Archive for Friday, December 27, 2002

Rules of diplomacy may be changing

December 27, 2002


— For nearly two centuries, the Monroe Doctrine was one of the principal pillars of American foreign policy; it's been the subject of books, conferences, summit meetings and doctoral theses. For two weeks the Bush Doctrine has been the reigning pillar of America's approach to the new world and the new century; it has barely been discussed or debated.

The Bush Doctrine, foreshadowed in the president's speech at West Point in the spring and in a national-security strategy statement released in the fall, was formalized in a six-page public document that has been read by only a few thousand people and a classified appendix that has been seen by far fewer. The new document, which makes it clear that the United States will take pre-emptive steps against foes who threaten the nation with weapons of mass destruction, comes at a time when the United States, which customarily goes to war only after it is attacked, is threatening pre-emptive war in Iraq.

The Bush Doctrine has not been approved by Congress, nor debated by Congress, nor even fully vetted before Congress. Then again, neither was the Monroe Doctrine, which was promulgated 179 Decembers ago in James Monroe's annual address on Capitol Hill; Monroe simply announced that the New World was closed to further European colonization, a vow that was honored most of the time and then became one of the fundamentals of American diplomacy.

But this is a world far different from 1823, when the British, the Austrians, the Russians and the Ottomans still possessed empires and when the American navy wasn't powerful enough to challenge anyone, let alone any of the European powers. Today's dangers -- nuclear weapons, chemical and biological warfare -- are greater than any contemplated in the 19th century, when most wars involved soldiers and sailors, hardly ever civilians.

Even so, the Bush Doctrine is not only a great departure from American tradition. It also raises important questions that Congress and the public have not yet debated. Among them:

  • Who gets to take pre-emptive action? The United States asserts the right to do so. But in international practice, nations that claim a right for themselves are assumed to be willing to grant that right to other nations. The Bush Doctrine is silent on this subject. But the more the United States asserts this right, the more others are going to believe that it is their right as well. The United States would be immensely uneasy, for example, if India or Pakistan asserted that right against the other. And in the new age, when America's foes are more likely to be groups like al-Qaida than nations like Russia, the Bush Doctrine might inadvertently be providing the nation's most bitter rival with what it believes is a moral justification for terrorist activities that Americans will surely regard as immoral.
  • Does might make right? At the heart of the Bush Doctrine is the notion that the United States can take pre-emptive action because it has the power to do so. The United States has no rivals to its military power anywhere in the world today. But American power around the globe isn't based on military might alone. It is built, too, on the power of American ideas, the power of America's freedom and the power of American culture. The nation still must debate whether the power of American values could be undermined around the world if it asserts that the power to act unilaterally is the same as the right to act unilaterally.
  • Is the beauty of pre-emption in the eye of the pre-emptive power? Israel acted pre-emptively 21 years ago when 16 of its warplanes bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear research facility; Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified the action with claims Osirak would produce nuclear weapons that threatened Israel. The United Nations, with U.S. support, strongly condemned Israel, though many American officials harbored private support for Israel. This attack stands as a symbol of how incendiary is the issue of pre-emption -- and how compelling the argument of self-defense can be.
  • What is the role of Congress in the making of foreign policy? President Bush asked for, and received, congressional approval for what may amount to a pre-emptive war against Iraq. But the current Congress has neither debated nor voted upon the broader Bush mandate. Members of Congress, to be sure, have generally been quiet bystanders as presidents have promulgated their doctrines; only rarely -- the League of Nations question and the Vietnam War are among the few 20th-century examples -- have lawmakers stood up to presidents in important foreign-policy matters. But there is evidence that the current Congress, while opposed to terrorism, has qualms about projecting American force and American prerogatives in this manner.
  • How is an imminent threat defined? Under the United Nations system, nations have a right to self-defense when they have been attacked, and an attack is generally defined as physical aggression. "If we are in a position where someone might attack or might have weapons of mass destruction, we are getting farther and farther away from an actual attack," says Donald W. McNemar, a Bentley College specialist in international studies. And, he might have added, farther and farther away from the old world of diplomacy, with its clear expectations and its clear rules.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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