Sixty years ago, German soldiers shaved off the beards of Orthodox Jews. Now American soldiers are doing the same to Islamic fundamentalists captured in Afghanistan, before flying them to a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Other aspects of the US response are similarly troubling. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of careless targeting. Unexploded cluster bomblets will harm thousands more. The destruction of the al-Jazeera TV bureau in Kabul, plans for special military commissions with low evidentiary standards, the refusal to accord detainees presumptive POW status all indicate a casual disregard for international opinion and the laws of war. Most disturbing, however, are some of the threats uttered by President Bush. The assertion that ‘you’re either with us or against us’ obviates a central aspect of state sovereignty – the right not to be involved – and recasts the US as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. The identification of an ‘axis of evil’ between Iran, Iraq and North Korea challenges one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements: the prohibition of the threat or use of force in international affairs. The aberration may be temporary, but there are reasons to believe that something fundamental has changed.

The US Government wields more power than any regime since the Roman Empire. With 12 aircraft carriers, the only significant heavy airlift capacity and the only major stocks of precision guided missiles and bombs, it can defeat any opponent while suffering only minimal losses. And thanks to its massive defence budget, the US is the only country that regularly makes major advances in military technology. Decisions reached on Wall Street and in Washington reverberate around the world. Corporate America, the regulatory infrastructure that supports it and the pension funds that propel it, are the dominant influences on economic policy in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere, not to mention on the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. The collapse of Enron may have demonstrated the fragility of corporate structures, but it also exposed the fevered mating that goes on between business and political elites. Until its demise, Enron was more influential than all but a handful of nation-states. Last spring, I asked an Argentine diplomat what he thought about his country becoming part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, currently being negotiated at the initiative of a number of US-based corporations. He said, with evident regret: ‘We have no choice.’

A country as powerful as the US has many choices, even when struck by a blow as heavy as that of 11 September. The President himself may sometimes forget to chew, but the Vice-President, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld would have been quick to spot the opportunities presented by the crisis. Doubters need only think of Jo Moore, Stephen Byers’s adviser, who got into trouble for suggesting that the attack on the World Trade Center provided a perfect opportunity to bury bad news. The battle-hardened ideologues who direct American foreign policy are no less cynical, and considerably more adept.

A ‘coalition’ was constructed to facilitate the freezing of terrorist assets and the gathering of intelligence overseas. But America’s allies delude themselves if they think that the events of 11 September have persuaded the Bush Administration of the more general value of doing things multilaterally. On the contrary, the treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees and the renewed threatening of ‘rogue states’ demonstrate a reinforced determination to steer a unilateralist course.

During its first eight months in office, the new Administration publicly rejected the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, a convention on the sale and transfer of small arms and a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention. Since 11 September, it has rejected offers of a UN Security Council resolution authorising the war on terrorism, preferring instead to rely on an extended claim of self-defence. It has forged new alliances with illiberal regimes in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, reversing years of effort to promote human rights. In an age of increasing interdependence and co-operation, Bush and his advisers are deliberately out of step with most of the Western world.

In many respects, Bush’s team is a reincarnation of the second Reagan Administration, which was also stridently unilateralist; it, too, drew explicit distinctions between good and evil, claimed exceptional rights, promoted missile defence and relied on the threat of terrorism to justify it all. Following the terrorist bombing in 1986 of a Berlin discotheque frequented by American servicemen, the Secretary of State George Shultz said that it was ‘absurd to argue that international law prohibits us from capturing terrorists in international waters or airspace; from attacking them on the soil of other nations, even for the purpose of rescuing hostages; or from using force against states that support, train and harbour terrorists or guerrillas’. George W. Bush’s speechwriter couldn’t have put it better, but there are two important differences between the situation then and now. First, the end of the Cold War transformed the US into an unrivalled superpower, making it more likely that such claims would meet with acquiescence on the part of other countries. More important, the events of 11 September have transformed a traditionally isolationist population into one that wants its President to act decisively on the world stage and is likely to continue to want him to, given that the ‘war on terrorism’ has been linked by his advisers to three strands of thought which are central to the way Americans think about themselves.

The first is a narrow, reactionary conception of popular sovereignty. The US Constitution is regarded as the ultimate expression of the American people’s consent to be governed. Any exercise of authority not expressly vested in the Constitution is considered illegitimate. International law, which necessarily results from the joint law-making efforts of numerous countries, immediately attracts suspicion – particularly from the Republican Right. Suspicion is heightened by the possibility that international law might provide the means for the Federal Government of the US, whose constitutional powers in the field of foreign relations are considerable, to override the otherwise careful delimitation between its powers and those of the 50 constitutive states. Concern about the aggrandisement of Federal powers on the back of international law is most acute with regard to police and criminal justice matters, where the Constitution accords the states a primary role.

This anxiety about popular sovereignty explains why, during the negotiation of the UN Charter in 1945, the US insisted on a veto over Security Council resolutions: anything less would have violated the Constitution. Last year, US negotiators sabotaged a treaty designed to regulate the international trade in small arms, on the basis that it would violate the constitutional right to bear such weapons. At the same time, President Bush dismissed international concern over the execution of juvenile and mentally handicapped offenders as impermissible interference in domestic affairs. In terms of its adherence to a 17th-century, absolutist conception of sovereignty, the US ranks with Burma, China and Iran.

The second strand of thought draws on Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’, according to which the uniquely individualistic and entrepreneurial character of American society derives from the historical ability of its people to escape government control by moving to the frontier. The books of Ayn Rand promote a popular version of this argument. Much of the history of American foreign policy could be explained as an ongoing attempt to acquire new frontiers. The US spent much of its first century conquering or buying vast tracts of land from France, Russia, Mexico and the Indian tribes. The world outside North America was of little interest, except when it threatened the United States. The articulation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 suggested broader ambitions by signalling that the US would not tolerate interventions in the Western hemisphere on the part of the Holy Alliance. By the end of the 19th century, the US had turned its attentions abroad. Its seizure of Cuba in 1898 provoked the Spanish-American War, which gave it control of Hawaii, the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone. The First World War brought a close alliance with Britain, which enabled the US to share the dominant role in international politics until the end of World War Two. By then, America was alone at the top, with the Soviet Union emerging as the second great power. Forty years of nuclear rivalry and proxy wars fostered an imperialist vision, a powerful military-industrial complex and the extension of American influence around the globe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of a phase, but not the end of American involvement in the rest of the world. Other countries had become the new frontier, and the heads of US-based corporations the new frontiersmen. The focus of government policy shifted to making the world a more hospitable place for American business. The creation of the WTO – an institution grounded in the free-market assumptions of the ‘Washington Consensus’ – was the most notable achievement in this regard.

The frontier thesis lives on in everyday life, too. The stereotypical middle-class American is a hardworking, gun-owning handyman living in a large wooden house in a far-flung suburb, driving a four-ton SUV. Bush’s use of such expressions as ‘dead or alive’ and ‘smoking out of holes’ resonates in the US, and has helped the President achieve dizzying heights in the polls.

The third strand of thought concerns the faith that Americans have in technology. It is the ultimate panacea, whether for cancer, hyperactive children, climate change or terrorism. Even the almost invisible teleprompter that enables Bush to deliver flawless speeches while looking straight through it at his audience is celebrated as a technological achievement.

Technological superiority is a central theme of the one author we can be sure the President has read. In Tom Clancy’s most recent novel, The Bear and the Dragon, technology enables the US to follow the inner deliberations of the Chinese Government, rout the Chinese Army and ward off an intercontinental ballistic missile attack. Most of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy up to 11 September was prefigured by Clancy, including National Missile Defense, closer and closer links with Russia, reliance on the dutiful co-operation of Tony Blair, and a general lack of concern for the Chinese – referred to as ‘Klingons’ by Clancy’s Republican Presidential hero. Today, with their faith in technology reaffirmed by the apparent effectiveness of precision guided missiles and bombs, most Americans are more than willing to see increased spending on high-tech weapons, including NMD.

Powerful countries have always shaped the international system to their advantage. In the 16th century, Spain redefined basic concepts of justice and universality so as to justify the conquest of indigenous Americans. In the 18th century, France developed the modern concept of borders, and that of the balance of power, to suit its continental strengths. In the 19th century, Britain introduced new rules on piracy, neutrality and colonialism – again, to suit its interests as the predominant power of the day.

George W. Bush’s United States is no different, apart from the fact that, following 11 September, hardly anyone is prepared to challenge its lead. The President’s advisers are taking full advantage of this situation, applying pressure in pursuit of a wide range of goals that, in normal circumstances, might not be achieved. Bosnia recently handed over five Algerians to the US, despite the fact that the Bosnian Supreme Court had ordered them to be released due to lack of evidence: they are now in Guantanamo Bay. Canada has been told to rescind its pledge to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and to bring its immigration system into line with American procedures as part of the new emphasis on ‘homeland defence’. It has already put hundreds of its soldiers under direct US command, and is considering doing the same with all of the rest. The UK is leading the clean-up operation in Kabul, and providing key support on both NMD and the issue of detainees.

Russia, for its part, has acquiesced in the establishment of American military bases in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China, having already witnessed the aggressive character of the Bush Administration on two occasions – first in April 2001, after the crash landing of a US surveillance plane, and now on its western border in Afghanistan – is keeping quiet, hoping that the US will go after Iran instead. The discovery of 27 listening devices in a Boeing 767 purchased for President Jiang Zemin has passed without complaint.

Terrorism can cause great destruction and upheaval, but efforts to stamp it out can also be a smokescreen for the pursuit of other, less worthy goals. America’s friends and allies, while providing strong overall support, should offer their co-operation on specific issues only after thinking carefully about what is best for themselves.

Most Americans currently support the President, but fewer than half of them voted for him. The Democratic Party has been revitalised by the Enron scandal and Bush’s advisers are acting as if they have something to hide. Even within the Administration there are public disagreements over such issues as the treatment of detainees, on which the ever-faithful Blair Government has decided not to make a stand.

The next important date in American politics is 5 November. A third of the Senate is up for re-election, and the stakes are enormously high. Following James Jeffords’s defection from the Republican Party last May, the Democrats hold a one-seat majority and are thus able to block many of the President’s proposals – especially those, such as missile defence, which involve massive amounts of money. If the Republicans win back control of the Senate, the momentum generated by 11 September could continue largely unchecked for another two years, giving Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld all the time they need to reshape our world. Should they succeed, the day the World Trade Center collapsed will without doubt be regarded as historically more significant than the day the Berlin Wall fell.

One regularly hears talk of a ‘democratic deficit’ with regard to supra-national institutions such as the UN and the European Union. Perhaps it is time to start speaking of a similar deficit with regard to the US. The importance of decisions made in Washington today eclipses that of decisions made in the UN – and not just for Americans. Citizens of other countries find themselves in a position which has its ironies: victims of a 21st-century form of ‘taxation without representation’, subject to the governance of a foreign power but deprived of any voice.

Although imperfect, the international rules and institutions detested by Bush and his advisers are more consistent with the founding principles of the US than the imperialist principles to which they subscribe. Even the Declaration of Independence recognised that the representatives of the US were required to have a ‘due regard for the opinions of other nations’. It is high time that America’s friends made themselves heard, and insisted that its immense power be used to improve the world – for everyone.

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Vol. 24 No. 6 · 21 March 2002

Michael Byers writes (LRB, 21 February): ‘By the end of the 19th century, the US had turned its attentions abroad. Its seizure of Cuba in 1898 provoked the Spanish-American War, which gave it control of Hawaii, the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone.’ The second sentence contains three substantial historical errors. The Spanish-American War was not caused by a US seizure of Cuba, but resulted from the US decision to intervene in the ongoing Cuban insurrection against Spain. The US did not then ‘seize Cuba’, though it occupied the island temporarily and for long after exercised a degree of suzerainty in Cuban affairs. The only major Caribbean territory taken by the US was Puerto Rico. Hawaii, previously independent, was finally acquired by the US by a treaty of annexation signed in July 1898, during the course of the Spanish-American War but not directly related to it. The Panama Canal Zone was granted to the US by the infant republic of Panama, newly seceded from Colombia with the aid of some high-handed US encouragement and protection, in November 1903, five years after the Spanish-American War had ended. These are all signs of the expansion of US power at the turn of the century before last, an imperialist time in which it is as well to remember that the US was something of a doubting laggard – but they are three distinct episodes.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Vol. 24 No. 7 · 4 April 2002

Michael Byers writes (LRB, 21 February) that the war on terrorism has been linked by Bush’s advisers to the way Americans think about themselves. He fails to mention the most important strand of all: the tradition of Puritanism which the late Christopher Lasch called America’s ‘strongest reservoir of moral idealism’. On the morning of 11 September, I was teaching The Crucible. When Bush addressed the nation that evening and in subsequent speeches, I was struck by how much the rhetoric of 17th-century Puritans has become his own: the sharp distinction between good and evil; no neutral ground; retributive justice; a vengeful God who is on our side; the relentless will dedicated to rooting out a malicious enemy. As Miller’s Reverend Hale says, ‘The powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon us.’

Bernard Murchland
Ohio Wesleyan University

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