HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS America's Doctrine: A Primer on U.S. Unilateralism under Clinton and Bush
American Outlook
Spring 2004
By Alan W. Dowd

“Instead of uniting the world,” Bill Clinton sighed during a recent campaign swing through Iowa, “we alienated it.” His bit-lip disappointment with George W. Bush’s “go-it-alone” foreign policy is just the latest in a string of criticisms from the Clinton foreign- policy team.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright laments that “the United States duly went to war against Iraq, despite having convinced only four members of the UN Security Council to back the action.” Another Clinton State Department hand, James Rubin, concludes in the same issue that “Washington’s failure to muster international support to depose a despised dictator was a stunning diplomatic defeat.” According to Vice President Al Gore, “The administration in which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world and said we wish to tackle these 'with others, if possible; alone if we must.' This administration sometimes seems inclined to stand that on its head, so that the message is: 'with others, if we must, by ourselves, if possible.'"

The only problem with this version of history is that it’s more fiction than fact. President Clinton often acted unilaterally, and America’s allies were not always supportive of US foreign policy during his presidency. His decisions and indecisions are only partly to blame for this disconnect. There were then, and are today, centrifugal forces working against transatlantic relations, over which the occupant of the White House has no control. There were then, and are today, good reasons for the United States to act without the support of the UN Security Council.

Birth of a Hyperpower

Without question, Bush and Clinton use different language when it comes to articulating America’s role in the world: The consummate politician, Clinton used words and gestures to connect with his foreign counterparts. He talked about the importance of multilateral solutions, the UN, common cause with like-minded states. The younger Bush, on the other hand, is wary of arrangements that might constrain the United States, especially in the wake of September 11. Like Reagan, he employs phrases that leave little room for finesse and seems to wear Europe’s “American cowboy” slur like a badge of honor.

But if their style and tone are different in dealing with foreign leaders, their actions and decisions are more similar than Clinton would have us believe. And that’s not a bad thing. America’s independent streak wasn’t born when George W. Bush became president. In fact, as historian David Halberstam writes in War in a Time of Peace, after the departure of the first Bush administration, with its focus on foreign policy, some world leaders “began to see Clinton as the embodiment of something they disliked greatly about America—the smug remote superpower whose attitude on most things was ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you, and by the way, we’ll make all the important decisions.’”

They had good reason to arrive at that conclusion. After a brief, if bloody, collaboration with the UN in Somalia, Clinton charted his own meandering course through international affairs: He unilaterally broke the UN arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia and sent weaponry to the outgunned Bosnian Muslims (using Iran as his conduit). Although he signed the Kyoto Treaty, he refused to send it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. He opposed the Landmine Treaty by arguing, rightly, “There is a line that I simply cannot cross—that line is the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.” Unlike their French and German counterparts, American troops stand guard in places like the 38th Parallel, where landmines are a matter of life and death.

The United States (governed not by George W. Bush, but by Bill Clinton) was one of just seven countries to oppose the International Criminal Court. Clinton reversed himself at the eleventh hour of his presidency, but the U.S. Senate wouldn’t budge. The fact that Bush ended the charade was just a reflection of the will of Congress.

Clinton bombed no less than five countries in his final five years as president—Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Serbia, and Sudan. Many thoughtful observers questioned the effectiveness and legitimacy of the salvos against Sudan: Within weeks of the attack, the British government openly disagreed with the Clinton line that the target site in Sudan was a chemical weapons facility. Within months, The New York Times unearthed evidence of high-level concern over the bombings from CIA Director George Tenet, CIA Directorate of Operations Jack Downing, Assistant Secretary of State Phyllis Oakley, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Moreover, the Times discovered that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton had forcefully argued that the White House lacked the evidence needed to strike a second target in Sudan. Clinton ultimately relented and removed the target from the attack plan. 

Finally, it was Albright who called America “the indispensable nation.” Europe howled when she defended American unilateralism by claiming that America “stands taller and therefore can see further” than other nations. It’s no wonder why the French coined the term “hyperpower” during the Clinton presidency. 

We can debate the effectiveness of these policies and pronouncements, but we cannot debate whether they were undertaken unilaterally, or whether they served to unite the world or divide it. 

Still, critics on both sides of the Atlantic rationalize the obstructionist tactics of Paris and Berlin before and after the Iraq war as a natural, even appropriate, reaction to the Bush administration’s unilateralism. Obviously, both their timing and their aim are off the mark.  

If the root cause of the Clinton team’s criticisms is old-fashioned politics, the root cause of Franco-German obstructionism could be just as basic. As George Walden, the author and former British MP, once observed, “Countries, like people, get in with bad company; the group dynamics of diplomacy are not always the straightest path to virtue.” This was apparent to President George Washington, who concluded that “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation…Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.” (Some things have changed in the intervening two centuries: European and American interests converge more today than they did in Washington’s day; but they converge less today than they did in the years between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War.) 

Walden’s assessment was apparent throughout the 1990s, as European governments slouched toward the lowest-common denominator of action—or better said, inaction—in the Balkans and Iraq. “The existence of the European Community and of the United Nations,” as historian William Pfaff observed after the Balkan debacle, “actually proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.” 

The past year has revealed that not much has changed. The group dynamics of Germany, France, Belgium, and the European club they control are anything but healthy: 

A year ago, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed that Iraq was in material breach of UN disarmament demands. But resolving only to be unresolved, as Churchill once said, the Council refused to authorize the use of force to bring Iraq into compliance. For the five months that followed, UN inspectors haplessly asked Iraq to account for its known caches of anthrax, mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent. Baghdad never came clean, of course. (Thankfully and mysteriously, it never deployed its WMD arsenal, either. The fact that its WMD components have not been unearthed is not evidence that they didn’t exist.) Yet when Britain and the United States returned to the UN for authorization in mid-March, the Security Council shrugged. So the Americans and Brits went to war without the UN’s explicit approval and began rebuilding Iraq without the UN’s help.  

Faced with similar circumstances inside Iraq and inside the Security Council in 1998, Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did the very same thing, launching a mini-war against Saddam’s WMD capabilities on their own.  

This is not an isolated case of Clinton’s foreign policy foreshadowing Bush’s. During the Bush administration, U.S. diplomats and their European counterparts have nearly come to blows over a range of treaties; Russia has nearly come unglued over U.S. intervention in Iraq and Central Asia; NATO has nearly come apart over defending Turkey; and the British parliament and media have come undone over sketchy intelligence in Iraq. History followed an eerily similar trajectory during the Clinton administration: 

In the decade past, it was Kyoto that made Washington balk and the EU whine. It was the US-led war in Kosovo and Serbia proper that put relations with Moscow in a deep freeze. (The revisionists forget that the Kosovo war, which Clinton declared, was waged without UN authorization.) It was the vivisection of Bosnia that nearly tore NATO apart. And it was a cruise-missile attack on Sudan that roiled the U.S. media and British government. 


Neither Bush nor Clinton is to blame for the chasm separating Europe and America—or the resentment inside Europe that keeps it open. These differences existed before the Bush presidency, and they will exist after. As Financial Times columnist Gerard Baker recently put it, “The most powerful illusion under which many Europeans seem to be laboring is the idea that if only President Bush would go away, the world would revert to the status quo ante, a mythical world of brotherly love and UN-mandated multilateralism.”

Indeed, it seems there is virtually nothing Washington can do that would mollify the Europeans. The divide here is not between Bush and Clinton, but between the United States and Europe. When the U.S. is hands-off, as in the mid-1990s, European governments complain that America is aloof and doesn’t care. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, mixed complaint with delight during the Balkan war when he sneered that the “position of leader of the free world is vacant.” When the U.S. is assertive, as in the post September 11 period, European governments complain about American unilateralism and behave like jilted teenagers.

In this, Clinton and Bush have something in common: When the Clinton White House tried to lead, whether in the Balkans or Iraq, it was often snubbed. Consider the cover of a 1997 issue of Foreign Policy, which mocked Clinton by juxtaposing a silly photo of him in front of an orchestra with the phrase "Why the World Won't Play Along."

This is not to say that “going it alone” is preferable to acting in tandem with allies. Allies are important, as we are learning in Iraq. Some two dozen countries have deployed troops to Iraq. Thirty-nine provided financial or military support to the war. The fact that Germany and France chose not to be among that number has more to do with them than Washington. Recall that Bush, at the strong urging of America’s erstwhile allies in Western Europe, went back to the UN in autumn 2002, even though the White House was ready to go to war and had the legal authority to do so. The consequent diplomatic debacle was a reminder that sometimes the United States must act without the pre-approval of Berlin, Paris and Brussels.  

This transatlantic disconnect is not a product of the 20th century, as Alexis de Tocqueville detailed more than 170 years ago. “An American leaves his country with a heart swollen with pride,” he wrote. “On arriving in Europe he at once finds out that we are not so engrossed by the United States and the great people which inhabits them as he had supposed, and this begins to annoy him.” Sound familiar?   

Europeans grew to appreciate their American cousins as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Although they continued to perceive Americans as proud, if not arrogant, they recognized, albeit grudgingly, that the United States was a force for good during the world wars and a source of stability and security during the Cold War. This opinion simply no longer holds, at least not among the policymaking elite of Germany and France. Instead, as Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami sighs, “The world rails against the United States, yet embraces its protection, its gossip and its hipness.” 

Why? Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that all of this is a result of a great reversal that took place over the last hundred years. “When the United States was weak, it practiced the strategies of indirection, the strategies of weakness; now that the United States is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do,” Kagan explains. “When the European great powers were strong, they believed in strength and martial glory. Now, they see the world through the eyes of weaker powers.” 

From George to George

In other words, the West Europeans liked America better when it stayed put and kept quiet.  

Those days ended long before Bill Clinton or George W. Bush took up residence in the White House. However, the behavior of West European leaders is hastening the very thing they claim to oppose—America’s further withdrawal from multilateral organizations. As Blair asked his Labour critics and European detractors on the eve of war in Iraq, “If our plea is for America to work with others, to be good as well as powerful allies, will our retreat make them multilateralist? Or will it not rather be the biggest impulse to unilateralism there could ever be?” 

Reflecting the exasperation of the American people, Bush offered his answer last March: “When it comes to our security, we don't need anybody's permission.” That notion of US sovereignty and independence is just as apt today as it was during the Clinton administration—and as it was during the Washington administration.