Actually, the truth was otherwise. Bush did, in fact, build a large “coalition of the willing” (a terrible term since a coalition of the unwilling is a bit of an oxymoron, like a “team of non-team members”). Bush’s critics guffawed at our puny 48-member alliance, noting that there were few heavyweights among them. The prevailing attitude among Bush’s critics seemed to be, “Azerbaijan? Portugal? Romania?” These aren’t real countries! Germany, Russia, France — now those are real countries!
Well, we’re playing nicely with those guys now, and few in the Bush-is-always-wrong school are impressed. But their partisan and hypocritical criticism had merit nonetheless. It’s simply not true that all countries are created equal.
Of the many bad habits Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to America, one of the worst was his penchant for talking about countries as if they were people. He used the rhetoric of “self-determination” as if he were talking about individual humans looking for justice, and he psychologized their actions with almost Freudian aplomb. This attitude stemmed in part from his faith that he and the people were one, so why not talk about other countries as if they were people too?
Once you think of nations as people, the cult of unity, which assumes that togetherness for its own sake is a virtue, kicks in. Our discussions of foreign policy have been corrupted by this sloppiness. One improbable example was the deeply flawed Steven Spielberg movie “Munich,” which took it as a given that nations are prone to the same psychological maladies as individuals. A more familiar instance of this thinking is the idiocy that confuses votes by the mob of kleptocracies and tyrannies in the United Nations General Assembly as some sort of expression of democratic will. A conclave of dictators doesn’t become democratic merely by voting on where to order lunch. Also, by seeing nations as people with different lifestyles, we confuse nationalistic dictatorships with democracies. When a cabal of murderous thugs like the Baathists take over a country, it is not self-determination no matter what the Michael Moore crowd says.
Egalitarianism has its place when talking about people, but it’s misplaced in foreign policy. For example, did you know that the New York metropolitan area has a bigger gross domestic product than all but eight nations in the world? According to data compiled by economist Kevin Hassett, Belgium’s economy is smaller than Chicago’s, and the Netherlands’ — the Vatican of internationalism — is smaller than that of Los Angeles.
I’m not suggesting that economic might makes right. Nor am I arguing, as realists do, that international affairs is purely a game of power. What I am saying is that we are very confused about what confers legitimacy in foreign affairs, and that this confusion stems from our annoying habit of imposing our ideas about people on things that aren’t people. And, I’m saying it’s largely Wilson’s fault.