March has been a bad month for the world’s multilateralists who, encouraged by several early appointments to the State Department and a successful presidential tour of Europe, had hoped that George W. Bush would temper his unilateralist instincts in his second term.
But culminating in Friday’s release by the Pentagon of a new "National Defense Strategy of the United States of America," the last few weeks have showered a bracing dose of cold water on that notion.
Combined with the nomination earlier in the month of super-unilateralist John Bolton as Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, as well as the U.S. withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for cases involving the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Strategy strongly suggests that Washington’s interest in its traditional alliances, multilateral institutions, and even international law is on a downward trajectory.
The 24-page public document, signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is designed to lay out some of the basic assumptions of the U.S. role in the world, particularly as regards peace and security, that will guide the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), an important exercise carried out every four years that steers U.S. strategy, the Pentagon’s more than $400 billion annual budget, and military "transformation" over the next five to 10 years.
While the New York Times highlighted one suggested innovation inviting foreign allies into classified discussions on the QDR as it is developed as evidence of greater collegiality and openness to allies, the Strategy puts far greater stress on the critical importance of retaining Washington’s independence and its unchallengeable military dominance in strategic regions, particularly in and around Eurasia.
While the first of four "strategic objectives" listed in the report is securing the U.S. from direct attack, the second is to "secure strategic access and retain global freedom of action."
"Strengthen[ing] alliances and partnerships" rates number three. At another point, it warns that "[s]ome enemies may seek to terrorize our population and destroy our way of life, while others will try to limit our global freedom to act ."
In dramatic contrast to the National Security Strategy of the USA released in September 2002 nine months after Washington ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan and six months before its invasion of Iraq the latest strategy does not even mention the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by name, except obliquely by the phrase "traditional allies" or "partners," suggesting a strong preference for ad hoc "coalitions of the willing," rather than permanent collective-security arrangements.
"NATO is kind of missing in action now in their strategy," Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, told the Los Angeles Times.
The United Nations and the UN Security Council also go unmentioned in the new document.
Several other aspects of the Strategy also suggest a growing wariness of, if not hostility to, multinational mechanisms and international law.
Under "vulnerabilities," for example, the Strategy notes, "Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism."
While the outgoing undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, stressed that the provision was not intended to equate proponents of international law with terrorists, he made clear that Washington will resist attempts to submit it to treaties that it has not ratified, such as the Rome Protocol for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"The arguments that some people make to try to, in effect, criminalize foreign policy and bring prosecutions where there is no basis for jurisdiction under international law as a way of trying to pressure American officials," he said, echoing a position long held by Bolton and other members of the right-wing Federalist Society, an association of lawyers and judges who strongly oppose the application of international law and conventions if, in their view, they impinge on U.S. sovereignty.
"[I]f there are countries that don’t share our goals, they may try to use established international fora to inhibit us doing what we need to do in our national interest," added Admiral William Sullivan, vice director of the Strategy, Plans, and Policy Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "That’s what this paragraph addresses."
The document also makes clear that Washington intends to ignore or demand changes in international law if they constrain Washington’s freedom of action.
"Many of the current legal arrangements that govern overseas posture date from an earlier era," it states. "Today, challenges are more diverse and complex, our prospective contingencies are more widely dispersed, and our international partners are more numerous."
"International agreements relevant to our posture must reflect these circumstances and support greater operational flexibility. They must help, not hinder, the rapid deployment and employment of U.S. and coalition forces worldwide in a crisis," it goes on, adding, for example, that legal protections for U.S. personnel against possible transfer to the ICC, the global tribunal for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes, will continue to be sought.
The Strategy also reiterates Bush’s strategic doctrine of "preemption," particularly in the case of a "potentially catastrophic impact of an attack against the United States, its allies, and its interests," a phrase that, significantly, did not qualify its application to situations in which such an attack was "imminent."
Similarly, the Strategy calls for "preventive" military action by the U.S. and its partners, citing, as an example, "to prevent the outbreak of hostilities or to help defend or restore a friendly government. Under the most dangerous and compelling circumstances, prevention might require the use of force to disable or destroy [weapons of mass destruction] in the possession of terrorists or others or to strike targets (e.g., terrorists) that directly threaten the United States or U.S. friends or other interests."
The Strategy suggests that Washington will not be reluctant to send its forces into other states that, in its opinion, do not "exercise their sovereignty responsibly" or that "use the principle of sovereignty as a shield behind which they claim to be free to engage in activities that pose enormous threats to their citizens, neighbors, or the rest of the international community."
U.S. freedom of action, which the document asserts, "will provide a stabilizing influence in key regions," must also be assured "in and from the global commons, including space and cyberspace, as well as international waters and airspace."
"Key goals are to ensure our access to and use of space, and to deny hostile exploitation of space to adversaries," the document states.