The Magazine

The Bush Doctrine

ABM, Kyoto, and the New American Unilateralism

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Between 1989 and 1991 the world changed so radically so suddenly that even today the implications have not adequately been grasped. The great ideological wars of the twentieth century, which began in the '30s and lasted six decades, came to an end overnight. And the Soviet Union died in its sleep, and with it the last great existential threat to America, the West, and the liberal idea.

So fantastic was the change that, at first, most analysts and political thinkers refused to recognize the new unipolarity. In the early '90s, conventional wisdom held that we were in a quick transition from a bipolar to a multipolar world: Japan was rising, Europe was uniting, China was emerging, sleeping giants like India were stirring, and America was in decline. It seems absurd today, but this belief in American decline was all the rage.

Ten years later, the fog has cleared. No one is saying that Japan will overtake the United States economically, or Europe will overtake the United States diplomatically, or that some new anti-American coalition of powers will rise to replace the Communist bloc militarily. Today, the United States remains the preeminent economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural power on a scale not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Oddly enough, the uniqueness of this structure is only dimly understood in the United States. It is the rest of the world that sees it -- undoubtedly, because it feels it -- acutely. Russia and China never fail in their summits to denounce explicitly the "unipolarity" of the current world structure and to pledge to do everything to abolish it. The French -- elegant, caustic, and as ever the intellectual leader in things anti-American -- have coined the term "hyperpower" to describe America's new condition.

And a new condition it is. It is not, as we in America tend to imagine, just the superpowerdom of the Cold War writ large. It is something never seen before in the modern world. Yet during the first decade of unipolarity, the United States acted much as it had during the preceding half-century.

In part, this was because many in the political and foreign policy elite refused to recognize the new reality. But more important, it was because those in power who did recognize it were deeply distrustful of American power. They saw their mission as seeking a new world harmony by constraining this overwhelming American power within a web of international obligations -- rather than maintaining, augmenting, and exploiting the American predominance they had inherited.

This wish to maintain, augment, and exploit that predominance is what distinguishes the new foreign policy of the Bush administration. If successful, it would do what Teddy Roosevelt did exactly a century ago: adapt America's foreign policy and military posture to its new position in the world. At the dawn of the 20th century, that meant entry into the club of Great Powers. Roosevelt both urged and assured such entry with a Big Stick foreign policy that built the Panama Canal and sent a blue water navy around the world to formally announce our arrival.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the task of the new administration is to develop a military and foreign policy appropriate to our position of overwhelming dominance. In its first four months in office, the Bush administration has begun the task: reversing the premises of Clinton foreign policy and adopting policies that recognize the new unipolarity and the unilateralism necessary to maintain it.


In May 2000, while still a presidential candidate, George W. Bush gave a speech at the National Press Club pledging to build a national missile defense for the United States. A year later, as president, he repeated that in a speech at the National Defense University. This set off the usual reflexive reaction of longtime missile defense opponents. What was missed both times, however, was that Bush was proposing far more than a revival of the missile defense idea that had been put on hold during the Clinton years. Bush also declared that he would make unilateral cuts in American offensive nuclear arms. Taken together, what he proposed was a radical new nuclear doctrine: the end of arms control.

Henceforth, the United States would build nuclear weapons, both offensive and defensive, to suit its needs -- regardless of what others, particularly the Russians, thought. Sure, there would be consultation -- no need to be impolite. Humble unilateralism, the oxymoron that best describes this approach, requires it: Be nice, be understanding. But, in the end, be undeterred.