U.S. isn’t isolationist, it’s just isolated


LONDON — There are a few countries that line up with the United States in opposing the creation of an international criminal court — Cuba, China, Iraq, and Libya — but no other respectable, democratic countries oppose it.

There are a few fossil fuel-exporting countries that openly or tacitly back the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, but every other major industrial country is going to ratify it (apart from Canada, which dares not get ahead of the U.S.).

And there is not one other country on the planet that really likes the White House’s plan to build missile defenses and tear up the ABM treaty. The U.S. has not been so isolated from its friends on key international issues since the beginning of the Cold War — not even during the Vietnam War.

For a measure of how bad it has got, look at what America’s allies do when they can vent their anger at Washington covertly — as in the vote that left the U.S. without a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the first time since the 1940s. It was the deliberate failure of its friends and allies to vote for it that left the U.S. out in the cold.

It was a petty, stupid thing to do, but they were all furious at American policy. They chose to strike back that way because they knew that the White House would have to blame “the U.N.” for this ridiculous fiasco. The administration could not point the finger publicly at the real culprits without admitting how unhappy its allies are with its policies.

Of course, the U.S. might be right and everybody else might be wrong. What makes that unlikely is the fact that the U.S. once took the lead on all these issues.

The ABM Treaty, and the whole structure of international arms-control agreements that is founded on it, was an American intellectual construct, made real by American diplomacy. Most of the research and thinking on global environmental problems has been done in the U.S.

Even on issues of international justice, the U.S. still often leads the way. It was the unyielding U.S. insistence that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic must be handed over to face the war crimes charges against him before sanctions on Yugoslavia were lifted, despite the usual faintheartedness among its European partners, that got the Serbian ex-dictator delivered to the tribunal in The Hague last month.

So why does the U.S. so often fall at the last hurdle, and drive everyone else crazy? Why does it want war criminals brought to justice, but refuses to ratify an International Criminal Court that is built, like most international institutions since the League of Nations, largely on foundations of American idealism? Why does it sabotage a Kyoto treaty and ABM treaty that are largely the consequences of its own initiatives?

It does so because the U.S. is a very old-fashioned country. Where else is politics run according to a constitution that was basically complete well before 1800? This is not only the world’s oldest democracy. In terms of its traditions, and particularly its concept of nationalism (or “patriotism” as Americans call it, using the 18th-century term), it is its least changed.

This gives the U.S. an awesome political stability — no other democracy could have gone through the chicanery and uncertainty of last year’s presidential election with so little damage — but it also means that it takes a very traditional position on issues of sovereignty. Basically, it’s as though the past century hadn’t happened. But then, in America, it mostly didn’t.

In particular, the U.S. has not suffered the horrors that persuaded everybody else to accept international rules. It is the only major industrial country (apart from Canada) that has never been bombed, and during the 20th century it suffered by far the lowest casualty toll of any major country: less than a tenth of the German, Russian or Japanese losses, and proportionally only half even of Canadian losses.

It has not suffered, so it simply does not understand where absolute sovereignty leads. Its whole political tradition is one of jealously guarding sovereignty — and on top of that it has an archaic political system that gives inordinate power to well-heeled industrial interests. Other governments in developed countries get lobbied by their industries too, but nowhere else are they so helplessly beholden to them.

All of which explains why the basic American position is that while international rules are necessary, they should not apply equally to the U.S.

Ad hoc tribunals to try war criminals in the Balkans or Africa are good, but a permanent court that would have the right to indict American soldiers is unthinkable. Sacrifices for a safe environment are good, but not if they affect the American consumer and the U.S. economy. U.S. invulnerability to missile attack is good, even if it makes other countries vulnerable to American missiles.

The rest of the world can do nothing about this. It has to get on with building the new institutions of international security and global environmental and criminal law as best it can, in the hope that America will catch up after a while. Meanwhile, the non-American 95 percent of the world’s people can console themselves by asking this question: Which country would I rather see as the sole global superpower?