in America's National Interest
no president in recent memory has invoked the phrase in the American
interest so often and so early as George W. Bush. Mr. Bushs
rhetoric represents a reaction, fierce among conservatives, to what they
view as the fuzzy-minded, multinational foreign policy of Bill Clinton.
They loathed Secretary of State Madeleine Albrights assertive
multilateralism. They detested Deputy Secretary of State Strobe
Talbotts globalist vision. (Within the next hundred years,
Mr. Talbott once wrote, nationhood as we know it will be obsolete;
all states will recognize a single, global authority.) Even Democrats
seemed to squirm when Al Gore offered condolences to the families of 15
American soldiers who died in Iraq in the service of the United
the Clinton administration had, at times, a remarkably vague and misguided
understanding of the American national interest. But now President Bush
could be accused of defining the national interest in the most narrow
and parochial of ways. By doing so he risks exactly what his administration
claims to treasure: Americas leadership role in the world.
would do well to think back. When Ronald Reagan provoked controversy by
opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty, for example, he did so because he
considered it contrary to American interests, and he said this plainly.
Mr. Reagan was concerned about unreasonable obstacles to the development
of deep seabed mineral resources. But, as was so often the case in his
foreign policy, Mr. Reagan linked American interests to the greater international
a delicate balancing act, to be sure. But Mr. Reagan knew that the dividends
were great for America. In the case of the Law of the Sea convention,
which laid down a comprehensive system of rules for the use of oceans
and their resources, he was opposed for national reasons but also on behalf
of world demand. He invoked free trade, commerce and international
a decade later, Mr. Bushs father similarly appealed to broader principles
and chose multilateral cooperation as an effective, even indispensable,
means toward ousting Iraqs Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. American
interests were advanced.
But then there was
Mr. Bushs almost contemptuous rejection of the Kyoto accord on global
warming. Despite compelling critiques at hand, the president reached almost
exclusively for small-minded America First arguments. Last weekend, national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Bob Schieffer on CBSs Face
the Nation that the president of the United States was not elected
to sign treaties that are not in Americas interest.
Indeed. But if treaties
like the one aimed at banning biological weapons are not in Americas
interest, theres reason to believe that such agreements do not serve
the interests of our allies either. Why not argue the case?
After all, how does
the administration expect to convince the French to forgo lucrative oil
contracts with Iraq, for example, if Frances own benchmark is such
a narrow definition of national interest? How will Mr. Bush persuade the
Germans, who are owed billions by Iran, to take a hard line with Tehran
for the cause of international security? If America defines its interests
too narrowly, it cedes its claim to moral leadership--a remarkable but
perishable American asset. Such a definition would also embolden other
countries to define their interests in the same way. Ultimately, this
would restrict American power and reduce American opportunities.
Our national interests,
properly understood, must embrace the principles that tie us to our liberal
democratic allies. Effective leadership requires decisiveness and a common
vision. The Bush administration has the first, but neglects the second
at the nations peril.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at AEI. Gary Schmitt is the executive director of the Project for the New American Century.