The End of Multilateralism

The spirit of international cooperation that arose after 9/11 is dead. We’re on our own now—no one is going to help us denuclearize Iran and North Korea.

The Obama administration entered office pledging a renewed commitment to multilateralism-approaching global issues as "joint problems requiring joint solutions." This commitment, however, is running up against a growing attitude in many parts of the world that the concerns the United States are identifying as threats to global peace and security are really just problems for America alone.

In the months after 9/11, Amitai Etzioni saw the emerging foundations of what he termed a "Global Safety Authority" (GSA) as states worked together to pool intelligence on terrorists and collaborated more closely in efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction. If, in the past, nations had focused only on specific threats to their own national security, the GSA would work to eliminate threats to the stability of the international system as a whole. Etzioni saw in this emergent GSA a way for the United States to receive "considerable assistance in its drive to deproliferate Iran and North Korea," because there was a growing awareness that these states "pose a danger to others."

The philosophical basis of the GSA was the belief that a threat to one state posed a threat to the entire system. The lesson of 9/11 was that a successful strike against one state would have negative ramifications for every state, in both economic and security terms. A shared community of interests would bind the key powers of the world together.

There is a familiar litany of excuses as to why this consensus has dissipated. The American penchant for "unilateralism" and desire to pursue action unhindered by the need to build consensus with other states, beginning with the Iraq War. The blame that many in the rest of the world ascribe to the United States for the current global economic crisis-that "U.S. economic irresponsibility" has inflicted hardship on other countries by dragging down the world's economy.

But there is another shift that has taken place. And it is to see many of the world's major threats as problems for the United States alone. Few capitals are losing sleep over the prospect, say, of an Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapon detonating on their territories. Most see whatever capabilities Pyongyang and Tehran are acquiring as meant to deter Washington-not to threaten the rest of the world. The feeling seems to be that either there is no threat to the global system, or the threat is containable. We are seeing other countries of the world preparing to live with the realities of a nuclear-armed North Korea and an Iran with a significant nuclear infrastructure at its disposal. And foreign governments are not inclined to take much more decisive measures to ensure the deproliferation of either regime.

No other country, therefore, seems prepared to do the "heavy lifting" needed to exert significant pressure on either Tehran or Pyongyang. Most countries, for instance, believe that the six-party talks on North Korea have failed. And yet, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with his counterparts at the Shangri-La Dialogue this past week, there was little agreement about the next steps that should be taken. One of Gates' party was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "There's no prescription yet on what to do."

The GSA, at least as envisioned by Etzioni in the months after the 9/11 attacks, is dead. And the United States is in no position to unilaterally assume upon itself the functions of the GSA. The fact that Gates left Asia to tour U.S. missile defense sites-and proclaimed both that he had "good confidence" the system in Alaska could deal with a "launch from a rogue state such as North Korea" and that "the way is opened in the future to add to the number of silos and interceptors up here"-signals that Washington could easily pull back to a more defensive position to protect American interests.

And what happens if the United States were to decide that it is time to end the free-riding of the rest of the world on American efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Such a proposal was advanced by Stanley Weiss, of Business Executives for National Security, in the New York Times:

It is now clear that the United States alone cannot stabilize the situation in Pakistan or Afghanistan. As President Obama said, it is a regional problem that demands regional solutions.  It is time for America to make China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India an offer they can't refuse: Either join us or we leave.

Drawing back from the world or continuing to act (and expend blood and treasure) while others sit on the sidelines are not attractive options for the administration. But until the world experiences another 9/11-style shock to the system, there is going to be no decisive multilateral action taken-on Iran, North Korea, climate change, trade or a whole host of other issues.  No speech is going to change that reality.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.