Allies in America's National Interest
Jeffrey Gedmin and Gary Schmitt
The New York Times
August 5, 2001

Perhaps no president in recent memory has invoked the phrase “in the American interest” so often and so early as George W. Bush. Mr. Bush’s 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 Albright’s “assertive multilateralism.” They detested Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s 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 Nations.”

Yes, 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: America’s leadership role in the world.

Mr. Bush 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 good.

It’s 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 security.

Nearly a decade later, Mr. Bush’s father similarly appealed to broader principles and chose multilateral cooperation as an effective, even indispensable, means toward ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. American interests were advanced.
At times, President George W. Bush seems to get it. He dropped the “national” from national missile defense. In fact, the United States needs allied cooperation, namely critical permission from Britain and Denmark to upgrade radar stations in Britain and Greenland. Easing Russian concerns, as Mr. Bush decided to do after a rocky beginning with President Vladimir Putin, helps make the deal.

But then there was Mr. Bush’s 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 CBS’s Face the Nation that “the president of the United States was not elected to sign treaties that are not in America’s interest.”

Indeed. But if treaties like the one aimed at banning biological weapons are not in America’s interest, there’s 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 France’s 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 nation’s peril.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at AEI. Gary Schmitt is the executive director of the Project for the New American Century.