Very broadly speaking, there are two major tenden- cies discernable in American foreign policy over the last 200 years or so. One can be said to be charac- terized by terms such as exceptionalism, isolationism or uni- lateralism, the other by terms such as internationalism and multilateralism. Each in turn can be identified with the pro- nouncements of a single president: the first with those of George Washington, the second with those of Woodrow Wilson.

George Washington’s famous farewell address of 1796 laid down a series of benchmarks that still serve as a point of reference for foreign policy makers in the 21st century. As Washington saw it, the foreign policy of the United States should be somehow unique and exemplary, ”œworthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel exam- ple of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” In this it was to be the very antithesis of the narrowly self-interested and belligerent policies of the European powers of the time.

In recommending that the United States remain aloof from the quarrels, conflicts and wars of Europe, Washington said that ”œthe great rule of conduct for us in regard to for- eign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” In extolling the virtues of neutrality, he went on to say ”œit is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

Historians and other scholars can and do debate ad nau- seum the true meaning of Washington’s injunctions. Were they a prescription for American isolationism or for American unilateralism in international affairs? The histori- cal record of American foreign policy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can provide ample evidence to support both interpretations. What does seem clear, howev- er, is that for a very long time American foreign policy mak- ers took to heart Washington’s warnings against tying the fate of the United States to that of other nations through entangling alliances or other forms of semi-permanent international engagement.

The exact opposite approach is to be found in the posi- tions advocated by President Woodrow Wilson toward the end of the First World War. In his celebrated ”œFourteen Points” address to Congress in January 1918, he declared it necessary 

That the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.

In thus affirming that all nations, including the United States, were mutually dependent or interdependent in the pursuit of their interest in peace, Wilson was breaking with the traditional cannon of American foreign policy. He took the process one step further, however, when he stat- ed that ”œa general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political inde- pendence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

Wilson’s internationalist and multilateralist ideas suffered a resounding defeat, of course, when the US Senate refused to ratify the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the United States slipped back into isolationism. They were, however, to re-emerge triumphant at the end of the Second World War and found expression not only in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, but also in the role of the United States as a proponent and founding mem- ber of a host of international organizations (e.g., the UN, NATO, IMF, GATT). Indeed, with its ever- expanding network of treaties, alliances and memberships in international bodies, the United States seemed during the ensuing 50 years to be irrevocably committed to internationalism and multilateralism, despite occasional lapses into unilateralism (e.g., the Vietnam War, the inva- sion of Panama).

With the end of the Cold War and the United States’ unhappy experience in Somalia, questions once again emerged about the merits of the country’s extensive foreign commitments. Writing in 1994, American scholar David Deese put it this way: ”œAt a time of overwhelming domestic demands in the United States and industrial nations, the end of both the Cold War and its clear threat to the United States, and a complex and confusing new international envi- ronment, it is entirely natural that Americans might turn inwards and be skeptical about what can be accomplished by US foreign policy.” In short, would the United States progressively revert to a policy of isolationism?

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 certainly put paid to that question, at least in the short to medium term. The United States has since then re-engaged itself in international affairs with extraordinary vigour, as evidenced not only by its diplomacy but also by its new military deploy- ments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and the Philippines. In its policy pro- nouncements, the Bush administration has made it clear that it considers that the security of the United States and of its citizens requires the US to be a leading actor in a wide variety of events unfolding in far-flung corners of the world. But if all of this represents a clear rejection of isolation- ism, it still leaves open the question of whether the United States remains committed to multilat- eralism. Here the answer is far less clear.

In launching its war on terrorism, the Bush administration sought the blessings of both the UN Security Council and the NATO Council. Once these were obtained, however, the United States turned its back on multilateralism and pur- sued a clearly unilateralist policy. The war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan was nei- ther a UN nor a NATO operation; it was a US operation, period. Other countries were invited to join in the war, but on US terms and under US command. And this was a very deliberate policy decision on the part of American political and military leaders who wanted to avoid the limita- tions and frustrations which they had experi- enced during the Kosovo war of 1999 when all military decisions had been held hostage to a laborious process of consensus-building within the NATO Council.

This marked US preference for unilateralism over multilateralism is evident in other fields as well. In recent years, the US has refused to rat- ify, or has withdrawn from, an increasing num- ber of international agreements or instruments.

These include:

  • The comprehensive treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons (CTBT)

  • The anti-personnel landmines treaty

  • The anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM) of 1972

  • The protocols to reinforce the biological weapons convention (BWC)

  • The statute establishing the International Court of Justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity

  • The Kyoto accords on the protection of the environment

  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

This last Convention has been approved and adopted by 191 countries. Only the US and Somalia have rejected it, putting American excep- tionalism in rather peculiar company.

Doubts about the commitment of the US to multilateralism have also been fuelled in recent months by developments in the area of interna- tional trade. While repeatedly proclaiming its strong support for free trade and for a new round of trade negotiations under the aegis of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Bush administration has adopted a series of protec- tionist measures against softwood lumber imports from Canada and against steel imports from around the world. It has also launched a major new program of subsidies to American farmers and to the agribusiness industry. Taken together, these measures will greatly complicate, if not compromise, prospects for the success of a new round of WTO trade negotiations. 

Against this background, it was rather inter- esting to note that the US administration began to display a new interest in NATO in the spring of 2002. Whether, however, this represented a redis- covery of the virtues of the multilateral transat- lantic alliance and multilateralism more general- ly, or whether it was simply a vehicle for rein- forcing US-Russian relations (through the cre- ation of the NATO-Russia Council) was far from clear. In commenting on the phenomenon, The Economist struck a distinctly skeptical note: ”œBut even if the administration is committed to boost- ing NATO, that will not necessarily imply a turn towards multilateralism more broadly. America will do whatever it takes and use whatever it must” (June 1, 2002). The administration’s most recent pronouncements on Iraq underline the point, to the evident dismay of many of its friends and allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Is this discernible drift toward unilateralism in American foreign policy merely a circumstan- tial phenomenon or is it the harbinger of a longer-term trend? Certainly the end of the Cold War and of the bipolar world created conditions in which the US was less dependent on multilat- eral institutions than it had once been. But in and of themselves these conditions did not dic- tate a change of course. That indeed would appear to be the product of deliberate political choices, reflecting in good part the longstanding disdain for and hostility toward international organizations on the part of conservative Republicans, who are well represented and influ- ential in the Bush administration. A Democratic victory at the next presidential election might thus be all it would take to reverse the unilateral- ist directions evident in current policy.

Depending upon how the war on terrorism unfolds, the Bush administration itself might see merit in once again turning for support toward multilateral organizations. In pursuing some of the objectives of the war (e.g., enhancing airline security, controlling money laundering) the administration might reasonably conclude that it could not rely solely on the assistance of a few selected countries, but would be better served by marshalling efforts on a much broader basis. This might lead it to re-engage globally with the UN and some of its specialized agencies, or regional- ly with institutions such as the Organization of American States.

In short, the unilateralist trend in US for- eign policy is neither inevitable nor irreversible. It is nevertheless a phenomenon to which the friends and allies of the US, including Canada, should pay the closest attention, for if it persists they will find themselves called upon to devel- op imaginative new approaches to the manage- ment of their relations with the US. Indeed, they may want to consider coordinating their efforts in order to convince the US administra- tion that in an increasingly interdependent world, the long-term interests of the United States are best served by multilateralism rather than unilateralism.