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The Danger of Unilateralism
February 5, 2003
By John D. Briner

In December of last year, I attended as a delegate to the Inter-American Forum on Political Parties held in Vancouver, Canada. The theme of the three-day conference was to discuss the issues surrounding political party financing, funding disclosure and enforcement, and political reform. The conference also served as a backdrop for the exchange of ideas and viewpoints, as leaders of parties as diverse as the Chilean Christian Democrats and the Bolivian Revolutionary Workers’ Party could be seen in animated conversation. The conference was less about endless debate over ideological differences, and more about finding common ground in the issues that face every political party, regardless of stripe.

It was not until halfway through Mr. Jean Pierre Kingsley’s opening remarks, however, that I noticed a glaring absence. Momentarily ignoring the Canadian Chief Electoral Officer’s words, I quickly scanned the list of delegates in the conference materials. Of all the countries representing the Americas, one country in particular was conspicuously absent from the conference - the United States. Not one delegate, or party leader, or Senator, or Congressman was present. Not even the academics.

I was certainly not the only delegate who noticed, however; a number of prominent speakers ruefully noted the absence throughout the conference. That the most powerful player on the continent was not in attendance cast pallor over the conference, which was hosted by the Organization of American States, headquartered, ironically, in Washington, DC. True, the conference did not deal with such earth-shaking topics as global terrorism or other matters of foreign policy, but the ill-feeling resulting from the absence could not come at a worse time for the US; a country that sorely needs support for a trajectory that many consider misguided.

Nor does it help for the United States to estrange itself from its closest neighbors, especially in countries where US involvement is considerably less than spotless. The history of US foreign policy in Latin America is grim. In the 1930’s, Roosevelt lost the respect of many South Americans by adopting, along with Chamberlain’s UK, a non-interventionist policy with regard to Nazi support of Franco’s aggression in Spain. At the time, many South Americans countries, especially Argentina, called on the US to help stop the support for General Franco by fascist governments of Germany and Italy. When only a handful of years later, Truman’s America adopted a strict interventionist policy with regard to the spread of socialist thought in Latin America, many South Americans were struck by the apparent hypocrisy.

In informal discussion with various delegates over the absence of the US at the conference, many reiterated the US legacy of bad faith in Latin Countries; the interventionist policies of Truman and Kennedy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the 1968 slaying of Che Guevara by the CIA in a Bolivian jungle, the 1989 invasion of Panama to capture Manuel Noriega; and the covert support for General Pinochet’s coup and subsequent rise to power in the 1980’s. Nor can many South Americans easily forget that the US effectively ignored the World Court’s 1986 judgment condemning the US for sponsoring the war against Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The US has always needed the support of its allies, in both defense and moral backing. The importance of allies in every conflict spanning from the Second World War to the Gulf War cannot be understated. More recently, during the war in Afghanistan following September 11, allies played a crucial role in securing early victory. In fact, in his first State of the Union address following Sep 11, Bush publicly thanked those countries who had helped form a coalition in Afghanistan, including Latin countries such as El Salvador.

And the US is not yet finished in Afghanistan; just last week, US troops came under fire from 80 rebels in southeastern Afghanistan. Military action against Iraq appears likely, if not inevitable. And with the US currently considering opening a third front in North Korea, now is not the time to be losing the support of its closest neighbors.

Mr. Bush is brave to state that the US is prepared to fight alone if necessary. Such comments are dangerous, however. The US requires, at the very least, ideological support for its actions, if not military support. Even those that call themselves allies are quick to distance themselves when it appears that a country is acting out of aggression. Unilateralism can be too easily interpreted as aggression, and aggression endears itself to no one. No one except for the very rogue states that Mr. Bush feels compelled to defeat.

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