The foundation of American foreign policy molded during the Cold War has unraveled. Whatever happens in Iraq is, at this point, unrelated to a foreign policy stance that requires major alteration.
It is increasingly apparent multilateral organizations designed to keep the peace in a bipolar world have limited utility in a global landscape with many threats and a terrorism quotient that recognizes neither geography nor deterrence.
That France has a veto over American action in the Security Council is ludicrous from any perspective. The French government doesn’t spend enough to defend its own interests. NATO would have been incapable of defeating the intractable Serbs without the presence of American forces, and France is not a "great power" in any sense of that phrase.
Therefore, to suggest American acts should be restrained by a Security Council veto ignores national sovereignty and the reality of national interest. Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary General, not surprisingly argues against any war fought without U.N. concurrence. But France sent troops into the Ivory Coast without U.N. mandate. China did not ask for Security Council approval when it sent troops into Tibet. And Russia did not permit U.N. deliberations over its invasion of Chechnya.
One wonders why what is good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.
It should also be clear at this stage of history that U.S. hegemony on the world stage is unrivaled. This state will unquestionably breed resentment and alliances designed to thwart American interests. That is natural. What is unnatural is a great power that guards against arrogance and hubris. It is remarkable that the American imperium – if this word applies at all – is based on liberty, liberty in a structural form for those states that align themselves with the U.S. and the liberty to join or reject the American sphere of influence.
At this moment foreign policy buffs are polishing theoretical nostrums in an effort to develop the next big foreign policy idea -- what "containment" meant for the Cold War or Mahan’s theory of oceanic dominance meant for 20th Century America.
Some contend multilateralism, arguably in a different form, might be the appropriate direction. Indeed, an Anglosphere that includes Britain, Australia and invited willing participants is one powerful idea. The National Review editorial board, among others, embraces this notion.
On the other side of the foreign policy ledger are the unilateralists who contend American interests should not be constrained by alliances, even informal ones. The unilateralist is an internationalist who contends that national freedom of action should be the hallmark of policy. This position is not a negation of the Anglosphere, merely a refinement.
My own view is that these policy prescriptions tend to overlook an emerging trend that could serve as the balance wheel in a world where chaos is the norm. I call this the bilateralist perspective.
By this I mean regional alliances designed to maintain equilibrium in various "hotspots." For example, despite Turkish rejection of American forces on its territory for the attack on Iraq, Turkey and the U.S. could organize a bilateral pact for the maintenance of Balkan stability.
There are literally dozens of cases where bilateralism would work to our advantage with Japan, the eastern European states, the Baltic states, Russia, Indonesia, India, Australia, obvious candidates along with the key members of the Anglosphere.
Bilateralism is a pragmatic evolution that takes advantage of the many nations openly friendly to the United States and willing to align with us. It is a policy that is affirmative, yet it takes into account the unique concerns in each region without entangling alliances.
North Korean missiles can now reach Alaska, but the fear generated by nuclear testing in Japan is palpable. This is a worry unlike any the U.S. feels about this particular threat. While Japan and the U.S. have a bilateral defense arrangement, it would be appropriate to restate and define its contours in the present world setting.
Bilateralism might vary from region to region but it would not challenge national sovereignty. It would not dignify tyrannies and would not constrain appropriate U.S. action. It would be America’s way of making the imperium of liberty a reality. And, who knows, if it works on the national security and diplomatic level, it might be expanded to include free trade under the banner of "free trade for free nations."
With the withering away of NATO and the U.N., a new day is dawning, one in which pragmatism will apply. It seems to me that bilateralism may be the next big foreign policy idea in the beginning of the 21st century. At the very least, it should be considered as a tactical step toward the future.
Herb London is president of the Hudson Institute and the John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University.