'New' US global role pits unilateralism against cooperation

US stubbornness over the International Criminal Court signals struggles to come.

Rome, Kyoto, Ottawa. To the average American these cities may sound like nice places to visit, but for US policymakers they're shorthand for a nettlesome post-cold-war trend toward constraining international institutions and accords.

Rome conjures up the Colosseum? Nope, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was cobbled together in a whirlwind five-week negotiating conference there. Kyoto suggests dreamy Shinto shrines and minimalist gardens? Try, rather, a global climate-change agreement. And Ottawa, a cool respite from summer's sear? Think instead: international ban on land mines.

The US has said no to all of these initiatives – considering them unreasonable limitations on the sovereignty of the world's sole superpower. Yet with the strong trend in such international responses to global issues continuing, diplomatic experts say the US must develop a more proactive approach to global initiatives – and not just because it's developing a reputation for arrogant unilateralism. Even those experts sympathetic to American reservations about proliferating treaties and institutions say the US can't afford simply to react to others' proposals and lose its place as an involved power.

The recent controversy over the ICC, for example, "is not a world-changing issue but it is a harbinger of things to come," says William Wolforth, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In the post-cold-war, globalizing world, he says, "the US is going to face these ideas again and again, and it should ask itself if a more subtle approach won't be better than confrontation."

At the height of the heat over the ICC, the US threatened to shut down UN peacekeeping missions unless it got its way. The controversy was defused Friday when the UN Security Council adopted a compromise that suspends for one year any ICC investigation or prosecution of UN peacekeepers from countries – such as the US – that haven't ratified the ICC treaty. This will give the US 12 months to sign bilateral accords with the court's signatories to avoid future prosecutions.

But as Wolforth suggests, the era of multilateral responses to a wide range of global issues has only begun – as the internationalization of justice suggests.

David Davenport, a legal expert at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., says initiatives like the ICC are part of "the new diplomacy" being developed by "1,000 nongovernmental organizations and like-minded states." This, he says, is a challenge to both traditional post-cold-war diplomacy and the US in particular.

But even though he believes the US – as the world's de facto policeman and the only military power with the reach and resources to deploy globally – is right to rebuff the ICC as it was conceived in Rome, Mr. Davenport says the US nevertheless can't afford to only react as other countries and NGOs promote new ideas.

"As the US tries to figure out how to act as the world's sole superpower, it will find we can't be isolationist about these issues, but in fact we'll have to get more involved in international affairs," Davenport says. "The US should be proactive on these issues to realistically fashion results more to its liking."

Traditionally the US and the international community have worked out many differences through diplomatic channels or great-power venues like the UN Security Council. But such paths aren't accepted by an influential part of the Bush administration for sending the message that the US will not accept damaging limits to its sovereignty, says Dartmouth's Wolforth.

But one result of confrontation may be a burning of bridges the US would like to use in the future. "In international relations, goodwill matters. And one of the first rules is you don't pick fights where you risk winning little but losing a lot," says James Lindsay, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We seem to be burning up goodwill at a rapid rate."

More productive for the US, says Hoover's Davenport, would be a focus on building multilateral responses and even sympathetic NGOs to "engage the new building multilateral responses and even sympathetic NGOs to "engage the new diplomacy as it promotes more of the initiatives it's going to come up with."

He notes, for example, that for all the accusations of "unilateralism" lobbed at the US, other international powers like China, Russia, Japan, and India have either not signed or not ratified the ICC.

Yet, he says, the US gets portrayed as "rebuffing the world."

Instead of letting that happen, he says, the US should consider banding together with like-thinking countries to develop "a less ambitious but perfectly effective" alternative to the ICC.

The US will have to think more in terms of shifting alliances depending on the issue at hand, he says.

Part of that process will be recognizing that the powers behind the "new" diplomatic endeavors – especially the European Union and large international NGOs – have a different perspective on national sovereignty from the US.

But as Wolforth argues in a recent Foreign Affairs magazine article, one key to US effectiveness in the world will be actively pursuing multilateral diplomacy and resisting a temptation to "go it alone" just because America's unique military and economic might would allow it to do so.

As Brookings' Mr. Lindsay says, "It's preferable to have a sense of the end state you want to create, not just the end you want to avoid."

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