Monday, September 28, 2009

the end of 21st century isolationism – unilateralism.

an op-ed i wrote on unilateralism...

The End of 21st Century Isolationism – Unilateralism

I just watched Obama’s UN speech, and it was everything I voted for. Obama has inherited a weakened America facing immense challenges, but despite my domestic policy disagreements, I am thoroughly impressed. Obama’s speech at the UN said everything that needed to be said, including an implicit apology for America’s missteps into the 21st century.

During the 2000 presidential primaries, I shuddered in fear when then Governor Bush was confronted by reporters on his lack of foreign affairs knowledge. I watched in disbelief as he failed foreign affairs quiz after foreign affairs quiz, frequently unable to answer questions that even I could answer just barely half way through high school.

I think at that point, a more humble person’s embarrassment might lead them to question whether they should really be pursuing the most powerful office in the world, but as we would all learn, Bush isn’t really the humble type. I decided during the primaries, when there was still a relatively wide field of candidates, that I would hope for only one thing… George W. Bush would not become president.

Well, that didn’t work out so well. I was still consoling myself with the relative stability of global politics when hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001. Now a conflict of epic proportions was emerging that intimately involved leaders like Pervez Musharraf, whose names eluded Bush just a year earlier. The path was predictable. Bush’s personal ignorance of foreign affairs yielded self-centered American policies that demonstrated a similar ignorance.

Bush made important foreign policy decisions by talking to God and trusting his gut, which a more scientific person might rightly describe as the amygdala’s projections onto the gut. (Think “fight or flight.”) Consequently, his policies used fear to send America’s amygdala into overdrive, and for the sake of simplicity and expediency, even people who knew better accepted the flawed perspective of foreign policy challenges existing in a vacuum.

As much as I appreciate that Bush rightly lambasted isolationism, sometimes in disagreement with his own party, Bush got it terribly wrong. In the days of Chamberlain, Churchill, and Hitler, Bush’s condemnation of isolationism would have confirmed the courage he saw in the mirror, but what Bush didn’t realize was that it wasn’t World War II and his detractors weren’t present day Neville Chamberlains. Bush was on the wrong side of history, just as Neville Chamberlain was. In today’s interconnected world, unilateralism is the new isolationism.

The flaw of isolationism in the 20th century was the false view that domestic affairs could exist in a vacuum, and a state could act without regard for consequences beyond its borders. It was promoted by oversimplifying foreign affairs, and subverting logical appraisals in favor of the instinctive amygdala. Sure enough, ignoring foreign affairs in the run up to World War II came at a sobering cost.

The flaw of unilateralism in the 21st century is the false view that international relations can exist in a vacuum, and a state can act unilaterally without regard for consequences on a global scale. It too is promoted by oversimplifying foreign affairs and subverting reason and deliberation in favor of “fight or flight.” The invasion of Afghanistan has destabilized a nuclear armed Pakistan, and the invasion of Iraq has strengthened Iran in numerous ways, the direst being America’s loss of credibility in enforcing the non-proliferation of WMD.

Luckily that chapter of American foreign policy is over, and hopefully for good. Obama’s UN speech described a radically different approach to international relations, centered on the recognition that 21st century challenges are global in nature and thus require global cooperation and compromise. America is still the preeminent power in the world, and Obama made it clear in no uncertain terms that he will serve the interests of his constituents, but his global perspective finally realizes something unilateralism didn’t: Our interests are shared, and best served through multilateralism.