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THE UNITED STATES HAS NEVER had to practice a diplomacy between equals. When it was a nation on the rise, its isolation shielded it from the outside world and from the European powers. In the nineteenth century, it was up against forces in no way able to resist it: Indian tribes, Mexico, the remnants of a declining Spanish empire. When it decided to break definitively with isolationism after World War II, participating for the first time in a military alliance during peacetime, it did so directly as a superpower, taking over the "leadership of the free world."


The collapse of the Soviet Union did not lead, as some had hoped, to the emergence of a multipolar world. The United States has neither equals nor rivals: it is the first truly global power in history, the only state ever to possess all military means--nuclear arms, projection force, satellites, sophisticated arms, etc. It is the first world economy with seemingly inexhaustible powers of innovation and flexibility; it has a universally attractive culture. Earlier empires--Roman, Chinese, Mongol--were not global empires but, above all, regional powers. The United States enjoys not superiority but supremacy. No other power can aspire to challenge it in the four essential areas (military, economic, technological, and cultural) that constitute a global power.

Not only can no state compete with the United States in these four areas combined, most would have difficulty competing even in one of them. The French minister of foreign affairs, Hubert Vedrine, finding the term "superpower" inadequate to describe the power of the United States, invented a new term: "hyperpower."

Power allows the United States to dispense with reflection and prudence: its "power reserve" is such that the consequences of carelessness or, indeed, errors are never too serious. "Hyperpower" can thus become, with impunity, hyperarrogance. The United States can decide to define singlehandedly the rules of international law, political or economic, applicable to all countries; to determine what is good for all humanity according to its own conscience; to judge that those who oppose it are antidemocratic and antiliberal; to treat the United Nations like an agency of the State Department and totally ignore it if it does not conduct itself as such; to believe that its European and Japanese allies have no right to challenge its preeminence by virtue of the protection it grants them; to allow Israel to interpret international law as it sees fit and to applaud it as a peacemaker when it signs agreements (Wye, Sharm al-Shaykh) that merely confirm (while scaling back) agreements it had signed earlier. None of this has any importance. Never has La Fontaine's adage "Your power or weakness will always decide your lot" been more appropriate.


The U.S. belief in its uniqueness goes beyond the crude assessment of a balance of power. The United States, from the outset, saw itself as exceptional from the moral standpoint. Indeed, messianism is a fundamental component of the dynamic of American history. It is in keeping with its entire project of colonizing the New World, a project involving the will to attain perfection and to assure the triumph of its founding values. It's what Jefferson called "the empire of liberty": the newly conquered lands representing both the promotion of freedom and national grandeur. This quasi-religious collective mythology is at the root of America's relationship to the world. As Thomas Paine wrote in his famous pamphlet Common Sense, several months before the Americans declared their independence from England: "It is in our power to reconstruct the world."

This messianism was theorized in particular by John Lee O'Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, through the concept of "Manifest Destiny." Inveighing in the summer of 1845 against those foreign nations that were attempting to prevent the annexation of Texas, he wrote that the United States would beat back all those who would try to stand in the way of its power, limit its grandeur, or prevent "the fulfillment of our Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." When the geographical limits of the nation were reached, Manifest Destiny lost its connotation of territorial aggression. Instead, it became a central element in the nationalist discourse attributing to the United States a universal civilizing mission, a future of commercial and cultural expansion and the destiny of great power. One of the first applications of this doctrine--once the territorial expansion phase was over--was to place the Philippines under its trusteeship in 1898, thus anticipating the principle of the "American private preserve" dear to President Theodore Roosevelt.

During and after World War I, President Woodrow Wilson and the United States always put forward moral aspirations for the international order (the people's right to self-determination, democracy, etc.), which they readily contrasted with European cynicism or realpolitik, the reign of brute force, and the will of the powers.

It was the emergence of a superpower at the eastern edge of Europe in 1945, creating by its sole weight a strategic imbalance, apparently able and willing to dominate the entire continent and endowed with a Communist regime to boot, that forced the United States to break forever with isolationism. But there, too, moral objectives (the struggle for the defense of freedom) mingled with geopolitical ones (preventing a power from dominating Europe and/or Eurasia). Dean Acheson declared that since Rome and Carthage there had not been such a polarization in the world: "For the United States, measures to reinforce countries threatened by Soviet aggression or Communist subversion protect the security of the United States, and indeed, freedom itself."

The battle continued at both levels: geopolitical (the Soviet Union had reached strategic parity with the United States by the beginning of the 1970s, albeit by sinking most of its resources into the contest) and politico-moral. As seen by the United States, the Soviet regime was the absolute negation of the American political system: a dictatorial regime versus a liberal regime, the power of the state versus individual freedoms, and so on. The Soviets thus had to be fought not only in the name of interest, but in the name of morality. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the battle between East and West was finally won--without a shot being fired--by the United States.

In his State of the Union address of 1992, George Bush declared: "Thank God, America has won the cold war; a world formerly divided in two armed camps today recognizes the superiority of a single power: the United States. This fact no longer inspires fear, for the world has confidence in our nation, and it is right." In an earlier interview, Bush had remarked: "The sole responsibility of the United States is to advance the cause of freedom, for which it has both the moral stature and the necessary means." [1] 

The war of Kosovo only reinforced America's moral vision of its foreign policy. Thus, the United States did not intervene to defend its strategic interests, but to uphold its moral duty. As President Bill Clinton declared on 14 April 1999: "It is America in the best it can offer . . . it's America trying to assure that the world lives in a human way, so that we have peace and freedom in Europe and that our people do not have to wage a more extensive war."


But the U.S. conception of freedom differs somewhat from that of other peoples. Washington believes that, in the nature of things, it should be the sole and uncontested orchestra leader for the common good. Other countries are more inclined to see a concert of nations where each can make its own music heard, even if all are not audible in the same way.

Moreover, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the moral argument no longer had the same weight. Without a powerful state seen as bent on world domination in the name of a messianic ideology, what states could be condemned in the name of morality?

What was left after the establishment of the New World Order was states guilty of irregular behaviors out of sync with internationally accepted norms. These would be states with expansionist policies toward their neighbors, those acting aggressively toward democracies (through terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.), or those guilty of a flagrant violation of human rights--provided they are not close allies of the United States.

To describe such states, the Americans devised a new category--"rogue states." This new category of states beyond the pale of civilized behavior legitimizes a more muscular action against those thus designated. The problem, of course, is not only determining which states to include on the list but also, and especially, determining who is qualified to establish it.

Overcoming these difficulties, the American leaders regularly cite Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Yugoslavia as rogue states. But aside from Yugoslavia, where international force was employed to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo, and Iraq, which since December 1998 has been subjected to a regular "self-defense" bombing campaign (albeit without a clear objective) by the United States backed by Britain, the sanctions established by Washington are limited to economic sanctions intended to lead these states to adopt behaviors more in keeping with "universal standards."

The limits of the economic sanctions, however, soon become clear. First of all, the sanctions' effects are limited, either because of the ease with which the targeted countries can find alternative outlets for exports and sources of supplies or because the sanctions' effects fall mainly on the civilian populations rather than the leaderships of the countries concerned. Considering that rogue states almost by their nature are ruled by dictators, the civilian population cannot be held responsible for the actions of their leaders. By the same token, the leaders seem to have little concern for the fate of their populations.

Second, economic sanctions in most cases are unilaterally decreed by Washington, without consulting with the other major economic actors, such as the Europeans and the Japanese. This being the case, these last do not feel constrained to apply the sanctions, which leads to disputes within the club of industrialized nations.

The classic example in this regard is the August 1996 Kennedy-D'Amato bill, better known as the "Iran Libya Sanctions Act," which "authorizes" the United States to impose sanctions on third parties investing more than $40 million annually in the petroleum industries of Iran or Libya. The application of sanctions to the contravening companies was left to the State Department, while their severity was to be determined by the president from a list of applicable penalties (total ban on access to the American market for products of the implicated firm, ban on American technology transfers, and so on). The first major challenge to the law came in September 1997, when France's TOTAL, heading a consortium including the Russian Gazprom and the firm Petronas, signed a $2 billion gas contract with Tehran. The deal rankled the Americans all the more because the contract had been promised in 1995 to the American firm Conoco, which had been forced by Washington to withdraw from the deal. But in actual fact, faced by a unanimous European outcry, the American attempt to apply the sanctions was rather feeble: after a communique from the State Department expressing "hope" that Paris would revoke its decision, and following tense relations for several months, Washington quietly abandoned its efforts to impose sanctions against TOTAL. Since the May 1998 creation of the Transatlantic Economic Partnership, the law, though still on the books, has lain dormant.

The U.S. propensity to sanction and exclude predates the "rogue state era." A case in point is the PLO. Ever since the Venice Declaration of June 1980, Europe recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and as such considered it entitled to a place at the negotiating table. Washington, on the other hand, running counter to near unanimous world opinion and in support of Israeli inflexibility, continued to sanction the "terrorist" organization with a "diplomatic gag" for another eight years, thus complicating the search for Arab-Israeli peace.

Such differences in approach continue to hold true, with the Europeans favoring dialogue and diplomacy even during periods of extreme tension and sharp disagreement. The most egregious ongoing example is that of Iraq, where the maintenance of the embargo since the end of the Gulf War is without question due to the determination of America backed by Britain. France, backed by many of the European Union countries, has repeatedly stressed the inadequate nature of the sanctions on the grounds that, far from destablizing the Iraqi regime as Washington claims, they seem only to plunge the civilian population in ever more desperate straits. It is thus that France has long called for the need to "replace the logic of punishment by a logic of solution." France's proposals--involving rigorous surveillance of Iraqi weapons sites with a view toward lifting the oil embargo (even while applying strict controls on the use of export revenues) to ensure Iraqi compliance with its obligations--have been repeatedly and categorically rejected by the United States. The effectiveness of the European approach can perhaps be discerned in recent events in Iran. While the United States has totally boycotted the regime, the Europeans engaged Iran first in "critical dialogue" and then, after the election of President Mohamed Khatami in 1997, in "constructive dialogue." The international support implicit in this dialogue unquestionably helped the reformers camp.


Above and beyond the problems of implementing sanctions involving the rogue states, the definition of rogue states leaves a great deal to be desired.

These states, certainly, are hardly models of democracy, but there are a number of states on the planet with even worse records in this domain that continue all the same to maintain good relations with Washington. Respect for human rights can thus not be the true criterion for the definition of rogue state.

Indeed, on closer examination, it does not take long to discern that what these countries have in common despite their diversity is not so much their national or international behavior, however worthy of criticism it may be, but their open defiance of Washington. They have all, either within their own region or on an international level, challenged American supremacy, sometimes violently (e.g., Castro's attempts to export revolution in the 1960s, Libya's attacks against American regional interests, Iraq's defiance of the United States in the Gulf War). Long after such defiance against the American order by force has ceased, Washington's rancor persists. The leaders of these countries are often demonized and presented as the very archetype of the dictator.

Finally, these countries are not really powers, neither on the military nor on the economic plane, and in no way represent a real threat to the United States. Thus states that contest American supremacy and are real powers (China, Russia) are not on the list. The true definition of a rogue state is one that rises against the United States without really having the means to do so. Such states are all the easier to designate as adversaries in that they pose few dangers. This moreover allows the United States to confer legitimacy or moral rectitude on its actions against those it considers troublemakers with respect to the international order. Also excluded from the rogue list are countries that flout human rights but which do not, for all that, contest America's leadership of world affairs.

Looking closely, the United States could itself qualify for the category of states not overly concerned with the rules accepted by most states. Its attitude concerning the death penalty puts it on a par with states like China, which can hardly constitute a reference. Several years ago, two German citizens were executed in the United States despite the German government's repeated pleas for clemency. Question: What would happen if two American citizens were executed in Germany, despite Washington's entreaties?

The pilot of the U.S. military plane that severed the cable of a ski lift in Italy, causing the death of some twenty persons, was acquitted by an American court martial, the flight recordings having been erased "by mistake." Certainly, the American president presented excuses, which has become habitual, and suggested financial compensation. Nonetheless: What would happen if an Italian pilot who had caused through negligence the death of twenty Americans were acquitted by an Italian court martial?

In Khartoum, Sudan, the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant, totally destroying the plant and killing or injuring around twenty employees, on the basis of information--never proven and moreover questioned by the CIA--that it was involved in the manufacture of chemical agents for chemical weapons. The Sudan vigorously denied the charges, and the Pentagon has produced only sketchy information. The owner of the plant, meanwhile, is suing the U.S. government. Question: What would happen if another country bombed a U.S. factory rumored to be manufacturing components for cluster bombs?

The United States continues to bomb Iraq without any international mandate and without any UN authorization. How would the United States react if Iraq, or any other country, adopted a USA Liberation Act (on the order of the Iraq Liberation Act adopted by Congress) and appointed within its foreign ministry a "chief coordinator for the transition in the United States," as Washington has done with regard to Iraq, earmarking $97 million to help the Iraqi opposition overthrow Saddam Hussein?

The United States has refused to sign the convention signed by most other countries banning the manufacture of antipersonnel land mines, even though it is highly unlikely that this type of weapon is necessary for its security. Washington is likewise remaining aloof from the international penal code being devised to judge war crimes. While the European countries, Japan, and the developing world all fight for the protection of the environment, Washington refuses to accept the constraints required to participate in the common action and has refused to sign the convention on global warming. And while the United States is pressing India and Pakistan to sign the nuclear test ban treaty, the U.S. Congress refuses to ratify it and turns a blind eye to Israel's nuclear capacity. Question: How would the United States react if other states imposed on it economic sanctions as long as it did not sign the antipersonnel mine treaty?


The United Nations, which George Bush made the centerpiece of his New World Order following the Gulf War, is increasingly seen by Washington not merely as serving little purpose but as an outright impediment to its action; indeed, it is no accident that the United States, even after its recent payment of a first installment in arrears, remains the world organization's largest debtor.

It was because of its reservations about the UN that Washington set out to define a new strategic concept for NATO, where it has greater weight, in preparation for the organization's fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Not coincidentally, this was the time when the Kosovo crisis was heating up. Since the Serbian military operations in Kosovo took place on Yugoslav soil--partly in response to the military operations of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)--article 51 of the UN Charter authorizing the use of force as a legitimate defense against aggression did not apply. While UN Resolution 1199 of 23 September 1998, by presenting the deterioration of the Kosovo situation as a threat to international security, left an opening with regard to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, the linkage was ambiguous at best. And it was precisely because it was known that the Security Council would refuse to allow the strikes that permission was not even asked.

As French foreign minister Vedrine declared to the Defense Committee of the French National Assembly after the NATO campaign ended, "The Allied intervention against Yugoslavia in Kosovo coincided with the finalization of the new strategic concept of NATO whereby the Americans, through Mme Albright, attempted to substitute NATO for the United Nations." [2] While the Europeans, who were not prepared to tolerate a repetition of Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, were not against military intervention, they wanted the new NATO concept to respect the preeminence of the Security Council. Washington, on the other hand, was determined to preserve the autonomy of NATO--in other words, to give NATO the right to use force without a mandate from the United Nations. In the end, as a result of France's insistent pressures, the new strategic concept did contain explicit references to the UN Charter and to the Security Council's primordial role, which the United States had previously refused. But, as a member of the French delegation emphasized, "We are not naive. We know very well that in future crises, each time 'special circumstances' will lead to 'practical solutions.' But at least it is written as such, and the exception has not been enshrined as the rule." Or, as Foreign Minister Vedrine told the National Assembly, future implementation of the clause safeguarding the Security Council's role "depends in large measure on the American attitude concerning the UN's role in settling future crises." [3] 

Something of Washington's intentions concerning the UN could be gleaned from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the height of the NATO campaign. According to Le Monde, she informed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 7 May 1999 that "any political and military interference by the UN will be unacceptable. The international military presence in Kosovo will not be a United Nations force, and it will in no case be under the control of the United Nations. The UN, Mr. Kofi Annan was told, should be satisfied with what concerns it, that is to say, humanitarian affairs." [4] 

For all its flaws, the United Nations, successor of the League of Nations, was created as the guarantor of world peace, a viable alternative to an international system based on realpolitik and conflicting raison d'بtat. Yet here, in a simple phrase of Secretary Albright, the UN's role is reduced to that of humanitarian affairs. It is clear that what we are witnessing is a reversal of logic. It stands to reason that the United Nations, a world organization representing all the peoples of the planet, should not be subordinate to a great power, but, on the contrary, that the great power should respect the superiority of the UN. But Washington considers that this multilateral framework cannot be allowed to pose a hindrance to the free exercise of its power.

The Kosovo war, the first to take place under the new strategic concept, was waged illegally from NATO's standpoint as well: because Yugoslavia neither attacked nor threatened any NATO countries, article 5 of the NATO treaty could not be invoked. In the contradiction between the principle of respecting the territorial integrity of states and the principle of the people's right to protect themselves, the NATO countries opted for the latter at the expense of the former, bypassing legality in the name of morality. They did so with full awareness of what they were doing, for it is false to pretend, as some have tried to do, that the Europeans were made to go along with an operation decided by the Americans (even though Washington does carry more weight within NATO than the other eighteen countries combined). But even though the Europeans went along willingly, it is also true that they are far more preoccupied with the question of whether the way the war was waged was an exception or a precedent. Beyond Kosovo, what is at stake is two approaches to the international order: the Europeans are prepared to accept the constraints of international law, the Americans are less inclined to do so.


Inevitably, the Kosovo war raises the issue of double standards. Before the NATO intervention, the fighting in Kosovo between the Yugoslav army and the KLA claimed 2,000 lives. That is about the same as the number of unarmed Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during the intifada. Why intervene in one place but not in other regions where people's rights are likewise trampled on, sometimes in more egregious fashion? Israel has constantly violated not only the Palestinian right to self-determination, but also international law by illegally occupying territories seized by force and by not respecting the Geneva conventions in those territories. Yet there have been no threats to bomb Tel Aviv to impose Palestinian self-determination.

The double standard issue, of course, goes back a long way. Its most recent international manifestation was at the time of the Gulf War. For if Saddam Hussein fatally miscalculated international reaction to his invasion of Kuwait, he did score a point in his media war by calling attention to this issue that had long rankled in the Middle East. Indeed, the actual prosecution of the Gulf War could not have provided a more telling illustration of the problem: while it took less than twenty-four hours after the expiration of the ultimatum in UN Security Council Resolution 678 for the U.S.-led coalition to strike Iraq, Resolution 242 calling for Israel's withdrawal from the territories occupied in June 1967--reinforced and confirmed by more than 100 other resolutions--still awaits full implementation thirty-three years later. With the end of the cold war, during which Moscow to a certain extent acted as counterweight to the U.S.-Israeli duo in the United Nations, the United States, with its pretensions of establishing a New World Order, almost had to do something to clear up the anomaly. Its role in convening the Madrid Conference and sponsoring the subsequent Israeli-Arab negotiations can be seen as a tour de force, though the double standards problem persists. The United States, with varying degrees of subtlety, continues to support Israeli positions in the negotiations, at least on the essential issues.

Resolution 425 of 19 March 1978 calling on Israel to "withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory" and requesting the secretary-general to report to the council within twenty-four hours on the resolution's implementation is even more telling because unconditional and unambiguous. Twenty-three years later, Israel contemplates withdrawal from southern Lebanon as a result of relentless and punishing local resistance, but its massive destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure over the years has never elicited strong U.S. censure. Moreover, following its most recent bombing, in February 2000, destroying Lebanese power plants that plunged over half the country in darkness at a cost of over $50 million, Secretary Albright's first reaction was to declare that the bombing was meant to "prevent escalation," echoing the phrase of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.


Writing in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington noted that the United States practices a policy of "world unilateralism," that is, the promotion of its own interests without consideration of the interests of other nations. [5] Needless to say, there is little danger of the United States reverting to the isolationism of the past, but it could become an isolated country, and this at a time when, as Madeleine Albright herself has recognized, the United States devotes fourteen times fewer resources to supporting democracy and growth abroad than it did at the time of Secretary of State George Marshall. [6] 

What is good for General Motors may be good for the United States, but what is good for the United States is not necessarily good for the rest of the world. Confident of its Manifest Destiny and of its role as the only "indispensable nation," confident that it embodies universal values, the United States does not understand that others might be opposed to its policies. Indeed, opposition to its policies is inevitably seen as opposition to universal values rather than to American highhandedness. Just as the Soviet Union confused the interests of the Soviet state with the higher interests of socialism, so the Americans begin to confuse the interests of the United States with those of the Western world.

In four years, the European Union has profoundly transformed the concept and practice of the international life of its members: a distinctive diplomatic culture has taken root among them consisting of attachment to international institutions, multilateralism in the sense of compromise, and preference for engagement.

The basic trends in the United States seem to go in exactly the opposite direction. After the phase of "institution building" and promotion of international law in the post-World War II period, there has been, since the end of the cold war, a turning away from international institutions, an increase in unilateral and coercive practices, a disdain for legality, and, more generally, a growing reluctance to tolerate any international constraints whatsoever on its freedom of decision.

The Europeans have an obvious common interest in promoting their own concept of international order--that is, the development of multilateral constraints that are assumed, codified, and reciprocal. A natural outgrowth of this concept are actions aimed at strengthening multilateral frameworks and international institutions and promoting attitudes of cooperation and negotiation. The Kyoto conference on global warming, the Ottawa conference on land mines, and the Rome conference to establish an international criminal court show the ability of the Europeans not only to reach consensus but to reflect the aspirations more widely shared at the global level for a more egalitarian international society with greater respect for the law. This is an undeniable comparative advantage for the European Union.

The United States, on the other hand, lacking an adversary or a partner of comparable power, can give priority to unilaterally defined policy and dispense with the rules of dialogue. The cost, of course, is not only to lessen its power of attraction and moral prestige, but ultimately to undermine its effectiveness as a world power.


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Pascal Boniface is executive director of IRIS (the Institute of International and Strategic Relations), one of France's leading think tanks. He is also professor of international relations at the Institut d'Études Politiques in Lille and Paris and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Atlas des Guerres, Géopolitique du Football, Repenser la Dissuasion Nucléaire, and, in English, The Will to Powerlessness (Toronto: Queens University Press, 1999).

1. Le Monde, 31 January 1991. 

2. French National Assembly, Commission for the Defense and Armed Forces, Minutes, number 38, session of 22 June 1999. 

3. Ibid

4. Le Monde, 10 May 1999. 

5. Samuel Huntington, "The Lonely Superpower," Foreign Affairs 78, no.. 2 (March-April 1999), pp. 35-49. 

6. Madeleine Albright, "The Testing of American Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs 77, no. 6 (November-December 1998), p. 62.