Originally published in the Harvard International Review.

Response to Javad Zarif, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, who wrote about U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations in the Winter, 2003 issue of the Harvard International Review. Click here to read Ambassador Zarif's text.

One of the most striking features of Ambassador Javad Zarif's critique ("Indispensable Power," Winter 2003) is that it embraces the increasingly vocal consensus in the international community about the limits and dangers of unilateralism. It is encouraging to hear a thoughtful Iranian diplomat praise global cooperation, human rights, and democracy, which Iran's leaders scorned during the 1980s and early 1990s. This shift, which undoubtedly reflects the "new thinking" of Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his allies, makes it more difficult for a liberal, neo-realist internationalist like myself to disagree with Ambassador Zarif.

Indeed, I agree with many of his points. US President George Bush's administration has alienated much of the world by its rejection of international treaties, advocacy of regime change, implicit rejection of national sovereignty, failure to push for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and what many see as a self-serving and hypocritical approach to non-proliferation. I also agree that much of the "hatred" toward the United States has more to do with US policies than US values. No amount of shrewd public diplomacy can overcome the basic policy clashes that separate Europe and Washington almost as decisively as they divide Washington and the Third World. That said, Ambassador Zarif has simplified some of the inevitable challenges that the world's remaining superpower must encounter. Moreover, he ignores the daunting challenge that Iranian leaders still face in squaring their espousal of international norms and institutions with many of Iran's foreign policies. Unfortunately, some of these policies reflect the enduring influence of a hard-line clerical establishment that repudiates many of the very global norms that Ambassador Zarif advocates.

It is no easy feat for US leaders to avoid "confusing unilateralism with leadership" or leadership with hegemony. As the sole superpower whose military weight must sometimes be used to address international conflicts, the United States has been compelled to act as a political entrepreneur that, under certain conditions, must threaten or use military force to induce collective action, particularly from its Western European allies. To reduce the complex link between leadership and hegemony solely to the ideological pre-occupations and influence of the Bush administration's neoconservatives is misleading. It is worth remembering that following the failure of European allies and the United Nations to use military force in the Balkans, US President Bill Clinton's administration also acted as the hegemon. If Kosovo's Muslims are today free of the threat of Serbian persecution and violence, this has something to do with the readiness of that "globalist" Democratic administration to implicitly (if belatedly) advocate a doctrine of military intervention and even regime change when sovereign states trample on international norms of human and civil rights. While there is no straight line from Clinton to Bush, there is certainly a conceptual and practical evolution from one to the other.

The question of Iraq illustrates the thorny link between leadership and hegemony. Absent the Bush administration's willingness to use force, Saddam Hussein would likely continue to flout UN authority indefinitely. The looming threat of US unilateralism has, at least for the time being, reinforced UN legitimacy and prominence, much to the chagrin of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The latter might still prevail over the more multilateralist instincts of US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his allies in the US State Department and even military, but US military predominance remains an "indispensable" reality with which European leaders must grapple despite their misgivings or ambiguous feelings about the costs and benefits of hegemony.

I doubt that such misgivings will create the "balancing coalition" Ambassador Zarif describes. European peace and prosperity are founded on a quest for economic, political, and social integration whose very success hinges on having the United States shoulder the primary economic and even human costs of acting as military hegemon. The challenge facing European leaders today is to harness and thus restrain US power without sacrificing their countries' vital interests.

The case of Iraq shows how tricky it is to strike this careful balance. By agreeing to a more robust UN resolution on disarmament and inspections in Resolution 1441, the international community has tried to placate the Bush administration hawks while drawing them into an inspections regime whose very success depends on the credible threat of force and even war. The strategy of "coercive inspections," as my colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have called it, constitutes one version of coercive diplomacy. It is a game of chicken whose outcome might determine whether the deep division within the Bush administration (and the US Congress) between neoconservative interventionists and real-politick neo-internationalists is ultimately decided in favor of one or the other.

Those who follow US-Iranian relations will no doubt see a certain ironic parallel here. The foreign policy of both countries echoes deep philosophical and practical divisions within their respective political leaderships. Such divisions are far more profound in Tehran than in Washington. President Khatami's notion of a "dialogue of civilizations" abroad presumes a dialogue of civilizations at home. For the reformists, international norms of human rights and democracy are organically linked to questions of freedom and civil rights in Iran itself. This is one reason why Iran's own hard-liners have been wary about embracing the very global agenda and values advocated by Ambassador Zarif.

This is particularly true in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While I am pleased to find Ambassador Zarif endorsing the premise of a two-state solution, Iran continues to give logistical and rhetorical support to Hezbollah. This political party and military organization is not only allied with Palestinian organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which use indiscriminate violence against civilian targets, but Hezbollah also employs its television station, Al Manar, to broadcast a message of hate and total opposition to any solution of the Palestinian problem that includes the existence of a Jewish state. As both a long-time advocate of an independent Palestinian state living in peace with all its neighbors and a defender of many of the global norms that Ambassador Zarif advocates, I believe that his plea for a multilateral approach to issues such as global terrorism and nuclear proliferation would have far more impact in the United States and Europe if Iran's leaders, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei on down, unequivocally embraced the global consensus about the need for a two-state solution. When it comes to Iran, no single act would do more to empower Washington's own multilateralists, or at least to temper the influence of its unilateralist hawks.


Originally published Winter,2003 in the Harvard International Review.

Contemporary international politics continues to be characterized by a widening rift between the United States and the rest of the world, even Europe. This division is a direct result of Washington's inability, despite its overwhelming military might, to achieve its desired outcomes unilaterally. The trend continues despite the almost unanimous global sympathy with the US population following the tragic barbarism of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

According to recent polls, a growing majority in Europe is openly critical of US policies and desires a reassessment of the type and extent of Europe's partnership with the United States. During June and July 2002, Western allies of the United States vehemently opposed US policy during a showdown in the UN Security Council over the International Criminal Court (ICC). British Foreign Minister Jack Straw dismissed US President George Bush's "axis of evil" characterization of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran as domestic electioneering. Meanwhile, the gap between US and European approaches to the lingering Palestinian question continues to widen.

This rift stems from a tendency on the part of an increasingly predominant voice within the US administration to go it alone, thereby confusing unilateralism with leadership. The United States tends to ignore the concerns of the rest of the world, setting standards of right and wrong that align with US interests. One prime example is the US rejection of treaty-based multilateral verification mechanisms on weapons of mass destruction while pursuing military pre-emption based solely on its own findings. Similarly, the United States refuses to cooperate with other countries on environmental issues while polluting more than any other country. Washington also enforces US law extraterritorially, applies sanctions against non-conforming countries, imposes economic and social policies on other states, pampers US businesses with subsidies while imposing high trade barriers on foreign goods, adopts unjust double standards in crisis situations, and intimidates other countries into accepting and implementing US policies. The Bush administration has cavalierly pulled out of four international conventions in less than a year: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Rome Statute creating the ICC, and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. These actions have seriously undermined the international system and the interests of every law-abiding state.

The path pursued by the United States is increasingly distancing Washington from the global mainstream, which affects almost all aspects of US foreign policy and, in turn, poses fundamental risks to the international system. Given the unique global position of the United States, this trend seems to be the underlying difficulty facing the international community. It has already given rise to conflicting conceptions of how the most essential public goods-security, peace, environment, health, trade, and aid-can be provided. Broadly speaking, it seems that on these issues, the United States and the rest of the world stand on opposing sides of the divide. If unchecked, the gulf may widen, adversely affecting international security and well-being.

Reacting to Hegemony

The above-mentioned trend in US policy is at odds with the current international system and is thus not sustainable, even considering the current global distribution of power. A glance at the world reveals that the United States, despite its military might, lacks the necessary ability to single-handedly bring about the results it desires in crises and major issues on the international agenda. Several instances since the end of the Cold War have clearly shown that for the United States to deal effectively with any major international issue, it needs the cooperation of at least some of the major regional and global powers.

In such a world system, it appears to be quite natural for other major powers to join in resisting attempted dominion by the strongest. Throughout the course of history, the oldest rule of world politics has been that power begets superior counter-power. Such balancing in the strict military sense may not be a realistic possibility, at least for the foreseeable future, but resistance to US hegemonic tendencies is already taking place in other arenas.

With the concept of security undergoing fundamental changes as nonmilitary components take on added importance, a coalition against hegemony would aim not at defeating the preponderant power, but at countering the influence of the United States in the world, chasing it back into its North American fortress. In a globalized world this challenge could turn out to be very costly and paralyzing in the long run. In other words, there may be no hegemonic rivalry in the military sense at the present time, but there should be no doubt that resistance to hegemonic behavior is bound to rise and that major powers, if provoked, are likely to consider forming a balancing coalition. The continuation of the present relationship between major global and regional powers and the United States should not be taken for granted. The relationship may undergo serious changes if other powers become convinced that the United States is determined to wield power in an overbearing, unilateral manner. The more intrusive the aspirant to hegemony is, the stronger the incentive will be for coalitions of major and middle powers to confront it through political and psychological, if not military means. The fact that some influential figures close to the Bush administration have called for wholesale regime change shows the degree to which some in the United States are eager for the country to flex its military muscle.

US hegemonic ambition runs counter to the realities of a globalizing world. It openly contradicts the concept of sovereignty in today's world and is in conflict with the principles of free information, open borders, and more integrated trade and financing. It also ignores our common vulnerability to threats-ranging from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to environmental degradation and the spread of diseases-which require close cooperation among all members of the international community, including both state and nonstate actors. The multitude of open interactions among state and nonstate entities within and across national boundaries indicates the emergence of a global civil society, which in turn will call increasingly for global accountability. Thus, domestic constituencies should not be the exclusive focus of responsible national governments. The emerging world public opinion, facilitated by improved communication technologies and greater circulation of information, appreciates the interdependence of domestic and foreign polities, which greatly constrains national governments. World public opinion is weighing more and more in domestic decision-making processes-a trend that the US administration tends to underestimate. The new initiative recently undertaken by the US State Department to better inform the global community of US policies is a belated but welcome recognition of the need for global accountability. However, a careful analysis of global trends would indicate that resentment of US policy across the world does not emanate solely from lack of information or misperceptions about US policies. Rather, it represents the serious apprehension of well-informed people both outside and within the United States about the rising unilateral tendencies of the Bush administration.

Some analysts in the United States have self-servingly tried to interpret opposition to US unilateralism as resentment of the "American values" of freedom, democracy, and free market prosperity. Nothing could be further from the reality across the globe. On the contrary, it is the United States' tendency to deprive others of these universally respected values for the sake of its hegemonic interests that breeds resentment of the United States.

The policy of seeking to establish hegemony is also at odds with US public opinion. In various polls, the overwhelming majority of US citizens say they see no need to expend effort and money to achieve US hegemony, seeing little or no impact on their lives from international affairs.

A Present Danger

The new trend in US foreign policy is in part driven by US conservatism, which has been on the rise in the past three decades. This strand of conservatism holds in contempt an international system based on the rule of law and systematically fails to take into account the interests of the rest of the world. The current US administration seems to pursue simultaneous isolationism and interventionism, intervening to promote US hegemony while rejecting global standards of common behavior and refraining from any purposeful and meaningful international coordination and cooperation.

US foreign policy, like many others in the world, is overwhelmingly driven by domestic politics. Yet, unlike most governments, the Bush administration is influenced by ideologically motivated political forces. The result of the latest presidential elections enabled these conservative interventionist forces to push their own agenda to the forefront and, to some extent, set US foreign policy, especially regarding a number of sensitive issues including the fate of the Middle East.

In a book developed from their 1996 Foreign Affairs article, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," a group of pro-Israeli foreign policy intellectuals, now well represented in the Bush administration, called for a foreign policy of "benevolent global hegemony" as a way of advancing US interests and principles around the world. Robert Kagan and William Kristol's book Present Dangers argues that international peace depends on US hegemony and "vigorous American global leadership." They criticize the US leadership for failing to see the Persian Gulf War "through to its proper conclusion: the removal of Saddam [Hussein]," describing the survival of "dangerous dictatorships" as "a great failure in US foreign policy." The authors go on to criticize the previous US administration for trying to engage "evil regimes" instead of "confronting the moral and strategic challenges" presented by them, including "the ability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons."

Deriding the perceived "peace dividends," they also chastise the Clinton administration for decreasing the US military budget in terms of its share of GDP, arguing in favor of "spending some US$60 to US$100 billion per year above current defense budgets." Finally, it is significant that they call for "a foreign policy premised on American hegemony, and on the blending of principle with material interest," rather than one "under the American vital interest." This, Kagan and Kristol argue, "is the standard of a global superpower that intends to shape the international environment to its own advantage. By contrast, the vital interest standard is that of a 'normal' power that awaits a dramatic challenge before it rouses itself into action."

Claiming that threats arise from the nature of "regimes such as those in North Korea and Iraq," the authors propose a US strategy that includes "regime change as a central component" and add that "the most effective form of nonproliferation … [is] an effort to bring about the demise of the regimes themselves." The authors of such ideas and recommendations are now either part of the Bush administration or have significant influence over it by working on its margins. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have provided them with a convenient pretext to affect national policy and implement their grand design, which originally had very little to do with the war against terrorism or terrorism itself.

Misusing September 11

The prevailing worldview in Washington has adversely impacted most issues on the international agenda. The heinous terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, demonstrated to some the inability of any country, including the United States, to be a hegemon in an era of globalized threats and challenges. The terrorist operations in New York and Washington, DC, demonstrated that even the mightiest and most prosperous nation is not immune to the common vulnerabilities of other actors to global menaces such as terrorism, drugs, and weapons of mass destruction. The tragedy also revealed a global surge in anti-US sentiments. These two factors combined should have demonstrated the benefit of having more friends and fewer enemies.

However, the United States continues to emphasize unilateral military and coercive measures. While there is no justification for terrorism and violence against innocent civilians, it is imperative to understand and address the root causes that are exploited by demagogues in order to provoke such perverted and inhuman actions. Following September 11, many in the international community hoped that the immediate and understandable emotional reactions of the United States would be replaced by a sober reassessment of policy. For example, as this author stated before the UN General Assembly on October 2, 2001:

"Emotions and anger are only human, but we need a great deal of collective reflection and wisdom for a rational and farsighted response that should focus not only on this horrific crime, but on terrorism in general, and more importantly, on the root causes of injustice and exclusion that can be exploited by demagogues to inflict so much harm on innocent human beings. As a global menace, terrorism needs a global response, founded on inclusion, fairness, and international legitimacy. As a tragedy caused by blind hatred, the response cannot be indiscriminate retribution, putting many innocent civilian lives at risk. Terrorists should not be allowed to set the agenda or dictate the response."

Unfortunately, the tragedy was used to advance an outdated hegemonic vision of the United States that had been developed long before the September 11 attacks. This has further exacerbated the global frustration with and resentment of US policy, which may have been the root cause of the tragedy. Non-confrontational rhetoric is needed for cooperation at the international level. This is the only way to make the global environment less receptive to terrorist ideologies.

In the Middle East, the Bush administration has aligned itself with the wartime policy and pronouncements of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an alliance that has little precedent in prior US policy in the Middle East, even given the long-standing alliance between the United States and Israel. In this respect, the policy statement delivered by Bush on June 24, 2002, marked a turning point in the already one-sided US policy in the Middle East. With eyes fixed on upcoming elections, the US government explicitly sided with the Israeli right. Bewilderingly, this statement followed Israel's rebuff of the demands on it articulated by Bush on April 4, 2002. Later, Bush would also hail Sharon, who has opposed virtually every peace initiative and was for decades at the forefront of Israeli aggressions, as "a man of peace."

The US government is on the wrong side of the Palestinian question, ignoring international outrage at aggressive Israeli policies and its suppression of Palestinian national rights. In the past two years, the United States twice vetoed efforts by the UN Security Council to pass resolutions containing some very small and minimal demands on Israel, while the threat of a US veto aborted many more attempts, despite the agreement of almost all other members of the Council. Although the Bush administration publicly agreed to the vision of a Palestinian state-an essential prerequisite to the peace and stability of the Middle East-it has supported Sharon's agenda of obstructing the actual realization of Palestinian national aspirations. Statements such as that delivered by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who contradicted Bush by speaking dismissively of "the so-called occupied territories" and "some sort of a [Palestinian] entity that will be established at some point," are casting serious doubt on the very purpose of the two-state vision, prompting many to brand it as just another public relations ploy. Realizing that they cannot sell the Israeli policy of occupation on the basis of values or morality, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States continues to apply enormous pressure on US politicians to win their support for the occupation, thus turning the United States into the main target of international resentment as the only supporter of aggressive Israeli policy.

A closely related issue is the stated US policy of regime change in Iraq. The fact that this policy will advance Israeli interests and that Israel is one of its most vocal advocates make it all the more damaging to the reputation of the United States. It undermines the tenets of international law and sets a dangerous precedent of claiming the right of larger powers to attack smaller ones, for which a pretext can always be found. At the same time, there are serious doubts about whether such costly unilateral military actions can dismantle Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or bring about democracy and greater human rights for the Iraqi people. It is worth recalling that despite all its shortcomings, the UN program for dismantling Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was far more successful than the military operations by the US-led coalition forces in the early 1990s and the sporadic and repeated US strikes in the past decade.

The rest of the world, including Europe, now recognizes US disregard for global issues of common concern, and alliances to frustrate US political objectives are becoming more common. In the latest voting on the Palestinian question in the UN General Assembly on August 5, 2002, the Europeans, joining an overwhelming global majority, threw their weight in support of a Palestinian draft resolution, leaving only the United States and Israel on the opposing side. The showdown in the UN Security Council on the ICC in June and July 2002 was more significant. The US attempt to undermine the ICC, which it apparently perceives as an impediment to projecting force across the globe, was frustrated mainly by the European vote. Two immediate neighbors of the United States, Canada and Mexico, were among the most vocal opponents of a US draft resolution, which aimed to eviscerate the ICC statute.

The Multilateral Imperative

The US policies on international issues are of the kind that will inevitably bring bitterness and frustration to a large part of the world. It is not only in the interest of the United States but also in the interest of the entire world for the United States to avoid becoming the focus of resentment and hatred by both state and nonstate actors. The United States should be concerned about the level of resentment that an aggressive unilateral course would engender among its major allies, other regional powers, and the world public at large. After all, it is influence and not just force that is ultimately most valuable to states in today's globalized system.

In the wake of September 11, the Bush administration became aware of what it saw as a world of resentment, censure, and even hatred. Bush declared that his administration had to "do a better job." He appointed an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs who began a campaign to address the rising resentment of the United States, but this effort remained largely limited to Radio Sawa, the new US radio program for the Middle East.

Obviously, there are limits to the effects that even the most skillful public diplomacy can have-especially if policies remain that are fundamentally flawed or simply objectionable to those they affect. Good public relations are a part of a "soft power" approach to international relations, which stresses continuous engagement with other countries. Soft power politics implies an intent to persuade others "to want what you want," as Harvard Professor Joseph Nye writes. In the Middle East, as in most other parts of the world, there are serious limits to what can be achieved by Radio Sawa and the like. The problem lies in the policy itself rather than in the way it is sold. There is a need for a new attitude that sees the world as a complex arena in which a states's purposes are worked out in constant interaction with others. Even a country as militarily and economically powerful as the United States cannot achieve its aims by force alone. Multilateralism is not a choice but a necessity for all nations, including the strongest one.

Campaign Credibility

In a televised debate with US Vice President Al Gore on October 12, 2000, presidential candidate George Bush made some remarkable comments on foreign policy. He said, "I think credibility is important. It is going to be important for the president to be credible with the Congress, important for the president to be credible with the foreign nations." He added that "humility in international affairs will earn respect abroad, but [that] arrogant actions will earn resentment." Also criticizing the overextension of the military, he noted "one of the United States' finest hours of the 20th century came when it used the economic aid of the Marshall plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II." The raising of such ideas could receive wide praise only if they were put into practice today by the same person who spoke them. Pursuing them in practice could enhance the efforts by members of the international community to predicate their quest for understanding and cooperation on common universal values such as democracy and rule of law at home and in the international arena.