For almost three years now, the world has been given quite a different view of the United States than the one to which it had been accustomed. It has seen global leadership abandoned and replaced with what now is known as American unilateralism – the Bush administration;s disdain for international agreements and sometimes for diplomacy itself. The unilateralism has been a virtual addiction – a truculent constant in a presidency otherwise marked by inconstancy.

The change began in the first few weeks after President Bush took office. After an election campaign during which he preached that we should learn humility in dealing with other nations, he rather arrogantly pulled the United States out of the Kyoto treaty on climate change – a protocol we had signed but not yet ratified. This new self-centered policy found its ultimate – though hardly final – expression when Bush told the U.N. Security Council that the United States was going to invade Iraq, with or without the council’s approval.

It was also in the early days of his administration that Bush announced we would scrap the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. In fairness, it must be noted that withdrawal from the ABM treaty was implicit in Ronald Reagan’s "Star Wars" missile defense program. But research on our interceptor missile had not reached the stage where it would violate the treaty. Whatever the merits of the case, when Bush revoked the treaty, he both frightened and angered other nations, including some of our closest allies, who fear an ABM arms race and a new global instability when and if our anti-missile missile proves successful.

Bush’s rejection of the International Criminal Court, established to try war crimes, arguably has merit, given that American troops make up the lion’s share of peacekeeping forces these days and might well make easy targets for politically motivated prosecution. President Clinton had signed that treaty but for the same reason did not send it to the Senate for ratification. An exception might have been made for American peacekeepers, but the other signatories refused to permit that. Ironically, anger about perceived American arrogance might well have sunk any hopes for compromise on this one.

Bush’s unilateralism has not confined itself to matters of war and peacekeeping. As the 2002 midterm elections approached, the president, who had long identified himself as a free-trader, slapped tariffs on steel imports – a move that clearly helped Republican candidates in several swing states. Now the World Trade Organization has slapped back, ruling that the tariffs violate free-trade agreements to which the United States is a party. That ruling opens the way for retaliation by other WTO members. The European Union alone is threatening to impose $2.2 billion in sanctions on U.S. goods. This time, it appears, the president has bitten off more than he is willing to chew, and it seems he is looking for a way to back down. It turns out that there is a price to pay for being a loose cannon on the international deck, and we now are beginning to pay it.

And finally, there is the reminder of another aspect of the Bush administration’s unilateralism – its treatment of alleged terrorists being held incommunicado at Guantanamo, Cuba, without charges and denied the benefit of legal assistance. Critics claim their treatment violates international law. The Supreme Court now has decided to hear a suit brought by lawyers for British and Australian nationals held on the island.

Essentially, the Bush administration claims that these prisoners are beyond the reach of international law and of the American legal system. And lower federal courts so far have agreed that they lack jurisdiction, even though Guantanamo is leased by the United States.

Now the high court might simply confirm those rulings. However, its very decision to hear the case seems an assertion that it, not the executive branch, determines where the writ of the American legal system runs – and suggests that Bush;s almost reflexive unilateralism might also have constitutional limits.

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© 2003 Walter Cronkite

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