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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 15-29

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The End of Unilateralism or Unilateralism Redux?

Steven E. Miller

The terrorist attacks of September 11 will scythe through history, separating a naively complacent past from a frighteningly vulnerable future. In one stunning strike, highly motivated but ultimately weak and stateless actors painfully wounded the impregnable hegemon. Almost immediately, this event was perceived as epochal, demarcating the passage from one world to another. Many media commentators have portentously proclaimed it as "the day that everything changed."

What did this event mean for U.S. foreign policy? Will this rent in the fabric of history produce large discontinuities in Washington's external behavior? Most (although not all) of the commentary since September 11 has focused on the new realities that seem ineluctably to demand major alterations in U.S. foreign policy. Many now hope, presume, expect, predict, recommend, or in some cases fear and regret that U.S. policy must change dramatically to accommodate the exigencies of the war against terrorism. Many of the United States' friends and allies abroad and many critics at home have rushed to assert that policies and approaches long regarded as objectionable are now entirely unsuitable to the needs of the new international situation. Above all, many have claimed that September 11 and its aftermath must spell the end of U.S. unilateralism, which had reached its apogee in the first months of the Bush administration: "[t]he specter of unilateralism" should be regarded as a thing of the past. 1 Such views are understandable, but they may be mistaken. The very real pressures for change in U.S. policy may not be as powerful or as inevitable as many seem to believe. [End Page 15]

Four factors suggest that U.S. policy may change in large, visible, and perhaps even fundamental ways. First, and most obviously, Washington's priorities have changed. The war against terrorism will take precedence over all else. Indeed, President George W. Bush is reported to believe that his presidency will be judged according to the effectiveness with which he wages this war. He has become, as one account put it, the leader with no time for the plans of September 10. 2 The items at the top of the foreign policy agenda on September 10--missile defense and NATO enlargement, for example--have faded in prominence and importance and will no longer be the primary focus of high-level attention and energy. Favored policies of the past will be subordinated to the needs of an effective campaign against terrorism.

Second, the Bush administration is now subject to the constraints associated with forging an international coalition against terrorism. It will want the widest possible international support for its war. It will need the active cooperation of at least some other states if it is to prosecute this war in an effective fashion. It will depend on unprecedented international sharing of intelligence for its vision of a relentless, long-term campaign against global terrorism to meet with success. The requirements of international collaboration may temper Washington's unilateralist impulses and compel greater acknowledgement of the interests and perceptions of others.

Third, Washington may now be motivated to address the root causes of terrorism, or at least to address the socioeconomic conditions that produce foot soldiers for the terrorist cause and that lead populations to support the terrorists. This possibility implies efforts to resolve festering conflicts whose ongoing, embittering violence and bloodshed breeds fanaticism. It also implies a need to raise impoverished populations out of squalor, deprivation, and economic hopelessness; prosperity, it is thought, produces few suicide bombers. The attacks of September 11 suggest that ignoring the world's troubles and the world's trouble spots is perilous. If conflict and deprivation produce terrorism, then ignoring those circumstances where conflict and deprivation reign is dangerous for the United States. Many believe an enlightened long-term strategy for fighting terrorism will include efforts to eliminate the conditions that breed terrorists in the first place. Indeed, this approach may be the only truly effective long-run strategy for eliminating...


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