US foreign policy and Turkish-American relations
Foreign Press Review
Şanlı Bahadır Koç

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Salı, Ocak 20, 2004
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Unilateralism corrupts, absolute unilateralism corrupts absolutely
Turkish News, May 21, 2002. Şanlı Bahadır Koç – e-mail - ajp1914@yahoo.com

‘Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much dreaded . . . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin’. Edmund Burke, 18th century British thinker and politician.
The US is increasingly disinclined to use diplomacy, economic aid, international law and multilateral agreements and institutions in its international dealings. And it is also increasingly prone to use military force and economic manipulation. Can aggressive pursuit of hegemony by America be attributed to the international outlook of this administration, or is it an inevitable corollary of Washington’s disproportionate power vis-à-vis other great and middle powers? Americans spend on defense more than the total sum of the next eight great spenders. Eighty percent of global the research and development expenditure on defense is done by the United States. Another thing, more than ten of the fifteen greatest spenders on defense are either American allies or countries on the verge of becoming one. American ‘unipolar moment’ is bound to pass but hegemonists are determined to make it longer. What does America want to do with this immense and unparalleled power? Will America use its power for the interests of ‘the mankind’, or for the general interest of ‘the West’, capitalist system, or some interest groups inside America? Will it establish order and distribute justice, and champion liberty? Alternatively they may want to have their hegemonic cake and eat it, or just to be left alone? According to Harvard’s Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye, America is unrivalled in military terms, economically on a par with Europe, but bound to be helpless in many transnational issues if it tries to or when it is forced to act alone. Problems like international terrorism, Aids, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, immigration, failed states and the management and the reform of international financial architecture cannot be handled effectively by America alone.

Bush administration is increasingly seen as rejectionist which declines to be part of institutions or agreements which she does not dominate. To misquote what Bob Dylan said about money, ’hegemony doesn’t talk, it curses’. Beginning of the century president Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to be George W. Bush’s role model, once said that in foreign affairs America should ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. Today American government is perceived to ‘shout and wave its stick around’. There is huge gap yawning between the rhetoric and practice of American foreign policy. America violates the very principles which itself preaches, such as democracy (Venezuella), free-trade (steel-tariffs, sanctions), human rights and rule of law (detention of hundreds of foreign citizens without a court decision), transparency (the whole Enron mess, which is only the tip of the iceberg according to informed observers like Paul Krugman). All these combine to weaken the moral leg of the US hegemony. But there is more than one America. As Jack Straw recently pointed out America is not only a country but a continent. ‘It contains multitudes’. George W. Bush’s America is not the only and inevitable America. It may produce a more benign and considerate foreign policy.

There are different and not necessarily mutually exclusive explanations of American unilateralism: a) it is powerful and it can afford to disregard criticism, b) it merely uses its right to defend itself and its interests, if the others disagree, sorry for them. c) its values and interests are no longer similar or even parallel with others’, even with Europe, d) its foreign policy hijacked by a radical conservative group, e) any state which accumulates so much power would be inclined to act unilaterally and it is inevitable that power corrupts and breeds arrogance f) it is not only America that is unilateralist, every state does it in its own capacity, and unilateralism should not be used pejoratively. For instance, France might easily be a much more notorious hegemon than America. American unilateralist policies and decisions are criticized because they are a) selfish, b) employed without much consultation with or even notification to others, c) contradict some of America’s own ideals, d) they are seen as ‘the shape of things to come’: an uncontrolled giant which refuses to account for its actions.

Balancing America

If the hegemon begins to act only on its self-interest rather than the ‘common good’ what should and will the ‘vassals’ do? Power, it is generally held, is an aphrodisiac. Everybody wants to be with the powerful, it is said, or, at least not, against it. But this view needs to be qualified. Although band-wagoning is rather a more general tendency among the middle and lesser powers, great powers tend to balance the hegemon in fear of not being swallowed. It is not inevitable but increasingly likely that a collective effort to ‘contain America’ is in the offing. What can the outside world do in a meaningful way to make America more accountable? American power can be balanced in different ways. It can be done one by one, on ad hoc, issue-base. Balancing can be a coordinated effort, or it may be reflexive and intuitional. It may be without a definite shape till probably in the mid-to long term. It will probably be a limited process and almost certainly be a diplomatic one. What is the possible range of American response? America may ‘pretend not to hear’ and try to ‘divide and lead’. Will it try to punish and deter attempts at balancing of its power? What will be price of balancing America for individual countries?

Are American and European interests diverging or is it just misunderstandings and clumsiness of politicians and diplomats that cause such a furor? During the Cold War the distinction between American and European interests, so far it existed, was blurred. No more. Europeans are increasingly unsure about whether American hegemony will look after their interests as well. They are increasingly conscious of their different world outlook, values and interests. Some people even began to talk about a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Europe and the United States. British diplomat David Clark writes that relations ‘between Europe and America increasingly do involve zero sum calculations.’ Europeans are ever alert to the caprices of excessive power. They claim that American power should be checked, balanced, regulated, constrained and even contained diplomatically. They want it to be more predictable and accountable. Europe is an ideal candidate to balance America but it lacks some very tangible assets to do it alone. It can lead and motivate others against the American hegemony in international forums. Europe is the only plausible candidate for the leadership of the balancing of the American power. It has the history, intellectual capability and the relative ability to act on a global scale to be the intellectual leader and the spokesman of those who are not entirely happy with the workings of the American power. But one question is not yet clear: Is it because of a global sense of responsibility or a more selfish instinct and fear of being left out of the fruits of American hegemony that the Europe opposes American unilateralism?

Is the world against America’s excessive power or America itself? Is it America that makes other uneasy, or the power itself? European friends of Washington may still prefer American hegemony to the uncertainties of multi-polarity, provided it is benign, polite and considerate. In a multi-polar world Europe has to look after its own defense, which seems the Old Continent is not yet prepared to shoulder. In terms of defense, Europeans still seem to want to have their ‘free-rider’ cake and eat it. The fact that unilateralism has become a reflex and a habit alarms the Europeans. European Union, being a supra-national organization, is more inclined and better equipped to compromise than the United States. Also, Europeans, having ‘ruled the waves for centuries’, cannot stand American immaturity, simplicity, arrogance and the lack of sophistication, nuance and finesse required in a great power. Like many stereotypes perhaps they are not entirely wrong. However, American conservatives claim that it is easy to criticize America in comfortable European welfare states which refuse to pay for their defenses when it is America who does the dirty work of managing the global economy, securing the Middle Eastern oil, containing China and fighting terrorism. They continue to claim that foreign policy is not social work which, according to them, is the only thing Europeans indulge themselves to clean their conscience of their colonial guilt. They held that America bashing has become, and perhaps it always has been, a favorite hobby of the European intellectuals who do not have any sensible subject to ‘discourse about’ since the collapse of communism, thanks mainly to American efforts.

Even in those cases Americans think they act for the common Western interests, as in the case regime of change in Iraq, or for humanitarian purposes, as in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, they still feel constrained and obstructed by the Europeans through legalisms. Hence a la carte multilateralism, which basically means 1) specific coalitions for specific tasks only to be dissolved by America when it deems them no longer necessary for its own purposes. But corollary of this is that institutions like Nato may suffer from such an approach. Long-time allies may feel themselves as second fiddles and fig-leaves in the American drive for dominance. They may feel themselves to be called and remembered only when they are needed. 2) Adhering to international treaties and institutions when it suits American interests, but going alone when its price exceeds the benefits (Kyoto), or urgent action is needed, with the faithful (Turkey?), or those who are ready to attend the posse (Afghanistan and Gulf War). Americans seems to think that they can handle the war on terrorism without much help and interference from the Europeans. They think they can assemble and then dissemble coalitions to fight for specific causes. They want to dominate those coalitions. They cannot stand European self-righteousness, or being contained in ‘claustrophobic’ alliances. They want the American Gulliver to be freed from the binding entanglements. But through all this NATO may to lose a great deal of its raison d’etre. It dangerously courts being irrelevant in the future. It may die through non-usage, and an overdose of American unilateralism. As Washington Post columnist Stephen Mallaby reminds, ‘alliances cannot withstand endless mutual acrimony, however deep their roots are’.

It is understandable and even perhaps inevitable that states who accumulated so much power as the United States are unilateralist in some form or another. It is in the nature of power that it makes people want more of it. But it is claimed that American unilateralism is problem because it is arbitrary, capricious and shapeless. Europeans desire to domesticate American hegemony through binding treaties, international institutions and the norms of international law. Hegemons, as part of an unspoken deal, are expected to provide ‘public goods’ and provide some sort of order, continuity, predictability and solvency in the international system, both economically and politically. When they refrain from shouldering their responsibilities, it is inevitable that their authority will be questioned. Lawrence Summers’ claim that America is the ‘first non-imperialist superpower’ sounds less true by every passing day. Some of the obvious but not much talked about advantages of being a hegemon in the international system, such as the role of the dollar as an hitherto unchallenged reserve currency, controlling the Middle east oil, defining the rules and boundaries of legitimacy and sovereignty may be called into question.


There are at least two reasons for objecting American unilateralism, especially when it becomes a habit. First, because America is so big and powerful, the negative consequences of its unilateral actions felt by others is incomparably greater than, say, French unilateralism. America is likened to a fat lady in a crowded elevator, even tough she is not rude or inconsiderate, her mere movements can cause a lot of discomfort in the others who happened to share the elevator. Because it is so powerful, some of its actions inevitably cause problem for other states even when they are not intended to do so. It is not easy let alone possible for such a great power to act evenhandedly all the time. Second, by making unilateralism the norm of its foreign policy the United States risks forfeiting the legitimacy of its hegemony. The gap between the American interests and values on the one hand, and the interests and sensibilities of the rest of the world on the other, are increasingly widening. Does American statesman willing to make their interests more in line with global concerns? Unilateralist conservatives seems to disagree. Unlike Clinton liberals, they concede that American national interests and the global or even collective Western interests are not necessarily the same, similar and in some cases even compatible. They sometimes ask: If we will not able to have our way, what is the point of being the hegemon?

Even if America convinces others that its hegemony is benign, there is always the danger that so much power can easily be hijacked by some offensive minded hegemonists who want power for its own sake or to promote their own sectarian interests. To misquote Lord Acton, ‘unilateralism corrupts, absolute unilateralism corrupts absolutely’ Does American hegemony threaten European interests? If American power continues to be unchallenged it could be inclined to disregard its European cousins. Perhaps what we are witnessing is merely the birth pain of a European common identity and a less asymmetric transatlantic relationship. There are many respected students of transatlantic relations which claim that it is just a family quarrel and a normal disagreement among countries who have similar interests. All those ‘name-calling’, ‘finger-pointing’ and ‘trash-talking’ suits more to spoilt NBA players than responsible great and superpower allies. It is not clear how the transition from the ‘unipolar moment’ to multipolarity may come about. It can happen not with a bang, but a whimper. It can be done in such a silent and subtle way that we may not even notice it.

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)
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