American Unilaterialism and the Failure
of Good Intentions 

Clyde Prestowitz

Reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Nothing is harder for Americans to understand than the extraordinary complex of responses that the United States evokes today throughout the rest of the world: incomprehension, resentment, admiration, fear, envy and, as one might say, shock and awe. The incomprehension is mutual. Few nations have ever needed more "to see ourselves as others see us," in the phrase, than Americans today.

At this astonishing juncture in history, when the United States has demonstrated overwhelming military might and the ability to act as it pleases, Clyde Prestowitz steps back to try to view his country in perspective. Now president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a research group in Washington, he has had a long and varied career, partly spent outside America, which gives him an advantage most of his compatriots lack. His theme in "Rogue Nation" is American unilateralism, not only in the mainstream of foreign policy but also in various tributaries.

Prestowitz recites a familiar and gloomy litany - small-arms control, global warming and Kyoto, the International Criminal Court and plenty of other areas where Washington has thwarted international consensus.

There is nothing new about national egoism, after all; great powers have always pursued their own interests. Yet even when they didn't do so in a decorous way, or with what high-minded earlier Americans called a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, older powers necessarily had some regard for the views and interests of other countries. Even at the apogee of British might 100 years ago, when their neighbors often saw the English as perfidious and hypocritical, Britain pretended to pay some attention to those neighbors and tried to retain some of their good will.

The United States, under the Bush administration, Prestowitz suggests, is quite different with a disrespect for the opinion of mankind that verges on the indecent.

As Prestowitz perceives, the real trouble with current American policy is not so much that it is unilateral and highhanded as that it doesn't even understand the cynical older notion of enlightened self-interest. Wahington acts on the principle that "they need us more than we need them," a belief that has been encouraged by some of the more simple-minded exponents of globalization as the latest version of the American way. Quite apart from being a little ill mannered, this isn't even true.

The applies in the Middle East, above all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although it's often said that only the United States can untie that knot, one could also put it the other way around: Unilateral and unaided American power cannot effect a political solution in the Holy Land in the same way that it can achieve an effortless military victory in Iraq.

At the same time nearly the most significant thing about the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the wedge it is driving between the United States and Europe. Once again there is a great gulf of perception, not least because of the way this story is covered in the news media. If you knew about it only from televison in the United States and in Europe, Prestowitz observes it might be two completely different stories.

For numerous Americans, Indonesia, Taiwan and Latin America - all of which Prestowitz touches on - are little more than names, though also markets and sources of cheap labor.

In reality, as Prestowitz recognizes, relations between the United States and Europe are now crucially important. Even if Europe doesn't exist as a military factor, it is a fully fledged superpower in global economics. When Europe acts as one body and speaks with one voice, the United States needs to recognize it as an equal, which can not be given orders.

Writing in a virtuous strain just this side of self-righteousness, Prestowitz says that "we need to rethink American exceptionalism," recognizing that other people's problems "are our problems too and that we don't have all the answers."