Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

U.S. Rejects Cluster Bomb Treaty

The Cluster Munitions Treaty was signed in Oslo, Norway earlier this month by 94 countries, not including the United States. The government of Afghanistan did sign, in a last minute shift, and in the face of intense diplomatic pressure from the Bush White House. This story illustrates several themes of The End of the American Century.

Cluster bombs are munitions dropped from the air or ground-launched that eject smaller submunitions or bomblets over a wide area. They are most commonly employed to kill enemy personnel or destroy vehicles. At least fifteen countries have used cluster munitions, including the Iraq and Afghanistan, and both Russia and Georgia in their conflict earlier this year. The most extensive use, however, was by U.S. bombers over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos during the Vietnam War. It is estimated that at least 9 million unexploded bomblets remain in Laos.

These unexploded bomblets are the biggest problem with these weapons. Like landmines (which are also banned under an international convention), the unexploded munitions remain a deadly hazard for civilians long after a conflict ends. Often they are brightly colored and look like baseballs, attracting children and with deadly results. A third of cluster bomb casualties are children.

Like the international treaty that banned land mines, the impetus for a cluster bomb ban grew out of an international grass roots movement. The Cluster Munition Coalition brought together some 300 "civil society organizations" from 80 countries, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Handicap International. The coalition also includes the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, an organization that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

The convention banning cluster bombs was signed in Oslo by 94 countries, including U.S. allies like Britain, Germany, France and Japan, but not including the U.S. Other non-signatories include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel. Unexpectedly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ended up signing the treaty that bans the weapons that have devastated his country. According to the New York Times, Karzai's change of heart was particularly affected by testimony from cluster-bomb victims, including Soraj Ghulam Habib, a 17 year old from the city of Herat who lost both legs when he accidentally stepped on a cluster remnant seven years ago. The Bush administration had urged Karzai not to sign it, so his decision, according to The Times, "appeared to reflect Mr. Karzai's growing independence from the Bush administration."

The U.S. has begun to bend to international pressure on the issue, and has not actually employed cluster bombs since 2003. A State Department official told the Times that cluster bombs were sometimes more humane than conventional ones. "As an example, he said that antennas on a roof could be taken out efficiently with a cluster bomb, without bringing the building down."

Some expect President-Elect Obama to support the treaty, and his team has said it will "carefully review" the treaty. However, as London's The Economist points out,

"Mr. Obama will find it hard to change American policy once he realizes that cluster munitions make up more than half of the country's bomb stockpile."

The U.S. refusal to sign this treaty is part of a larger pattern and long-term trend of the U.S. disengaging from international law and the global community--a theme I develop in a chapter on "Abandoning International Order" in The End of the American Century. There is a long list of international treaties that the U.S. has not ratified. These include the UN convention prohibiting discrimination against women; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the treaty banning land mines (signed by 122 nations), the Kyoto Treaty on global warming; and the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. All of these treaties have been signed by the vast majority of the world's nations. The only other country besides the U.S. to reject the Rights of the Child convention is Somalia, which has no functioning government.

For each of these treaties, the U.S. has its reasons for non-participation. But the very fact of the U.S. not participating in these international conventions sends a bad signal to the rest of the world. It is a sorry sign of U.S. "exceptionalism" and is an important factor in the declining popularity of the U.S. around the world, even before the extremely unpopular Bush administration. The U.S. shift away from international law is particularly tragic because no country was more important in establishing international law and institutions (like the U.N.) in the years after World War II.

The about-face of the Afghan government is also telling in several ways. On the one hand, the Bush administration pressure on the Afghan government to reject the treaty is also part of a pattern. While other administrations have failed to participate in important international treaties, the Bush White House has gone out of its way to keep other countries from doing so. The most egregious example of this is the International Criminal Court. Shortly after President Bush "unsigned" the ICC statute, he urged Congress to pass the American Servicemembers Protection Act. This legislation gives immunity to U.S. personnel from the court. It also provides for punitive actions against countries that are parties to the ICC, but which refuse to confer immunity to Americans. For many people around the globe, it seemed as if the U.S. was asserting that Americans were above the law when it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On the other hand, Karzai's rejection of pressure from his protector and benefactor, shows just how weak the U.S. has become in the international arena. The United States, and particularly its current president, has become so marginalized that it can not even influence a country that is utterly dependent on the U.S. Washington has lost an enormous amount of face in the global community, and has little left in its arsenal of "soft power." It will take a major and sustained effort by the Obama administration to repair the damage. But it is unlikely that U.S. reputation, power and influence will ever return to where it was.

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