Wednesday, March 19, 2003

The latest and most distinguished member of the "Bush is blowing it" club is Fareed Zakaria, foreign affairs (and, formerly, Foreign Affairs) heavyweight, writing in Newsweek. As someone who often expatiates at length on international relations, on which I'm no expert, I sometimes wonder at my own hubris in daring to challenge the discipline's most august scholars. Then I read stuff like Zakaria's shallow nonsense, and I remember that sometimes just a passing familiarity with recent events can put one ahead of the leading lights in the field.

Zakaria's claim has three parts. First, "in its campaign against Iraq, America is virtually alone. Never will it have waged a war in such isolation. Never have so many of its allies been so firmly opposed to its policies. Never has it provoked so much public opposition, resentment and mistrust." Second, "[w]hat worries people around the world above all else is living in a world shaped and dominated by one country—the United States. And they have come to be deeply suspicious and fearful of us." And finally, the Bush administration "developed a language and diplomatic style that seemed calculated to offend the world....In terms of effectiveness, this strategy has been a disaster. It has alienated friends and delighted enemies."

Now, none of these three claims is unfamiliar to current readers of the major newspapers' op-ed pages (Thomas Friedman alone has probably made each of them a dozen times or more over the last couple of years). What's remarkable about them, though, is their astonishing lack of historical perspective. I speak here not of dusty, millenia-deep classical historical perspective ("as at Thermopylae/Nippur/Yanling..."), but rather the basic historical perspective of a reasonably educated, current events-aware person who understands that people have not always seen the world exactly as op-ed columnists do today.

With respect to America's isolation, for example, Zakaria goes to great lengths to distinguish the current, supposedly unprecedented wave of international opposition to America from the Cold War era, when, for example, "in most polls, 30 to 40 percent of Europeans supported American policies." Zakaria's second point--that fear of American world domination is the source of much of the hostility--rests directly on his first. "U.S. supremacy is hardly a recent phenomenon," he writes. "Yet for five decades after World War II, there was no general rush to gang up against the United States"--supposedly because of the latter's history of friendliness and generosity.

A more accurate statement would be that America's military umbrella discouraged a few allies--sometimes--from participating in a general rush to gang up against the United States. It's certainly true that at least a large minority of Western Europeans back then were occasionally able to keep in mind the role of hundreds of thousands of American troops in protecting them from the ravages of Soviet conquest. On the other hand, European opposition to American actions like the invasion of Grenada or the Marine intervention in Lebanon (to say nothing of the Vietnam war) was hardly incomparable with today's mood. The invasion of Grenada in 1983, for example, was condemned outright in the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 109-9, with 5 NATO countries abstaining, and the rest joining the majority.

And as that Grenada vote indicates, the non-European world was, if anything, even more anti-American back then than it is now. Another UN vote from the eighties endorsed the International Court of Justice's 1986 ruling that the US was guilty of violating international law in its support for the Nicaraguan Contras. It passed in 1988 with 89 yeas and only two nays (the US and Israel); 48 countries (including most--but not all--NATO countries) abstained. The Assembly passed a sequence of similar anti-American resolutions regarding Nicaragua over the next couple of years, all by very similar margins. As Jim Pinkerton (of Zakaria's own New America Foundation) recently wrote, "By the mid-'70s, the General Assembly, expanded by decolonialization to 138 members, was dominated by its Third World majority. America's ambassadors to the UN, including George H.W. Bush, the future 41st president, were ineffective at stopping or even articulately arguing against a string of anti-American votes."

Zakaria's most commonly-agreed-with--and most ridiculous--claim, though, is that it is the Bush administration's "tough talk of a Chicago mobster" that has "generated international opposition and active measures to thwart its will". Reading Zakaria or his likeminded colleagues, one would gather that Osama bin Laden and Jacques Chirac had been created on September 12, 2001, by an international consortium piqued at America's sudden lapse into bad manners. Nowhere do they acknowledge that the tide of anti-Americanism had been steadily rising around the world--and in Europe and the Islamic world in particular--since its low ebb around the time of America's twin victories in the Cold and Gulf Wars. (Robert Kagan, in his influential Foreign Policy article, noted this same phenomenon, although he invented an unconvincing grand philosophical conflict to explain it.) Bin Laden's "fatwa" declaring jihad against the United States was issued in 1998. French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine coined the term "hyperpower" ("hyperpuissance") to describe the American menace (and he really characterized it as such) in 1999. These events, lest we forget, occurred during the administration of a president who embraced multilateralism wholeheartedly and spent much of his time in the White House trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute through negotiations.

It would certainly be reassuring to take at face value Zakaria's claim that "in diplomacy, style is often substance." After all, if mere style adjustments could recapture the popularity of an America flushed with victory in the early 1990's, then its image problems would be easy to solve. Unfortunately, factors as diverse as internal European politics and a worldwide Muslim fundamentalist revival have been driving the long-term upward trend in global anti-American hostility. Under these conditions, as I have already pointed out, the power of mere diplomacy to turn uncooperative nations into staunch allies is, to say the least, quite limited.

No comments: