A Decent Regard

By Robert Kagan

Originally published in the
Washington Post, March 2, 2004

The chief criticism of President Bush's foreign policy in this campaign is obviously not going to be that he invaded Iraq. The big antiwar candidate, Howard Dean, is finished. The two remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination both voted for the war. The failure to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- and the stunning ineptitude of the administration in defending itself against unfair charges of prewar deception -- has not undermined basic public support for the war.

If there is a substantive critique of Bush foreign policy beyond mere Bush-hatred, it is the administration's failure to win broad international support for the war and for other major policies. This critique has merit, though not as it is usually framed by the critics. The problem is not that the administration skirted the U.N. Security Council last year -- actually it was France and Russia that walked away from Resolution 1441. Moreover, Europeans themselves went to war in Kosovo in 1999 without authorization from the United Nations. Nor is the problem that the Bush administration went to war "unilaterally" -- unless one defines "unilateralism" as a failure to win the support of Paris and Berlin. In any case, no serious Democrat argues the United States should renounce the right to "go it alone" when all else fails. Last week John Kerry said no president should "ever" let our allies "tie our hands and prevent us from doing what must be done." To European ears, that won't sound very different from the Bush-style "unilateralism" Kerry criticizes.

The problem the United States faces today is harder to quantify but arguably more profound. It is a problem of legitimacy. Contrary to the claims of partisan critics, moreover, it is a problem that neither began with nor will end with the Bush administration. It is, rather, the product of the end of the Cold War, the emergence of a unipolar order and the nervousness the new circumstances can create even among America's friends.

Well before the Bush administration proved so maladroit at reassuring even America's closest allies, other post-Cold War administrations had faced mounting anxiety about growing U.S. dominance. In the 1990s, while Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright were proudly dubbing the United States the "indispensable nation," French foreign ministers, along with their Russian and Chinese counterparts, were declaring the American-led unipolar world to be unjust and dangerous. In the Clinton years, Samuel P. Huntington was warning about the "arrogance" and "unilateralism" of American policies. European complaints about the "arrogance" and "bullying" of the Clinton administration before, during and after the Kosovo war in 1999 evinced a growing concern about the inherent problems of the new structure, and especially the accelerating loss of European control over American actions.

The problem is, to the liberal democratic mind there is something inherently illegitimate about a unipolar world, regardless of whether the superpower is led by George W. Bush or John F. Kerry. As the British scholar-statesman Robert Cooper argues in his new book, "The Breaking of Nations," "Our domestic systems are designed to place restraint on power. . . . We value pluralism and the rule of law domestically and it is difficult for democratic societies -- including the USA -- to escape from the idea that they are desirable internationally as well."

Will the United States use its power to serve only its own narrow interests, at the expense of others? That is what worries even friends and admirers of the United States these days. "The difficulty with the American monopoly of force in the world community," Cooper argues, "is that it is American and will be exercised, necessarily, in the interests of the United States. This will not be seen as legitimate."

In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Krauthammer asked why Americans should care about the legitimacy bestowed by other nations. It is a good question. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice derided the belief, which she attributed to the Clinton administration, "that the support of many states -- or even better, of institutions like the United Nations -- is essential to the legitimate exercise of power."

But it turns out we're not as thick-skinned as we think. Even the Bush administration felt compelled to seek European approval last year, and at the place where Europeans insist approval be granted, the U.N. Security Council. Perhaps the Bush administration did not need France and Germany to pursue war in Iraq, but it believed it needed the support at least of Britain. Why? Not because British troops were essential to the success of the invasion. It was the patina of international legitimacy that Tony Blair's support provided -- a legitimacy that the American people wanted and needed, as Bush officials well understood. Nor can there be any question that the Bush administration has suffered from its failure to gain the broader approval of Europe, and thus a broader international legitimacy, for the invasion of Iraq -- and suffered at home as well as abroad.

There are sound reasons why the United States needs European approval, reasons unrelated to international law, the strength of the Security Council and the as-yet nonexistent "fabric of the international order" that some speak of. The main reason has to do with America's liberal, democratic ideology. Europe matters because Europe and the United States remain the heart of the liberal, democratic world. Americans rightly have a hard time ignoring the fears, concerns, interests and demands of fellow democracies, especially in Europe. American foreign policy will always be drawn by American liberalism to seek greater harmony with Europe, if Europeans are willing and able to make such harmony possible.

The alternative course would be difficult for the United States to sustain, for it is questionable whether this country could operate effectively over time without the moral support and approval of the democratic world. This is not for the reasons usually cited. Most American advocates of "multilateralism" focus on the need for the material cooperation of allies -- in Kerry's words, to "take the target off the back of our troops" and put it on someone else's back. That essentially self-interested sentiment is not likely to inspire others to help. Nor is it even the most important reason why we need allies. In the end, it is America's need for international legitimacy that will prove more decisive in shaping America's course. Whether the United States can "go it alone" in a material sense is an open question. Militarily, it can and does go virtually alone, even when the Europeans are fully on board, as in Kosovo and in the Persian Gulf War. But whether the American people will continually be willing and able to support both military actions and the burdens of postwar occupations in the face of constant charges of illegitimacy by their closest democratic allies -- that is more doubtful.

Americans' reputation for insularity and indifference is undeserved. They have always cared what the rest of the world thinks of them, or at least what the liberal world thinks. In their Declaration of Independence, Americans recognized the importance of paying a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Ever since, Americans have been forced to care what the liberal world thinks by their universalist national ideology.

Because Americans do care, the steady denial of international legitimacy by fellow democracies may gradually erode domestic support for the kind of active foreign policy that the present dangerous times demand. If there is a crisis over Iran in the coming year, and the United States and Europe remain at odds, will it be harder for any American president, Democratic or Republican, to take the action he deems necessary?

As much as some might wish to dismiss the problem, Americans cannot ignore the unipolar predicament. The Bush administration has been slow to recognize that there even is a problem. This is partly because Bush and his advisers came to office guided by the narrow realism that was dominant in Republican foreign policy circles during the Clinton years. In the 2000 campaign and in the early months of the Bush presidency, there was much talk about focusing intently, and exclusively, on the American "national interest." Trying to fashion a foreign policy that would be as different from the Clinton approach as possible, the Bush administration proclaimed it would take a fresh look at all treaties, obligations and alliances and reevaluate them in terms of America's "national interest."

Pursuing the "national interest" always sounds right. But in fact the idea that the United States can take such a narrow view of its "national interest" has always been mistaken. For one thing, Americans had "humanitarian interests" two centuries before that term was invented, as well as moral, political and ideological interests for which Americans have historically been willing to fight. Beyond that, the enunciation of this "realist" view by the dominant power in a unipolar era is a serious foreign policy error. A nation with global hegemony cannot proclaim to the world that it will be guided only by its own definition of its "national interest." That is precisely what even America's closest friends fear: that the United States will wield its vast power only for itself.

Both the unipolar predicament and the American character require a much more expansive definition of American interests. The United States can neither appear to be acting only in its self-interest nor act as if its own national interest were all that mattered. The United States must act in ways that benefit humanity, as it has frequently tried to do in the past. It must certainly seek to benefit that part of humanity that shares America's liberal principles. Even at times of dire emergency, and perhaps especially at those times, the world's sole superpower needs to demonstrate that it wields its power on behalf of its principles and all who share them, including its democratic allies in Europe.

The United States, in short, must pursue legitimacy in the manner truest to its nature, by promoting the principles of liberal democracy, not only as a means to greater security but as an end in itself. The U.N. Security Council is not the only place to obtain legitimacy, as Europeans themselves know. Americans can win legitimacy by promoting democracy and liberal reform in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti -- and by not shirking their responsibilities, especially in places where they have wielded their great power. Success in such endeavors will provide the United States a measure of legitimacy, even in Europe. For Europeans cannot forever ignore their own vision of a more humane, more liberal and more democratic world, even if they are these days more preoccupied with their vision of a strengthened international legal order and more concerned about an American Leviathan unbound.

Robert Kagan writes a monthly column for The Post. This article is adapted from the new afterword to his book "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order."