The War Behind Closed Doors
homewatch the full program onlineanalysesinterviewschronologydiscussion
going it alone?

In both the Bush administration's overall foreign policy strategy -- as laid out in its National Security Strategy of September 2002 -- as well as its campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, the administration has made it clear that in the end, if necessary, the U.S. is prepared to go it alone. Here, Barton Gellman of The Washington Post; historian John Lewis Gaddis of Yale; defense policy analyst Richard Perle; and former State Department official and Mideast envoy Dennis Ross assess the debate over a multilateral vs. unilateral approach to the world.

RICHARD PERLE
Chairman, Defense Policy Board

photo of perle
read the interview

Colin Powell continually has argued for a multilateral approach. What's your take on the rightness or the misconception of that point of view?

Multilateralism is fine in principle. What is not fine is having our interests adversely affected by the inability to gain a sufficient degree of multilateral support. And what is not fine is subsuming American interests, particularly where security is concerned, in some larger notion that, if the only option in unilateral, we should be paralyzed. We can't do that. We cannot abdicate responsibility for our own security.

So, multilateralism is preferable, if we can get a consensus. But if the only way you can get a consensus is by abandoning your most fundamental interests, then it is not helpful. So it's a question of how much multilateralism in what circumstances.

The Clinton administration went so overboard with multilateralism that they created the impression that the United States was just another country, that we would be bound in the way every little dictatorship in Africa would be bound. We would all sign agreements together. We'd get as many signatures as possible. And, we would behave the way everyone else would behave.

I think that's a complete abdication of American leadership and responsibility. We're not just another country. And if we are ever led by people who regard us as just another country, the whole world is going to be in trouble.

There was a large debate during the Clinton administrations of a post-Cold War theory that was very different [from the one Clinton was practicing], of much more involvement of the United States, an understanding of the power that America had, and the responsibility to deal with threats that were post-Cold War oriented.

I believe that the big philosophical divide is between a kind of insipid globalism in which it is believed that the more agreements we can sign on a global basis, the better, the more signatories to the more conventions on nuclear weapons, on biological weapons, on an international criminal court, on environment, the more we can produce agreements in which everybody is around the table, including the dictators, the better. That's one view.

The other view is that there is a core of liberal democracies, Western industrial nations, by and large, who share common values and common interests, who are collectively threatened by the North Koreas, by the Iraqs, by the Libyas, and the Syrias, and the rest and, they ought to band together to protect their common interests, which happen to reflect the best interests of mankind. The Clinton administration was on the globalist side. You've seen the result. I think this Bush administration is rather more on the side of getting the Western liberal democracies together to protect their interests.

Barton Gellman
Reporter, The Washington Post

photo of gellman
read the interview

Bush has a very strong conception of America as consensus shifter, and as a country that can change what the market will bear globally in terms of balance of power, in terms of leadership of unfriendly countries, in terms of the use of tools that include economic sanctions and military force. Clinton saw himself much more as the steward of alliances and of consensus that moved in the right direction. He didn't see himself as someone who could change the overall thrust, I think, of global policy.

The Bush administration believes big picture; that, although there may be a global consensus against something, that the combination of persuasion and facts on the ground can change that consensus, or at least make that initial consensus much less relevant. In effect, the Bush administration believes that it can do what it sees as vital to American interests. And the rest of the world will get over it.

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS
Professor of Political Science, Yale University

photo of gaddis
read the interview

I don't think there is necessarily a contradiction between being a hegemonic power on the one hand and functioning multilaterally on the other. I think that's largely the history of the American experience in the Cold War. We were clearly hegemonic compared to our NATO allies. Nobody in NATO was in the same league with us. And yet NATO is held out as a superb model of multilateral cooperation.

Well, it worked in part because the other members of NATO knew that the United States had an enormous amount of power and was willing to use it. But it also worked because the United States respected the views of smaller members of NATO and, at times, in fact -- more often than many people realize -- changed its own views and approaches in deference to them. So there was a very fruitful interaction, it seems to me, between hegemonic authority on one hand and multilateralism on the other. In NATO that's really what made it work.

RELATED LINKS

And I think that's what has to happen now if we are going to achieve the same kinds of things we achieved in the Cold War. We obviously cannot do it alone. We obviously need allies. It seems to me that is what happened in the United Nations in the fall of last year with President Bush going and making a compelling argument to the United Nations on the need for intrusive inspection in Iraq, and then an extended debate, both in front of public scrutiny and behind the scenes as well, producing a unanimous resolution.

This is a pretty good model of how it should work. And there are always going to be those who would say, "Well, is it multilateralism if the unilateral hegemony gets what it wants?" And that's a very good question. But then the question equally could be: Is it unilateralism if the multilaterals go along with what the unilateral authority wants to do? That's a good question, too.

So in the real world I think these two things are not always contradictory, and I think we've got a pretty strong historical record to show how they can be handled in such a way that is not contradictory. And I hope our leaders are thinking about that historical record as they try to deal with this new situation. ...

Dennis Ross
Former State Department official and Mideast envoy

photo of ross
read the interview

A multilateral vs. unilateral approach is one of the main debates within this administration.

It is one of the main debates. The fulcrum is how much you have to depend upon others, and how you produce others' participation.

One side of the administration believes that if the U.S. is very clear about its purposes, its red lines, its willingness to exercise power, others will come with us. And by definition, they will come with us, but they have to see that we're ready to go. The other side of the administration says, "Look, it's not going to work that way. You know, you're going to end up creating a coalition of the unwilling, against us. And so you need to be able to massage, you need to be able to work with those who might be your putative partners."

I think the reality, actually, is somewhere in between, because there are certain cases where the American readiness to act even unilaterally if necessary will ensure that you have others with you. And there are other cases where you have to be clear that the nature of the threat, the nature of the problem in many instances is not one that we're most well equipped to deal with, but others may be. So I think in many ways it's got to be case by case. ...

 

home · introduction · view program · analyses · interviews · chronology · discussion · readings & links
producer's chat · tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home + wgbh + pbsi

white house photo copyright ©alan schein photography/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2005 wgbh educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS