When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, the problem of the Barbary pirates was waiting for him. These Moorish privateers, outfitted in Algeria, Morocco, Tripoli and Tunis, were prowling the seas off the North African coast as their predecessors had done for two centuries. They plundered British, French and American merchantmen and held the ships’ crews for ransom. With other nations ineffective, Jefferson said in effect: Since no one is taking care of this, I will. He sent U.S. warships to the Mediterranean; and when the pirates had been routed, he signed a treaty with the pasha of Tripoli.
In the history of U.S. foreign policy since then, the closest formulation to that go-it-alone principle was made by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address on Jan. 29. To be sure, Mr. Bush began his speech with a brief reference to the coalition against terrorism, and he ended it with a lengthier claim that the United States is now working with Russia and China in ways it never has before.
The president’s emphasis, however, was not on international cooperation in the so-called war against terrorism, but on ringing declarations of U.S. readiness to be the policeman he thinks the world needs. At one point he put it plainly: My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.... But some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it. If they do not act, America will.
This policy has already become known as the Bush doctrine. It is indeed new, although in the days following the speech some spokesmen for the administration appeared to be trying to tone it down. Even if diluted, it raises troubling questions.
Mr. Bush may judge that the military campaign in Afghanistan proved that a go-it-alone policy works well, but that is not exactly true. We had many allies in that fight. And while the Taliban regime was toppled, Afghanistan is hardly stable; the centers of power there are still shifting. Besides, that was an action against a regime that was easy to overwhelm because it had no anti-aircraft defense. That would not happen in an encounter with the three powers that Mr. Bush described, in a phrase that has become notorious, as forming an axis of evil: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
In any case, there are more important considerations than those associated with Afghanistan. Since the end of World War II, the United States has espoused internationalismin its support of NATO, for instance. This is not only a commendable policy, but also an indispensable one in today’s interconnected world.
In the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell has spoken most clearly for this internationalismnaturally so, for he has had the job of organizing the coalition against terrorism and holding it together. He is also aware of the importance of setting precedents. He argued, with eventual success, that even if Afghanistan captives did not fit the definition of prisoners of war, they should be treated as such, lest in the future captured U.S. soldiers not be treated so.
Of course, President Bush acknowledges the ideal of collaboration, but his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and his withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty showed that he has little enthusiasm for internationalism. The State of the Union address implied that the president of the United States can be relied upon to decide what the world needs.
No doubt, there can be emergencies in which action is necessary and unilateral action is the only option. Secretary Powell himself said last month that the United States will not shrink from doing what is right, which is in our interest, even if some of our friends disagree with us.
The reactions of European leaders to the Bush doctrine suggest, however, that friends may be lost if Washington disdains a reasonable multilateralism. Mr. Bush may reply that his speech was popular at home, and so is his policy. Perhaps the doctrine appeals to a lone-ranger strand in the American psyche, but people elsewhere fear that spirit.
Mr. Bush said months ago that the war against terrorism would be a long one. It may well be true, as he said on Jan. 29, that the civilized world now faces unprecedented dangers. But in this moment of crisis, he appears to be taking a wrong turn.