Lawrence Wittner: Unilaterialism Has Deep Roots in American History

Roundup: Historians' Take

Lawrence S. Wittner, in the Albany Times Union (March 14, 2004):

A year after President George W. Bush launched a U.S. military invasion of Iraq, troubling questions remain about the unilateral policy that he adopted.

Although the President did, grudgingly, consult the United Nations about the issue of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, he seemed interested only in the world organization's approval of his belligerent approach. When the U.N. Security Council recommended giving U.N. weapons inspectors more time to do their job, he declared its position irrelevant. When key U.S. allies pressed for greater patience, he denounced them. Having failed to convince most other nations of the need to invade Iraq, he ignored them and opted for war.

This unilateral approach to world affairs has deep roots in U.S. history.

In his Farewell Address of 1796, President George Washington urged Americans to have"as little political connection as possible" with foreign nations.

And for more than a century, the United States followed that advice. Scrapping the alliance with France that had helped the United States win independence, the new U.S. government steered clear of alliances with foreign nations and set out on its own independent course in world affairs.

This unilateralist policy did not mean that the United States avoided wars. Indeed, it fought bloody wars against Great Britain, Mexico, Indian nations, Spain and the Philippines in the years before 1917. It also dispatched troops to Panama, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba and other small nations to take control of them. But it did not act in concert with other nations. Instead, it acted on its own....

And now unilateralism has burst into the open again through the policies of the Bush administration. Playing on popular fears of terrorism, the administration has withdrawn from treaties signed by its predecessors, ignored the advice of its closest allies and snubbed the United Nations.

This unilateralism has been most evident in its handling of the Iraq situation. U.N. action, including action by U.N. inspectors, had stripped the Iraqi regime of most of its military power, including all its weapons of mass destruction. In this context, U.N. officials and U.S. allies repeatedly urged restraint upon the restless Bush administration. Ultimately, however, the administration did exactly what it wanted to do: wage an unprovoked war against Iraq.

Justifying this, President Bush said that the United States did not have to ask anyone's permission before launching a war. But, of course, under the U.N. charter, it was precisely such permission that was required. And the U.S. government did not receive it.

It's easy enough to understand why the leaders of great powers, emboldened by their vast military strength, have been tempted to take unilateral action. But as we should have learned after two world wars and numerous smaller ones, it's a hell of a way to run a world.

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