How the US became the world’s dispensable nation

By Michael Lind

Financial Times

Published: January 25 2005

In a second inaugural address tinged with evangelical zeal, George W. Bush declared: "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world." The peoples of the world, however, do not seem to be listening. A new world order is indeed emerging - but its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe, at meetings to which Americans have not been invited.

Consider Asean Plus Three (APT), which unites the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China, Japan and South Korea. This group could become the world's largest trade bloc, dwarfing the European Union and North American Free Trade Association. The deepening ties of the APT member states are a big diplomatic defeat for the US, which hoped to use the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum to limit the growth of Asian economic regionalism at American expense. In the same way, recent moves by South American countries to bolster an economic community represent a clear rejection of US aims to dominate a western-hemisphere free-trade zone.

Consider, as well, the EU's rapid progress towards military independence. American protests failed to prevent the EU establishing its own military planning agency, independent of the Nato alliance (and thus of Washington). Europe is building up its own rapid reaction force. And, despite US resistance, the EU is developing Galileo, its own satellite network, which will break the monopoly of the US global positioning satellite system.

The participation of China in Europe's Galileo project has alarmed the US military. But China shares an interest with other aspiring space powers in preventing American control of space for military and commercial uses. Even while collaborating with Europe on Galileo, China is partnering Brazil to launch satellites. And in an unprecedented move, China recently agreed to host Russian forces for joint Russo-Chinese military exercises.

The US is being sidelined even in the area that Mr Bush identified in last week's address as America's mission: the promotion of democracy and human rights. The EU has devoted far more resources to consolidating democracy in post-communist Europe than has the US. By contrast, under Mr Bush the US hypocritically uses the promotion of democracy as the rationale for campaigns against states it opposes for strategic reasons. Washington denounces tyranny in Iran but tolerates it in Pakistan. In Iraq, the goal of democratisation was invoked only after the invasion, which was justified earlier by claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Nor is American democracy a shining example to mankind. The present one-party rule in the US has been produced in part by the artificial redrawing of political districts to favour Republicans. The role of money in American politics continues to grow. America's judges - many of whom will be appointed by Mr Bush - increasingly behave as partisan political activists in black robes. America's antiquated winner-take-all electoral system has been abandoned by many other democracies for more inclusive versions of proportional representation.

In other areas of global moral and institutional reform, the US today is a follower rather than a leader. Human rights? Europe has banned the death penalty and torture. The US is a leading practitioner of execution. Under Mr Bush, the US has constructed an international military gulag in which the torture of suspects has frequently occurred. The international rule of law? For generations, promoting international law in collaboration with other nations was a US goal. But the neoconservatives who dominate Washington today mock the very idea of international law. The next US attorney general will be the White House counsel who scorned the Geneva Conventions as obsolete.

A decade ago, American triumphalists mocked those who argued that the world was becoming multipolar rather than unipolar. Where was the evidence of balancing against the US? they asked. Today the evidence of foreign co-operation to reduce American primacy is everywhere - from the increasing importance of regional trade blocs that exclude the US to international space projects and military exercises in which the US is conspicuous by its absence.

It is true that the US remains the only country capable of projecting military power throughout the world. But unipolarity in the military sphere, narrowly defined, is not preventing the rapid development of multipolarity in the geopolitical and economic arenas - far from it. And the other great powers, with the exception of the UK, are content to let the US waste blood and treasure on its doomed attempt at hegemony in the Middle East.

That the rest of the world is building institutions and alliances that shut out the US should come as no surprise. The view that American leaders can be trusted to use a monopoly of military and economic power for the good of humanity has never been widely shared outside the US. The trend toward multipolarity has probably been accelerated by the truculent unilateralism of the Bush administration, whose motto seems to be that of the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn: "Include me out." In recent memory, nothing could be done without the US. But today, most international institution-building of any long-term importance in global diplomacy and trade occurs without American participation.

In 1998 Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, said of the US: "We are the indispensable nation." By backfiring, the unilateralism of Mr Bush has proved her wrong. The US, it turns out, is a dispensable nation. Europe, China, Russia, Latin America and other regions and nations are quietly taking measures whose effect, if not sole purpose, will be to cut America down to size.

Ironically, the US, having won the cold war, is adopting the strategy that led the Soviet Union to lose it: hoping that raw military power will be sufficient to intimidate other great powers alienated by its belligerence. To compound the irony, these other great powers are drafting the blueprints for new international institutions and alliances. That is what the US did during and after the second world war.

But that was a different America, led by wise and constructive statesmen such as Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who wrote of being "present at the creation". The bullying approach of the Bush administration has ensured that the US will not be invited to take part in designing the international architecture of Europe and Asia in the 21st century. This time, the US is absent at the creation.

The writer is senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC