Rogue Nation:  American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions by Clyde Prestowitz
Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions by Clyde Prestowitz

Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions

Jun 10, 2003

Clyde Prestowitz sees American unilateralism, rooted in the claim to exceptionalism, as the main reason behind the growing anti-American sentiments around the world.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Books for Breakfast program.

Today we’re very pleased to have with us Clyde Prestowitz, author of Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.

Last week the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a report entitled “Views of a Changing World.” This survey indicates that in the last year America’s image around the world has taken a sharp turn for the worse. While opinion polls should not dictate national policy, they often indicate where and when our government actions are counterproductive.

The results of this survey reflect exactly what our speaker has been saying for some time now, which is that the decline in U.S. popularity, especially in the Muslim world and among our key European allies, suggests that although the U.S. may have won the war in Iraq, it is losing the battle for international public opinion.

Rogue Nation is not an argument against American dominance, nor the exercise of American power; rather, it is an argument against the arrogance, self-absorbed unilateralism, and increasingly high-handedness that many believe have characterized the Bush Administration for some time.

Mr. Prestowitz says that where we once defined our national interest in terms the whole world could embrace, as witnessed by our support for strong global institutions, due process, and the rule of law, we now seem to be defining our goals in more narrow terms: specifically, those of immediate military and economic security. More and more, we act alone, with little regard for, or even awareness of, the needs and goals of other nations. This approach is one which Mr. Prestowitz would like to see changed, primarily because he believes a multilateral, rather than a unilateral, approach is most consistent with our country’s values and over the long run will best serve our nation’s interests.

Mr. Prestowitz says he deliberately chose the title “Rogue Nation” in order to be provocative. In this book he says he wants to explain to baffled and hurt Americans why the world seems to be turning against them, and also to show foreigners how they frequently misinterpret America’s good intentions.

Our guest today emphatically acknowledged that he is an unlikely person to write this book. As he says, he is a product of a middle-class, conservative, super-patriotic, Republican, Born Again Christian family. After college, Mr. Prestowitz joined the foreign service, and shortly thereafter the Reagan Administration, eventually becoming a counselor to the Secretary of Commerce. In this post he served as the lead negotiator in a number of commercial agreements with Japan and other countries.

He subsequently founded, and is currently the President of, the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank which focuses on international trade policy and looks at how key sectors of the U.S. and the world economy are adapting to change.

Mr. Prestowitz is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Foreign Affairs. He is also the author of the best-selling book on U.S.-Japan relations, Trading Places, and co-author and editor of several other books on international trade and business strategy, including Asia After the Miracle, Power Economics, Bit By Bit, and The New North American Trade Order.

Please give a warm welcome to our guest.


CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: Thank you very much

Let me explain why the head of an economic think-tank is writing a book about foreign policy. I had spent about fifteen years in international business when I was appointed to the Commerce Department by then-President Ronald Reagan. In 1981 I went to Washington and met with Secretary of Commerce Mac Baldrige, and asked, “Mac, what’s my job?”

He said, “To reduce the trade deficit.”

In 1981 the U.S. trade deficit was $27 billion per year. Now it’s about $40 billion per month. Everybody said, “Look, this is impossible, we can’t keep going like this.” So Baldrige said, “Your job is to fix this.”

I said, “Okay. I’m going to be here for a couple of years. What am I going to get paid?” He gave me a figure which was a lot less than my wife and children had become accustomed to. I mentioned this to Baldrige. He said not to worry, he was a businessman himself, he understood entrepreneurial spirit, so he would make me a deal: he would pay me a bonus, 10 percent of the amount by which I reduced the trade deficit. Five years later, the trade deficit was $150 billion, I owed him $15 billion, and so I got out of the government and wrote a book about Japan, and then founded this think-tank, still working on the trade deficit.

Today the trade deficit is $500 billion, and I decided to get into another area of activity, foreign policy. I hope I can do better here than I did with the trade deficit.

“Rogue Nation,” is a provocative title. Like Ronald Reagan, I have always thought of America as “the city on the hill.” In fact, if you look at my very first chapter, I have two epigraphs. One of them is the sermon preached by Governor Winthrop to the new Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s in which he says, “We shall be as a city upon the hill, the eyes of all the world upon us.” My other epigraph is the Webster Dictionary definition of a rogue, which is “not belonging, not obedient, not accountable.”

The United States essentially is the city on the hill, a little bit fogged in. And what has been troubling me, and what led me to write this book, is that in traveling extensively in late-2000/early-2001 through Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, I increasingly heard comments like: “We don’t understand what’s happening to America. You Americans seem to be turning your back on everything we thought you stood for.”

The alienation from the U.S., or the sense of betrayal was palpable. But what was most interesting was that I wasn’t talking to Islamic jihadists, I wasn’t talking to French socialists; I was talking to people who were long-time friends of the United States, people whom I had known myself, many of them for thirty-five years, people who had gotten their Ph.D.s in the U.S., married Americans; people who had made their careers, in some cases staked their lives, on being friends of the United States.

Etienne d’Avignon, the grand old man of Belgium, and in many respects the grand old man of the EU, said, “Clyde, I’m a friend of the United States, but you guys are beginning to lose me.” He said, “The international global order, a rule of law and institutions and due process, that you introduced in the post-World War II era, that we all embraced, you are now turning your back on. You don’t want alliances, you want coalitions of the willing for the moment. You don’t want institutions. But we in Europe know that world. That’s why we embraced the new vision, because that world in our view doesn’t work.”

The difficult aspect of this is that the United States is not an evil nation, it’s not a North Korea or an Iraq, and so much of what the U.S. does, or many of the ways in which it acts that cause unhappiness and pain abroad are frequently not recognized by Americans. They are unintentional -- or, if intentional, frequently Americans do not understand the impact that they will have.

I have been trying to show an American audience how they appear from outside, and at the same time try to show a foreign audience that the Americans sometimes do crazy things but it’s often with the best of intentions.

In early 2001 President Bush said, “There is no way that we are going to sign this Kyoto Agreement. It would be bad for the American economy and we aren’t going to do it. We’re taking our name off of it.” The world erupted. The Guardian of London ran a hysterical headline talking about America as the rogue nation.

Yet it was America that invented environmentalism. You go all the way back to the 1830s, the first writings about conservation, the first national parks, the first EPA -- President Nixon, Republican, conservative, the first country in the world, the first leader to establish an EPA. Think about the ozone hole; it was the Americans who found it and led the effort to conclude the Montreal Treaty to resolve the problem.

How was it that we had gone from being the leaders of environmentalism and the good guys to being the bad guys in the Kyoto discussions?

The answer goes something like this. The negotiations of the Kyoto Agreement were quite difficult. When everybody got to Kyoto, pretty hard lines had been established. The hard-liners were the Europeans, partly because the Green Movement had come to fill the vacuum left by the death of communism and socialism in Europe. The Green Movement is great for the Left because you can’t be against being Green; but it requires big government, it requires regulation and change of life style along lines that the Left likes. So it is partly ideological.

Partly genuine, in that Europe has been experiencing difficult environmental problems. Everybody in Europe lives on top of each other, so these problems are felt more acutely.

And partly because Europe happened to be in a very good spot at that time. The West Germans had taken over East Germany, and the first thing they did was close all of the brown coal lignite plants, which automatically allowed the Germans to meet very strict environmental standards. West German industry could dramatically increase its emissions while still meeting the standards because East Germany had been so bad that just by closing these inefficient plants Germany made the cut.

The French had decided to go nuclear in the 1970s, in reaction to the oil crises, and so almost all of their electricity is nuclear. They made the cut easily.

The British had finally closed the coal mines -- inefficient, non-economical -- and switched to natural gas. They too made the cut easily.

The economies in Europe were not growing, whereas the U.S. economy was growing pretty strongly in the 1990s. So it was easy for Europe to meet the standards and it was tough for the Americans.

On the European side there was a certain competitive aspect. This was a way to put the clamps on the Americans and put some pressure on them and make them feel a little pain.

In Kyoto the Americans wanted some special conditions. They said: “We have big forests and forests soak up carbon and we need credit for that. And we want emissions trading because it’s a fairly market-based mechanism, and it makes it easier to meet the requirements and it also encourages better environmental practices in developing countries. And we want credit -- we want greenhouse gases to be counted not just as carbon dioxide, but we also want to count other greenhouse gases,” where it just so happened the Americans were doing pretty well.

In Kyoto the European reaction was: “No, no. Those are scams, those are tricks. You guys are just trying to get away without reducing your emissions.”

So eventually Al Gore went out and signed the Agreement. But the Senate had voted 92-2 not to pass the thing, and so Clinton never submitted it to the Congress.

So then we get the Bush Administration. Bush says: “No way. We’re not going to go along with this. It would be bad for the American economy.”

But then something very interesting happened. The Europeans, feeling that their pride was engaged here, said: “Okay, we’ll do this ourselves.”

The terms of Kyoto were such that in order to come into force the Treaty had to be ratified by countries that accounted in total for 55 percent of global emissions. The Chinese and the Indians had said from the beginning: “Count us out. We know this is a trick to keep us from developing. You guys despoiled the environment when you were developing. Count us out.” So if the Indians and the Chinese are out and the Americans are out, to get 55 percent you have to have everybody else.

So the Europeans go to the Russians and say, “Hey, why don’t you guys sign up?”

The Russians said, “We’ve got very big forests.”

Then they go to the Canadians, and the Canadians say, “Hey, we’ve got big forests too. And not only that, we think this emissions trading is a great idea.”

So by the time everybody gets to Marrakesh, this Treaty is looking like just what the Americans asked for. It would have been brilliant to have signed the Treaty in Marrakesh, but we had already taken very tough stands against it.

But then we had this great opportunity. September 11th was a terrible tragedy, but just imagine a couple of things. Imagine that after September 11th Bush had said, “That Kyoto Treaty is not too bad now and we’re going to sign up.”

Or imagine if Bush had gone to Evian and said, “It has been a tense couple of months, and we think some of you guys went a little over the top, but it’s true we haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction. Anyhow, we’ve got to get along with the show here, we’ve got to rebuild this place. And, by the way, that Kyoto Treaty is not too bad, we’re going to sign up.”

This gets to another issue. Right after September 11th, Americans began to ask themselves “Why do they hate us?” In much of the press, much of the commentary, in the U.S. we have explained this to ourselves in terms of “they hate our values, they hate our freedom, they’re envious of our success; we’re number one, the number one guy is always a target for attack.” And, some of that is true, but it is far from the whole.

The evidence is so obvious. On September 12th, the world erupted into an incredible outpouring of sympathy for the U.S. The villainous French fly the flag at half-mast. Le Monde says, “Nous sommes tous Américains.” The hated Chirac flies to New York to be the first guy to view Ground Zero. Our embassies in Moscow and Beijing are buried in flowers. Imagine if Bush had done a global tele-video satellite hookup from the Oval Office and said “thank you” and had invited the big guys -- Blair, Putin, Jiang Zemin, Koizumi -- to Camp David, and said, “Okay, guys, how are we going to work together to fight this out?” He could have had anything he wanted.

So much of it has to do with style and rhetoric and how you handle the media. But then there are also very important policy considerations. The tone of the Bush Administration is more combative and unilateralist than some previous administrations, this issue is not a Republican-Democrat issue, it’s not a Bush-Clinton issue.

Let’s take an example. Americans preach free trade. We have just recently filed a formal complaint in the World Trade Organization against the “evil Europeans” because of their alleged moratorium on certifying imports of new genetically modified crops. The President spoke in New London and said that this was causing famine in Africa because Africans were not planting or not accepting genetically modified food for fear that they wouldn’t be able to export it to Europe, and therefore they chose starvation rather than genetically modified foods. It’s not the whole truth, but there is some truth in this.

What is just incredible is if you want to talk about starvation in Africa, in West Africa cotton is the main cash crop. The price of cotton is at a forty-five-year low. In West Africa they farm cotton with oxen and hand plows and they till at most fifteen acres. Extended families struggle to survive on less than a couple thousand dollars a year.

In the Mississippi Delta of the United States cotton farmers are buying more land, they’re planting more, they’re expanding their production. They farm 10,000-acre spreads with air-conditioned tractors using geosatellite positioning to get the right amount of fertilizer onto the seedlings. The average farm household in the Mississippi Delta has a net worth of a little less than $1 million. At meetings of the Cotton Council, they’re all very optimistic and talking about buying more land.

You ask, “How come you guys are doing so well and these guys in Africa are doing so poorly?” The obvious answer is productivity -- oxen against tractors, single plows against satellite systems -- the Mississippians are more productive.

But do you realize it costs $0.82 a pound to produce a pound of cotton in Mississippi and $0.23 in Mali? So what’s going on? What’s going on is $5 billion worth of subsidies to 25,000 cotton farmers in the U.S. So they don’t care what the world price is. They will all get rich regardless and they will put that cotton on the U.S. market. The U.S. is increasing its share of the world cotton business at the expense of the Malians, who are Muslim, who are increasingly immigrating to Europe’s crowded cities, who are increasingly listening to the siren song of the evangelical Wahabis.

And we ask ourselves “Why do they hate us?” They don’t hate us in Mali, but they’re baffled and wondering: “You Americans talk free trade, but that’s not what we see.”

There is another aspect of the United States that I have to say troubles me deeply, and perhaps troubles me more than some others, because of the background that was mentioned when I was introduced. I do come from a fundamentalist Christian background. I do come from a very conservative Republican family.

I had been in the Reagan Administration and I backed Bill Clinton. On the day of the third debate, I had an Op-Ed in the L.A. Times in which I said: “I’ve been a Republican all my life, my father and my grandfather were Republicans, but I’m going to vote for Clinton and here’s why.”

Clinton read that Op-Ed and in the debate that night he mentioned my name. The telephone rang off the hook. It exploded -- calls from all over the country, Australia, Switzerland, saying, “Congratulations. You’re going to be Secretary of State.”

And then my mother called. My mother said, “Boy, what have you done? I won’t be able to talk to my neighbors.”

To go back to these treaties. Kyoto was just one treaty, but International Criminal Court, land mines, bacteriological warfare, genocide -- we can’t find a treaty to sign in the U.S., even when we initiate the negotiations. Why not?

Because, there is the sense that we don’t want to be accountable, we don’t want to lose any freedom of action, we don’t want to cede any sovereignty -- which means we don’t want a rule of law, because we can do pretty well without it.

But it has deeper roots than that. It has roots, unfortunately, in the notion of “the city on the hill,” because those Pilgrims and Puritans came over here thinking not only that they were coming to a new world, but that they were going to build a better world, and thinking that they were God’s chosen people to build this better world.

In my view, this is the origin of American exceptionalism, which is deeply rooted in the American soul. We’re convinced that we’re the best, not recognizing that the standard of living in Luxembourg and in Switzerland is good, in many respects better than the U.S.; technology in Japan is good, in many respects better than the U.S.; but we can’t accept that.

Americans think of themselves as somehow purer, better, cleaner than other people. It in some respects generates good aspects of the American character, in wanting to create a better world; but, at the same time, it is very offensive to our foreign interlocutors and ultimately antithetic to the rest of the American value scheme.

I’ve been asked on many talk shows, “What should we do? Can we recoup our credibility?” My answer is: It would be so easy if we had more actions like the roadmap and Bush’s apparent commitment to trying to get the peace process going.

We could easily sign the Kyoto Agreement. It’s sitting there waiting to be done.

For a guy with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. We have a very strong hammer, we have a big military card, and we are attempting to play it. But we can’t solve the fundamental problems by ourselves. We can’t fight terrorism by ourselves, we can’t fight AIDS epidemics by ourselves, we can’t deal with drugs by ourselves. The United States needs the rest of the world, even if we don’t recognize it.

Frequently the rest of the world is patient with us, more patient than we realize. But at the end of the day, I do have some hope, because it would be so easy if we Americans can just begin to put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes and see ourselves as others see us.

Let me stop with that and take your questions.

JOANNE MYERS: I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: When I heard your conclusion, I was very puzzled, because my sense is that there are deep structural problems that prevent reform.

For example, if you remove the $5 billion subsidies for the Mississippi cotton farmers, you will take on a very powerful system in the U.S. Congress whereby each set of lobbyists supports the other lobbyists. This is a structural problem.

Why do you say it is so easily fixed?

CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: Changing the cotton subsidies will not be easy, just as reducing agricultural protection seems to be one of the most difficult issues anywhere in the world. Perhaps I overstated.

The Evian meeting was very strained. Bush goes for a day, takes off. He and Chirac have a handshake; it looked like the smiles were pasted on.

That meeting could have easily been very different. The French action of actively going around and drumming up opposition to the U.S. was perceived in the Administration as a little bit too much. On the other hand, it’s increasingly looking to me as if the French were right. We haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction. In any case, it doesn’t appear that they were an immediate threat to us.

Keep in mind that Bush is an evangelical Christian and part of that is forgiveness. So instead of the policy of punish, ignore, forgive with France, Germany, and Russia, it would have been easy to go to Evian and say: “Look, we won -- in victory, magnanimity. You French were a little over the top, but, honestly, Jacques, I haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction. Let’s get on with it, and we’re going to sign the Kyoto Agreement.” Those are not hard things to do, but it would change world attitude dramatically.

There are two parts to the question. One of them is structural and one of them is tonal. The tone is easy to fix, the structural things more difficult.

QUESTION: Could you amplify what the obstacles are to the Kyoto Agreement? Are they the answers you just gave? And is your voice being heard on this in the Administration?

CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: No. Right now the obstacle to signing on to Kyoto is a matter of face. We said we weren’t going to sign it ever, and so it’s just a matter of losing face. There are some technical aspects. The Kyoto Agreement is not perfect.

One problem is that emissions trading is an efficient way to deal with a large part of the problem, but the way it is incorporated in the Agreement right now it is still fairly limited. And if it doesn’t include China and India, you lose the biggest part of the benefit. So it would be nice to expand it and bring those countries in. My feeling, however, is that they won’t come in until we are in, and so this is a leadership issue.

QUESTION: Clearly, one of the reasons that unilateralism has an appeal in this society is because most Americans in that position think that it works, that it serves American interests.

How do you explain to Americans why a multilateral approach is in America’s interest, as opposed to being in the interest of the rest of the world?

CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: What I try to do is to say: the history of the United States is unilateral, beginning in 1776 up until the end of the Second World War. The post-World War II era is an aberration of multilateralism in American history.

After World War I, Wilson came up with the League of Nations idea, multilateralism which the U.S. rejected. The League failed, contributing to the Second World War. Then, in the early 1930s, the world economic crisis, the U.S. unilaterally raised tariffs with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, thereby, if not causing, greatly exacerbating the Depression, thus contributing to World War II.

At the end of the Second World War, we had leaders who had seen these disasters of unilateralism and who thought we should try something different. They came up with the UN and GATT and the World Bank and the IMF, the global institutions that we know, even going so far as to propose putting nuclear power under the authority of the UN.

We have been here before and we have seen in our own history that unilateralism can have very high costs, and that is why we did something different after World War II.

Secondly, unilateralism may seem to work in the short term. Because we’re so powerful, nobody wants to take us on frontally, so countries can be bought, they can be bullied. But that doesn’t mean they like it, and you will create enormous resentment, which is already being felt.

In a global world you are operating economically in many different countries, so your corporations need permits, licenses, their activities will be reviewed for anticompetitive practices. There are a thousand subtle ways in which revenge can be taken, and you won’t even know it is happening, or you won’t know it right away. The day will come when all that resentment unites against you, and that can be very costly.

We are on an imperial track. Logic compels us to extend the realm of our direct control. We get into a place like Iraq, we own it; but then Iran becomes more of a threat. This is a logic of ever-increasing expansion.

What it means is that we are always sending American boys and girls out to get shot at. I don’t have any problem with America bearing its fair share of the load, but wouldn’t it be more logical for Americans to think that other boys and girls might get shot at once in a while? I don’t understand why we volunteer all the time to go in harm’s way. It would be logical for us to want other people in harm’s way with us.

QUESTION: Do you think the responsible newspapers are doing their share of the type of coverage they give to the issues, the type of coverage they give to those in Congress and in power who disagree? How do you begin a paradigm shift?

CLYDE PRESTOWIZ: That’s a good question. Let me answer in two ways.

One, the elite American press -- The Washington Post and The New York Times -- is pretty good. But one of the negative aspects of the media in the U.S. is that you travel through this big country and pick up the local newspaper and you read it in thirty seconds. There is a huge vacuum of information out there in much of the heartland.

Secondly, all the major hotels in the world have CNN, BBC, many of them have one of the French channels, many of them are now carrying Al Jazeera, Fox is increasingly there. During the Jenin incident in Palestinem I happened to be in Malaysia, so I was able to get Fox, CNN, BBC, France, Germany, and Al Jazeera. I watched the same incident on all the different channels.

If you look at CNN and Fox and then you switch to BBC, there is more similarity between CNN and Fox than between either of them and BBC. Looking at that through BBC, if it didn’t have the word “Jenin,” you would have thought it was another place. And on Al Jazeera, it looks like a different world.

CNN is a reputable, hard-working news organization; they try to do their best to show you the facts as they see it, and the same of BBC. But what I am seeing is a cultural prism. The American audiences are seeing this through a pre-selected set of presumptions. So they never see what the BBC audience sees. That means that even our elite policymakers are getting a somewhat distorted view.

QUESTION: The White House signs Kyoto, and it looks very multilateral, and goes through Congress easily. As an ex-Commerce man, you might comment on the costs to the U.S., of signing Kyoto.

CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: You can argue this two ways.

One way is to run it through the econometric models and look at what the requirements would be and how much that would add to the cost of doing business. As Kyoto is now written, with the forest sinks, the extra gases, and the emissions trading, if you do the calculation that way, the cost is not so great; it’s up on the order of 1-to-1.5 percent of GDP over a thirty-five/forty-year time period. But that’s a narrow way to look at the question.

Another question is: what’s the cost of not doing it? The problem here is that nobody knows. We are pretty sure that we are in a warming period. This could go on for a while and then there is a tipping point at which you get dramatic events happening that could be very costly. Others argue that there may not be a tipping point, but that eventually you get out to 2050 and, just by accumulation, get very dramatic events that are quite costly.

So Kyoto is an insurance policy. If the Europeans and others who are strong environmentalists believed their own argument, that by 2050 or 2100 we would be in dire straits, then you would have to reduce emissions immediately by 60-70 percent, you’d have to take draconian measures. Even the staunchest environmentalists are not proposing those draconian measures because the economic costs immediately would be enormous, not to say the political costs.

On the other hand, if you do nothing, then there is the potential that down the road fairly quickly you begin to run into higher costs.

So Kyoto is an insurance policy. And if the policy is not too expensive and the uncertainty is fairly high, logic dictates that you buy the policy. If the policy is expensive and the uncertainty is low, then you don’t buy it.

Kyoto was an expensive policy in Kyoto. It is a cheap policy today, and that’s why we ought to go for it.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for your insightful analysis.

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