon takes on the color of his background, in this case the isolationist and nationalist markings of the rank-and-file conservative Republican, but with a telltale touch of hubris. To hell with the Europeans, advises Krauthammer, and everybody else: now that the cold war is over, we shouldn't even think of restraining ourselves. We shouldn't bother, avers Krauthammer, because we're different:
"Small countries are condemned to such constraint. Nations like Israel and Taiwan have almost no freedom of action. Their foreign policy is driven by destiny, dictated by the single goal of sustaining their own existence. Even middle powers, such as Great Britain and Germany, find foreign policy largely dictated by necessities of power and geography. An unprecedentedly dominant United States, however, is in the unique position of being able to fashion its own foreign policy. After a decade of Prometheus playing pygmy, the first task of the new administration is precisely to reassert American freedom of action."
But, of course, for the greater part of our history, we always did have freedom of action. We owed this not only to the good fortune of geography, but, most of all, to the wisdom of the Founders that kept us out of entangling alliances, and largely unburdened by an empire until the turn of the nineteenth century. In our freedom, we chose not to seek out foreign troubles; it was only later, when the wisdom of the Founders was deemed anachronistic, that we became the prisoners of history, driven by a sense of Manifest Destiny not just to seed a continent but, somehow, to save the world.
contra Krauthammer, do have a choice: they can, like Israel, choose
to be aggressors, ruthlessly colonizing and conquering their neighbors, or,
like Switzerland, they can declare themselves uninterested in the spoils of
empire or the internal affairs of other nations, and pursue the path of peace.
Great Britain and Germany were driven down the road to empire not by geography
or the alleged "necessities" of power, but by the war-maddened designs of
their rulers. As for the immortal Prometheus
– well, we all know what happened to him. For the sin of hubris – that
is, of stealing the fire of the gods and deluding himself into thinking that
he could play god – he was sentenced in the court of Olympus to be forever
chained to a rock where vultures feasted on his liver (which, much to his
chagrin, grew back on a daily
For some, probably the overwhelming majority of conservative Republicans in Congress (and in the ranks of the GOP), the achievement of UU means that the obligation to intervene has passed. In their hands, the "new" unilateralism is the old isolationism, the decision to unilaterally declare "to hell with you guys, I'm going to feather my own nest." For a few others, such as Krauthammer and the Weekly Standard crowd, this is an opportunity to declare: to hell with you guys, we're "intervening abroad, not to 'nation-build' . . . but to protect vital interests." In short, we're going to feather our own nest by plucking the rest of you bare.
Krauthammer goes into lurid detail in his Weekly Standard piece about the shape of the coming world, which is depicted as all-but-inevitable. We are treated to the by-now-familiar triumphalist blather about the overwhelming magnificence and permanence of American political and military dominance. The glories of the new unilateralism – why doesn't he just call it the New Caesarism? – are celebrated:
"The international environment is far more likely to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium. This is not mere self-congratulation; it is a fact manifest in the way others welcome our power. It is the reason, for example, the Pacific Rim countries are loath to see our military presence diminished."
It's a long way from Washington, the Imperial City, to Okinawa, where the mayor and 99.9% of the inhabitants are demanding the swift exit of our "benign" presence, but surely Krauthammer has heard some vague rumors about discontent in the provinces of the Pacific Rim. Has he heard, perhaps, that even such a long-treasured relic of America's Pacific conquests as the US-Japan "Security" Treaty is being called into question by the Japanese foreign minister? Not only that, but the South Korean government, eager to peacefully absorb the failing regime in the North, is practically begging us to reconsider our reluctance to at least discuss the continued terms of our dominance. The recent US decision to reopen negotiations with Pyongyang is proof that the all-powerful "hegemons" in Washington must take reality into consideration, even if Krauthammer will not. But reality has nothing to do with Krauthammer's foreign policy vision. Lost in the theoretical cloud-cuckoo land of Fukuyama's "endism," he imagines that history, having ended, no longer holds any lessons for us, because, you see, we're the exception:
"Unlike other hegemons and would-be hegemons, we do not entertain a grand vision of a new world. No Thousand Year Reich. No New Soviet Man. By position and nature, we are essentially a status quo power. We have no particular desire to remake human nature, to conquer for the extraction of natural resources, or to rule for the simple pleasure of dominion. We could not wait to get out of Haiti, and we would get out of Kosovo and Bosnia today if we could. Our principal aim is to maintain the stability and relative tranquility of the current international system by enforcing, maintaining, and extending the current peace."
Krauthammer, who just got through telling us that America, uniquely, has complete "freedom of action," now informs us that "we would get out of Kosovo and Bosnia today if we could." Well, then, why can't we? Is it that we are not following the "unilateralist" strategy laid out by the architects of global "hegemony," or that we are imprisoned by our own Empire, and thus driven by "the necessities of power," as Krauthammer puts it? As for being a "status quo" power, the advantages of such a position are surely negligible. For what could be more Sisyphean – to take the mythic Greek analogies one step further – than the endless task of constantly shoring up our dominance on every continent, swatting down adversaries and potential rivals even before they rise to challenge us? What is the profit in such a thankless role? Our troubles, far from being over, would be eternal. In this sense, we would indeed share the fate of Prometheus, chained to his rock and tortured in perpetuity.
It is interesting to note the specific examples utilized by Krauthammer to illustrate how unilateralism is supposed to work in practice. In discussing what ought to be the concrete goals of Bush's foreign policy, number one on his list is:
"To enforce the peace by acting, uniquely, as the balancer of last resort everywhere. Britain was the balancer of power in Europe for over two centuries, always joining the weaker coalition against the stronger to create equilibrium. Our unique reach around the world allows us to be – indeed dictates that we be – the ultimate balancer in every region. We balanced Iraq by supporting its weaker neighbors in the Gulf War. We balance China by supporting the ring of smaller states at her periphery (from South Korea to Taiwan, even to Vietnam). One can argue whether we should have gone there, but our role in the Balkans was essentially to create a micro-balance: to support the weaker Bosnian Muslims against their more dominant ethnic neighbors, and subsequently to support the (at the time) weaker Kosovo Albanians against the dominant Serbs."
Does he really mean to convince us by citing Britain's path as one to follow when we all know where that road led: to decay, decline, and eventual fall into the quagmire of socialism? And what's this about how our uniqueness "dictates" that we must take on this role as the Ultimate Balancer – what happened to our much-vaunted "freedom of action"? We have indeed supported Iraq's weaker neighbors – but, today, they are no stronger, and, what's more, they are turning against us. And as for balancing China by supporting Vietnam – surely the irony of this doesn't have to be pointed out, since it leaps right out at anyone who remembers the dark history of US intervention in the region. Naturally, however, the lessons of history mean nothing to such a Promethean philosopher as Krauthammer, and so the tragic irony of history also eludes him.
What is surprising is that Krauthammer brings up the question of the Balkans at all, since this example surely makes mincemeat out of his argument that we can or should set ourselves up as the ultimate arbiter of world events. That parenthetical "(at the time)" says it all: in intervening, we upset the natural balance of forces in a troubled region, and unleashed the monster of Albanian ultra-nationalism – which is now rampaging through Macedonia, and even threatening Greece. Our continued presence, far from stabilizing the region, has plunged southeastern Europe into a maelstrom of war. Will we now join with our former enemies, the Serbs, to destroy the monster we have created – is this what we have to look forward to, indefinitely?
If the "new" unilateralism as explicated by Krauthammer triumphs, and his neoconservative buddies in the Bush administration have their way, then this is, indeed, our awful fate for years to come: endless intervention in an increasingly tumultuous and resentful world arena. But if you don't know Krauthammer's work, and have only read the Washington Post op-ed piece, the camouflage of "vital national interests" can be deceptive. An excellent article in the American Spectator by Daniel McAdams – linked here and featured as today's spotlight piece – opens with a hopeful discussion of Krauthammer's unilateralist proposal, "giving Krauthammer's declaration the benefit of every doubt," and then launches into an interesting exposure of our arrogant intervention in Belarus. The nation of Belarus, it seems, is not sufficiently "democratic" under President Alexander Lukashenka, in spite of his repeated victories at the polls. According to McAdams:
"A chief complaint against Lukashenka was that he was not enthusiastic enough about 'reform.' He was going slow on privatization. There were no fire-sales to hungry Western multinationals, as was going on all around the region with particularly devastating results next door in Russia. The "free market" was not being embraced. The Clinton administration response was to ship millions of our tax dollars to artificially prop up anti-Lukashenka newspapers, non-governmental organizations, and private businesses – all, of course, in the name of "free market reform." This is still going on under President Bush."
it is still going on. While Krauthammer and the Bushies realize that Russia
is no longer our enemy, this hardly means that they won't seize the opportunity
provided by "the unipolar moment" to grab what they can where they can
and not just in Belarus. The
whole region is under siege by the US. The US is currently conducting military exercises in Georgia – the former Soviet republic, not the former heart of the Confederacy – in conjunction with NATO. In concert with our NATO "partners," the Americans are also demanding the Macedonians make certain political "reforms" so as to meet the demands of the rampaging Albanians – a recipe for the division and dissolution of Macedonia and the further emboldening of Albanian expansionists to venture into Greece, Bulgaria, and beyond. All this takes place in the context of NATO expansion, and the reality that Russia will soon confront: US troops within striking distance of Moscow. Given this, is anyone really surprised that Belarus is also within our sights?
It's all part of the great balancing act that Krauthammer sees as the solemn duty of the American Empire, and perfectly consistent with "unilateralism," new-fangled or old-fashioned. Our military bases ring the world, and US troops occupy every continent worth dominating. After all, we have unilaterally decided to intervene, as Krauthammer puts it, "everywhere" – everywhere our heart desires. Given this, why shouldn't we overthrow the elected government of Belarus, or any other country – unilaterally, of course.
The big "debate" in the foreign policy realm between the "unilateralists," like Krauthammer, and the "multilateralists," like Clinton, is not really a debate at all. The former want the US to dominate the world all by itself, while the latter seek the cooperation of our allies and satraps. It is a "debate" over means, not ends, and thus not worth having. What is needed is a real discussion over the fundamental premises of US foreign policy in the post-cold war world. We need to start asking some basic questions, starting with: absent the Soviet threat, or its military and political equivalent, why do we need to intervene everywhere – or anywhere outside our own borders? The struggle between unilateralism and multilateralism is completely phony, because both lead inevitably to the same results: the endless expense of treasure and troops, in return for which we only garner increasingly resentment.
The real battle is between interventionism and the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers, between the advocates of Empire and the defenders of our old Republic – and, in that struggle, there can be no compromise. As Garet Garrett, the trenchant conservative critic of globalism, put it in 1952, long before "the unipolar moment,"
"Between government in the republican meaning, that is, Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity. Either one must forbid the other or one will destroy the other. that we know. Yet never has the choice been put to a vote of the people."
Well, we did have an election not all that long ago, and I do seem to remember George W. Bush promising not only to get us out of the Balkans but holding up the virtues of a "humble" foreign policy, of an America that stands in cautious awe of its own terrible power. But, at least so far, I see no evidence of this much vaunted humility, no indication that we intend to draw back from the abyss – only a unilateral arrogance that can only end in disaster.
A contribution of $25 or more gets you a copy of Justin Raimondo's Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans, a 60-page booklet packed with the kind of intellectual ammunition you need to fight the lies being put out by this administration and its allies in Congress. And now, for a limited time, donors of $50 or more receive a copy of Ronald Radosh's classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send contributions to
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