Bush the transnationalist: a reappraisal of the unilateralist impulse in US foreign policy, 2001–2009


This article challenges the common characterization of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as ‘unilateral’. It argues that the Bush administration developed a new post-9/11 understanding of terrorism as a transnational, networked phenomenon shaped by the forces of globalization. This led to a new strategic emphasis on bi- and multilateral security cooperation and counterterrorism operations, especially outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, driven by the perceived need to counter a transnational security challenge present in multiple locations. This (flawed) attempt to engage with transnational security challenges supplemented the existing internationalist pillar of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Highlighting the transnational realm of international relations and the ways in which the Bush administration was able to co-opt other states to tackle perceived transnational challenges also shows the high importance the administration attached to concerted action even as it frequented eschewed institutional multilateralism.

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  1. 1.

    This is not to suggest that transnational challenges were new, but that contemporary globalization was creating new types of networked transnational security challenges that the USA was not equipped to counter in the early twenty-first century. For a classic analysis of transnationalism and American power in the twenty-first century, see Nye Jr., The Paradox of American Power.

  2. 2.

    This language became commonplace in DoD strategy and planning documents. By 2006, the concept of state sponsorship of terrorism had been relegated to a tertiary concern. The updated 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism did not mention state sponsorship until page 4 and it was absent from the ‘Overview’ of the strategy on page 1. See: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nsct/2006/ (15/02/16).

  3. 3.

    There are frequent references to ‘ungoverned space’ in documents from this period. Examples include Douglas J. Feith, Speech, ‘Transformation and Security Cooperation’, 8 September 2004, http://www.dougfeith.com/docs/2004_09_08_National_Press_Club_Transformation.pdf.

  4. 4.

    I take the ‘hub-and-spoke’ analogy from Ikenberry (2004: 353–367).

  5. 5.

    State Department, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2005, Chapter 5, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/65468.pdf: 46 (14/02/13). The same judgment is made in DoS, ‘Executive Summary of Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative’, January 7 2005, Secret, obtained under FOIA; in author’s possession.

  6. 6.

    The State Department’s annual Patterns of Global Terrorism reports did not even allege a link between the ASG and Al Qaeda in its 2002 and 2003 editions. According to Admiral Dennis Blair, head of US Pacific Command, there was no concrete evidence of contemporary links between Al Qaeda and the ASG. Although there were some ‘historical’ connections, the ASG was now ‘a group that is mostly criminal but certainly has the potential to be used by al-Qaida as a base of operations’. See Interview with Admiral Dennis Blair, PBS News Hour, 19 December 2001, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/terrorism-july-dec01-blair_12-19/ (15/07/16).

  7. 7.

    This did not mean that the DoD did not provide any security training, but that it did this on behalf of and with the permission of the State Department, which was responsible for identifying and approving recipients. Foreign Assistance Act, Public Law 87-195, 4 September 1961, https://bulk.resource.org/gao.gov/87-195/00005462_317741.pdf (22/09/14).


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Ryan, M. Bush the transnationalist: a reappraisal of the unilateralist impulse in US foreign policy, 2001–2009. Int Polit 54, 561–582 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-017-0054-8

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  • Bush
  • Transnationalism
  • Strategy
  • Multilateralism
  • Bilateralism
  • Security cooperation