March 12, 2004

The U.S. Must be Isolated and Constrained

The Coming Elections and the Future of American Global Power

by Gabriel Kolko

We are now experiencing fundamental changes in the international system whose implications and consequences may ultimately be as far-reaching as the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

The United States' strength, to a crucial extent, has rested on its ability to convince other nations that it is to their vital interests to see America prevail in its global role. But the scope and ultimate consequences of its world mission, including its extraordinarily vague doctrine of "preemptive wars," is today far more dangerous and open-ended than when Communism existed. Enemies have disappeared and new ones--many once former allies and even congenial friends--have taken their places. The United States, to a degree to which it is itself uncertain, needs alliances, but these allies will be bound into uncritical "coalitions of the willing."

So long as the future is to a large degree--to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--"unknowable," it is not to the national interest of its traditional allies to perpetuate the relationships created from 1945 to 1990. The Bush Administration, through ineptness and a vague ideology of American power that acknowledges no limits on its global ambitions, and a preference for unilateralist initiatives which discounts consultations with its friends much less the United Nations, has seriously eroded the alliance system upon which U. S. foreign policy from 1947 onwards was based. With the proliferation of all sorts of destructive weaponry, the world will become increasingly dangerous.

If Bush is reelected then the international order may be very different in 2008 than it is today, much less in 1999, but there is no reason to believe that objective assessments of the costs and consequences of its actions will significantly alter his foreign policy priorities over the next four years.

If the Democrats win they will attempt in the name of internationalism to reconstruct the alliance system as it existed before the Yugoslav war of 1999, when even the Clinton Administration turned against the veto powers built into the NATO system. America's power to act on the world scene would therefore be greater. John Kerry's foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, worked for Bush's National Security Council until a year ago. More important, Kerry himself voted for many of Bush's key foreign and domestic measures and he is, at best, an indifferent candidate. His statements and interviews over the past weeks dealing with foreign affairs have been both vague and incoherent. Kerry is neither articulate nor impressive as a candidate or as someone who is likely to formulate an alternative to Bush's foreign and defense policies, which have much more in common with Clinton's than they have differences. To be critical of Bush is scarcely justification for wishful thinking about Kerry. Since 1947, the foreign policies of the Democrats and Republicans have been essentially consensual on crucial issues--"bipartisan" as both parties phrase it--but they often utilize quite different rhetoric.

. . . America will be more prudent and the world will be far safer only if the Bush Administration is constrained by a lack of allies and isolated.


Gabriel Kolko is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?.

"Realpolitik and Terrorism," The Wisdom Fund

AUDIO: Stephen Kinzer, "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror," August 20, 2003

VIDEO: John Pilger, The US and terrorism, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, March 3, 2004

Rahul Mahajan, "War on Terrorism Makes Us All Less Safe," CounterPunch, March 12, 2004

Ed McCullough, "Spain's Ruling Party Ousted From Power After Terror Attack," Associated Press, March 14, 2004

[The American government is charged with "sacrificing human rights in the name of security at home, turning a blind eye to abuses abroad, using pre-emptive military force where and when it chooses". This draconian approach, Amnesty says, has "damaged justice and freedom, and made the world a more dangerous place".--Kim Sengupta, "Amnesty: 'Bankrupt' war on terror is world's most damaging conflict in 50 years," Independent, March 27, 2004]

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, "The Effect of the War in Iraq On America's Security," George Washington University, September 27, 2004

Jonathan Steele, " Annan attacks erosion of rights in war on terror: US and Britain in UN secretary general's sights," Guardian, March 11, 2005

Scott Shane, Stephen Grey and Margot Williams, "C.I.A. Expanding Terror Battle Under Guise of Charter Flights," New York Times, May 31, 2005

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, "Washington recasts terror war as 'struggle'," International Herald Tribune, July 27, 2005

Jon Basil Utley, "Landmark Conference Critiques War on Terror," CounterPunch, September 12, 2005

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