The Magazine

The Candidates' Foreign Policies

It's Bush's American exceptionalism versus Gore's liberal multilateralism

Jun 12, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 37 • By MARC A. THIESSEN
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GEORGE W. BUSH sparked the first foreign policy skirmish of the 2000 campaign with his surprise announcement that, as president, he would consider making unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with deployment of a national missile defense -- whether or not other nations followed suit.


Vice President Gore immediately attacked Bush for his heresy in abandoning multilateral arms control, charging the Bush plan would "reignite the arms race," "hinder, rather than help, arms control," and "destroy" the ABM treaty, which Gore called "the cornerstone of strategic stability."


It was, at last, an honest exchange. For months, Gore has sought to frame a false debate on foreign policy, casting the election as a battle between the Democratic defenders of "internationalism" and the Republican "isolationist" hordes. In Boston in April, Gore called Governor Bush a captive of "right-wing, partisan isolationism" who would "build new walls, neglect new and urgent challenges, and pursue an irresponsible neo-isolationism."


This is patently dishonest. Governor Bush has firmly declared that as president he will pursue an internationalist foreign policy. But his idea of what constitutes internationalism differs markedly from Gore's.


Bush's "distinctly American" internationalism includes opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (because "it would stop us from ensuring the safety and reliability of our nation's deterrent"); a belief that America's U.N. arrears should be paid "only if the U.N.'s bureaucracy is reformed and our disproportionate share of its costs is reduced"; a commitment never to put U.S. troops under U.N. command; and a declaration that, while "America must be involved in the world, . . . that does not mean our military is the answer to every difficult foreign policy situation."


This is not isolationism -- it's old-fashioned American exceptionalism.


The issue in this election is not whether America will be "isolationist" or "internationalist," but rather what kind of internationalism we will have in the 21st century. Two competing visions will be debated in the fall campaign: the "global multilateralism" of the Clinton-Gore Democrats, and the "American exceptionalism" of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.


Multilateralists define America's international commitment by her support for treaties and international organizations, which they see not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. Faced with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, they respond with the CTBT, the ABM treaty, and a web of arms control pacts; faced with injustice, they respond with a panoply of human rights agreements and the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court; faced with the need for military intervention, they look first for authorization and affirmation from the United Nations, which they see as the sole source of legitimacy for the use of force in the world.


The multilateralists do not see America as a unique nation with a unique role in the world. Rather, they believe, as deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott wrote in Time magazine back in 1992, that "All countries are basically social arrangements . . . [that] are all artificial and temporary. . . . Within the next 100 years, nation-hood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognize a single global authority." For the multilateralists, the principles of our Founding Fathers are outdated ideas of a bygone era, to be slowly replaced by a new international system based on global treaties, global laws, and global governance.


Exceptionalists, by contrast, view the principled projection of American power as the key to an effective internationalism. For security, they look first to concrete defenses. And, while exceptionalists seek to preserve America's freedom of unilateral action in the world, they also support well-negotiated treaties and strategic alliances such as NATO as ways to promote U.S. interests and spread American values.


Governor Bush has laid out an exceptionalist foreign policy vision. He has declared his emancipation from the arms control theology of the Cold War, rejecting the notion that scraps of parchment and Mutually Assured Destruction are the keys to peace and stability. He has made clear his intention to rebuild the American military, and to rely on a concrete national missile defense -- not an antiquated ABM treaty negotiated with the Soviet Union -- to protect the American people (and our allies) from ballistic missile attack.