The Multipolar Unilateralist

Outsourced? President Bush learns to hoe a row under the guidance of a worker in India.
Outsourced? President Bush learns to hoe a row under the guidance of a worker in India. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)
By David Von Drehle
Sunday, March 5, 2006

In case you missed the memo, the world is multipolar now.

Gone are the days of go-it-alone foreign policy, of unilateral preemption and epoch-making events scheduled solely "at a time and place of our choosing." That's all so 2002, back at the climax of what columnist Charles Krauthammer calls "the unipolar moment" of unlimited American power. Unipolar means the big dog, Uncle Sam, bears the burdens and thus calls the shots.

These days, America is into "regional partnerships," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained earlier this year, because "emerging nations like India and China and Brazil and Egypt and Indonesia and South Africa are increasingly shaping the course of history."

But can a unipolar president find happiness in a multipolar world? We got a few hints last week, as President Bush visited one of Rice's emerging shapers of history, India. Like a clumsy groom who has learned precisely one dance for his wedding day, Bush went carefully through the steps of multipolar diplomacy, yet there was no mistaking his natural tendencies. You got the feeling that if George W. Bush is going to embrace "partnership," it's going to be on his terms, pardner.

For in the process of reaching out to India, Bush put a finger in the eye of a number of other countries. The deal he struck to share nuclear power plant technology with India gave the Indians a free pass around the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He sailed past congressional requirements and ignored international agencies to reach the agreement. He was willing to be multipolar, as long as he could do it unilaterally.

For Rice, the India trip was another sign of her influence over foreign policy, which was driven in the first term by the fellows at the Pentagon. Rice has been promoting the idea of closer ties to India for years. After all, the two countries have so much in common: Both are multicultural democracies with strong economies and acute interest in the future of China. Not to mention the increasingly frequent phone contact, especially around dinnertime, between the outsourced call centers of Bangalore and the consumers of the USA.

As foreign policy coach to candidate Bush in 2000, Rice touted India in her tutorials with the future president. The United States "should pay closer attention to India's role" in Asia, she wrote in a long Foreign Affairs article defining the Bush vision. "India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one."

A stronger alliance with India was potentially appealing to a wide range of Washington thinkers by the time Bush took office. For the defense establishment, which had identified China as its prime military rival in the post-Cold War world, a closer relationship with China's biggest neighbor made obvious sense. But India could also appeal to the other end of the political spectrum, with its history of anti-colonial struggle, democratic socialism and vast impoverished population.

However, the project sank to the bottom of the in-box as Bush responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Having promised to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," Bush rushed to cultivate India's eternal foe, Pakistan. Pakistan, not India, shared a long border with Afghanistan, where bin Laden was living. Pakistan, not India, was the fallback sanctuary for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan, not India, had a renowned nuclear scientist willing to sell weapons technology on the black market. India could wait.

Four and a half years later, the dead-or-alive swagger has gone out of the Bush foreign policy. The latest strategic documents out of the Pentagon call for the diplomats to take the lead again. Rice has returned to her idea of befriending India -- which, on paper at least, still has the same broad potential appeal. In fact, you now can add to the list of possible Indiaphiles every car-driving American and every foe of global warming.

The nuclear deal that Bush struck is designed to fuel more of the fast-growing Indian economy with nuclear power. By reducing the demand for fossil fuels in Asia, the partnership could help hold down oil prices and restrain the rise in greenhouse emissions.

A lot of people in India like this bargain, too. Not because they have any interest in "counterbalancing" China on America's behalf. As former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill explained last week, Indians aren't anti-China. They want China to get richer so that the Chinese can buy more of what India's selling. No, they are glad to strike a favorable deal with the United States because of what it symbolizes. After decades of being scorned by the United States as a friend of the Soviets and blacklisted for refusing to accept the nonproliferation regime, India was finally invited into the club of world powers -- indeed, India was whisked through the VIP entrance. A happy Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heralded "India's emergence as a full member of a new nuclear world order."

True, India flouted the initiation rules posted on the door of the world-power clubhouse. But India didn't need rules. It had George W. Bush, who still prefers to do things his way.

David Von Drehle is a Washington Post

staff writer.

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