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Coalition allies lament: It's still 'America first'

By Staff writer / December 27, 2001

If Americans' view of the rest of the world has changed since Sept. 11 - seeing it as closer and more threatening - the rest of the world sees America in much the same light.

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Among Washington's allies, meanwhile, policymakers who had hoped that the attack would prompt the US administration to soften its "America first" stance are having second thoughts.

"When the security of American citizens is at stake, America trusts only America," says Dominique Moisi, a top analyst at the Paris-based French International Relations Institute. The campaign in Afghanistan, he adds, "shows that the hyperpower is even more powerful than we had thought."

Washington will still need to count on its friends in the quieter aspects of the continuing war on terrorism, such as intelligence gathering. But its clear military superiority - over both its enemies and its allies - has given the US a diplomatic dominance worldwide that European capitals fear may reinforce unilateral instincts in the White House.

When President Bush took office 11 months ago, his determination to pursue his vision of US national interests was already unnerving policymakers in Europe and beyond.

Washington's refusal to join the Kyoto treaty on climate-warming greenhouse gases, its reluctance to involve itself deeply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even as the intifadah gathered steam, and its commitment to a new missile defense system regardless of the provisions of the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty were among the new US policies that upset the international applecart.

"Europeans were more and more worried about US unilateralism," says Bernhard May, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at the German Foreign Policy Society.

Arab leaders pleaded with Washington to rein in Israel's increasingly harsh response to Palestinian unrest; the Kremlin fulminated against missile defense plans; European allies and others decried what they saw as American selfishness in refusing to sacrifice some economic gain for the good of the planet's environment.

So when Mr. Bush's first reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks was to set about building an international coalition to bolster his war on terrorism, his fellow leaders abroad rejoiced.

Once eager assistants

Russia leaped to help, offering Washington intelligence, the use of Russian airspace, and guns for anti-Taliban troops in the Northern Alliance.

US allies in NATO, for the first time in the organization's history, invoked Article 5, calling the attack on America an attack on themselves, and pledging to fight alongside the United States.

Even countries with a history of prickly relations with Washington, such as Pakistan, agreed to join the war on terrorism - tempted by economic aid and an end to sanctions.

But three months later, "the coalition-building looks like a diplomatic fig-leaf, allowing the US to pick what she wants, when she wants, if she wants, from her allies," says Mr. Moisi. He points to the way that the Pentagon turned down almost all offers of military help in the Afghanistan campaign, preferring to keep control of the operation in its own hands rather than lead a group of countries in a more cumbersome coalition.

On the other hand, Mr. May notes, "because it [Sept. 11] was taken as an attack on America, it is quite natural that the American government was in the lead in the response."

Washington "is not operating multilaterally," argues David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who is now president of the International Peace Academy in New York. "Rather, it might be described as practicing smart unilateralism, just as it has used smart weapons to gain military dominance."

The strains that this approach has put on America's relations with its allies were clear as Britain pushed for the creation of an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan with a mandate from the United Nations, which began deploying last weekend. For weeks Washington blocked the idea, accepting it only when London promised that US Central Command would have ultimate authority over the force, even though no US soldiers will be part of it.