A review of Allies: The U.S., Britain, Europe, and the War in Iraq, by William Shawcross; and Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, by Clyde Prestowitz.
Clyde Prestowitz and William Shawcross make an odd couple. Shawcross began his career with a stinging indictment of American arms in Southeast Asia but in his latest book can hardly find anything about America to criticize. By his own account in Rogue Nation, Prestowitz began as an ardent supporter of the United States and has served his country in various capacities but now can hardly find anything about America to praise.
Prestowitz's argument is the more complex or confusing of the two. He begins with the fact that foreigners like Americans but care less and less for the United States. He offers a number of explanations for this, but often undermines them. For example, his analysis of the argument between the U.S. and the European Union over the Kyoto environmental treaty shows that the United States had the better case. The treaty was flawed and supported by the Europeans largely because Green environment ministers, leftists long antagonistic to the United States and its now world-dominating socio-economic system, flexed their political muscle. Prestowitz argues that faced with American resistance the Europeans came eventually to accept most of the changes that the Americans wantedyet we still walked away from the deal. Even if this is so, this episode hardly supports the charge that the U.S. unilaterally and arrogantly tried to sabotage an environmental treaty because its citizens are addicted to SUVs, a caricature of the American position put about by the Europeans and some American critics of the Bush Administration.
Similarly, Prestowitz argues that in the aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War, the United States was able to construct and maintain an international financial system that favors it, largely because the dollar is the global currency. This has bred resentment, according to Prestowitz. Yet as he suggests, the United States dominates the international financial system as part of a bargain in which it also assumes the main burden of maintaining order in the world. Not only does this require that we expend much more of our wealth on security than anyone else, but also that we pay with the lives of our citizens. It may be as Prestowitz maintains that more than ten years after the end of the Cold War this financial and security bargain needs further revision, but again his recounting of the bargain and the recent strains on it does not obviously show the United States to be at fault.
The same pattern emerges if we look at what may be to Prestowitz the most important of the specific problems between the U.S. and the rest of the world. He is very critical of what he calls the Bush Administration's foreign policy of "supremacy and preemptive attack." He notes that the last time Paul Wolfowitz, now the Deputy Secretary of Defense, was in the Pentagon in the early 1990s, the Defense Department developed a secret policy that called for the United States to act in such a way that no state would be able to emerge as what came to be called a peer competitor. When someone leaked this secret policy of preeminence to the press, it elicited a storm of criticism and was disavowed by the first Bush Administration. Prestowitz laments that this doctrine has now become the publicly declared policy of the current Bush Administration. Furthermore, he links it to the administration's doctrine of preemption, or striking terrorists before they strike us, and offers it as a manifestation of the new arrogant, bullying imperial temper of the United States.
Prestowitz's argument is confusing at this point because the policy of preeminence and the doctrine of preemption are in fact separate things. What Wolfowitz fathered secretly in the early 1990s and publicly ten years later is a quite normal aspiration for a nation in the position of the United States. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any nation planning to reduce its influence and status in the world. We should be surprised to find a country not trying to improve its position. Since World War II, for example, France has relentlessly attempted to knit its tattered remnants into something resembling its lost glory. Britain, in the words of a former foreign minister, attempts to punch above its weight in the world. If Prestowitz's criticism were that the United States should not state the obvious and that in doing so it will only make life harder for itself by arousing jealousy and resentment, it would be a fair criticism. But Prestowitz does not seem to think that nations do or should think of their status in the world and so finds the vulgar chest thumping of the Bush Administration somehow a threat to international relations as we have known them since the Treaty of Westphalia. In fact, the Bush Administration has merely proclaimed openly what all nations think privately.
The revolutionary character that Prestowitz attributes to what he calls the Bush policy of "supremacy and preemptive attack" resides really in the second of its elements. The revolution is not in the idea of preemption, which has long been an acknowledged right of nations faced with an imminent threat. The revolution comes in a new understanding of "imminent." According to international law, as the Bush National Security Strategy document notes, a nation may respond to a threat of attack if the attack is imminent in the sense of "a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack." But in a world where weapons of mass destruction "can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning," the strategy argues, "we must adapt the concept of imminent threat." In other words, in the past the fact that an enemy had an army, navy, or air force was not sufficient to justify attacking him. These forces had to be poised to attack. Today, more destructive power than military forces of the past possessed can be contained in a few vials or a small device that can be concealed and used clandestinely. Therefore, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction, along with hostile intent, makes a country or a group of terrorists a legitimate target for preemptive action. This is what the Bush national strategy means and what the war on Iraq exemplifies. Prestowitz recognizes this argument but does not probe its necessity. He merely offers it as another irritant to our relations with others, a policy we should apparently be willing to give up in order to reduce this irritation.
In all of these individual issues, as Prestowitz presents them, the United States is for the most part not obviously the bad guy, yet Prestowitz, like many around the world, finds the United States at fault. If the individual issues do not explain this antipathy, what might? Prestowitz's account suggests explicitly or implicitly several possibilities. First it is natural to resent the strongest, particularly if you were once the strongest. As Prestowitz makes clear statistically and anecdotally, our preeminence surpasses that of Rome or Great Britain at her height. Moreover, it is in the self-interest of others, confronted by our enormous power, to make us feel that we should not exercise it in our own self-interest. Thus they criticize in us what they themselves relentlessly do. Second, some Europeans do not want their cozy world rocked. The elites in these countries, particularly France, have struck a bargain that allows them to arrange a comfortable life for themselves in government and business in return for managing a state and economy in which workers get ever shorter work weeks and fatter and earlier pensions. This bargain is unsustainable in a world of open competition, the world that the United States pushes for, while trying to make exceptions to serve its own internal political needs. Finally, Prestowitz emphasizes process. As his narrative makes clear, he travels around the world to various meetings talking with the great and good about one pressing international problem after another. Everyone involved in these various peace, environmental, financial, and diplomatic processes focuses on keeping the processes going, fortified apparently by the belief that the processes themselves are good and will produce a better world. Failure to act in a way that will keep the processes going earns ostracism and disdain from the great and good. This has been the fate of the Bush Administration and thus the U.S., for the Bush Administration has focused not so much on the processes as good in themselves as on the rightness and wrongness of their objectives and on what will best serve the interests of the United States.
In all the trouble it has had with the rest of the world and in particular the Europeans, the United States has found a resolute ally in Great Britain and more particularly in Tony Blair. William Shawcross explains this by arguing that Bush and Blair, despite all their differences, have one most important thing in common. Unlike the leaders of other nations with whom they deal, they are what he calls conviction politicians, and their convictions arise from a shared Christian faith. Both Bush and Blair care more about the rightness and wrongness of what is done than about the various international processes that get these things done. They, particularly Bush, are willing to sacrifice the process for the sake of doing the right thing. As a practical matter of political survival, Blair cannot go so far in this direction as Bush, at least not publicly. Consequently, for example, he encouraged Bush to use the United Nations to resolve the dispute with Iraq. But in principle Bush and Blair, in Shawcross's account, are committed to doing the right thing and this commitment makes them true allies.
Shawcross contrasts Bush and Blair with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. In a book that is often nothing more than a smooth retelling of what has appeared in the international press, one of the more entertaining sections is Shawcross's recapitulation of Chirac's dealings with Saddam Hussein. Of many years standing and not to Chirac's credit, these include the deal that gave Saddam the nuclear reactor that Israel later blew up. Shawcross does not refrain from repeating rumors that Chirac took money from Saddam for his various election campaigns. Given that this sort of thing was a common practice among the French political elite, especially with some of Africa's worst tyrants, the rumors may well be true. This personal connection between Chirac and Saddam, coupled with French investment in Iraq and fear of the reaction among France's considerable Muslim population, explains, according to Shawcross, why France opposed Britain and the U.S. As for Schroeder, Shawcross presents him as a failed Chancellor who opposed the United States as the only possible way to win reelection and who has now legitimated anti-Americanism in Germany. Shawcross sees this as almost unparalleled ingratitude on the part of the Germans, who would not be as well off today as they are if it were not for the Americans.
Shawcross tries to make the contrast between Bush and Blair on the one hand and Chirac and Schroeder on the other all the starker through a long narrative meant to show why the invasion of Iraq was, as his final chapter puts it, "the right thing to do." This strategy ultimately fails. It is true that Saddam was vicious, that he may have possessed weapons of mass destruction, that his defiance of sixteen U.N resolutions threatened the integrity of the international legal system centered on the U.N., and that he was supporting suicide bombers in their attacks against Israel. Yet, even if all these things were true, they do not constitute a convincing argument for invading Iraq. For example, Shawcross fails to consider that some in Europe and the United States opposed the war solely on the issue of its timing, believing that dealing more effectively with al-Qaeda was a higher priority. In retrospect, it is clear that the effort in Iraq has detracted from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. Nor does Shawcross consider if Saddam's fall has made any difference in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or even decreased the number of suicide attacks in this conflict. If the argument for invading Iraq is not self-evident, as Shawcross apparently thinks it is, then Chirac and Schroeder are not self-evidently corrupt self-interested knaves. They may be corrupt self-interested knaves who were right about the war against Iraq.
However this may be, Shawcross suggests that the problems that the United States has with the rest of the world, and particularly with other European countries, derive in large part from a fundamental difference. Bush exemplifies the American tradition of allowing convictions to influence the conduct of foreign relations. Because Blair shares this view, he is a true ally. Because others do not, they are not. Precisely this sort of distinction appalls someone like Prestowitz because it threatens the process. To the advocates of process, men of conviction appear to be rogues or fools.