There is increasing consideration of (and, in some quarters, consternation about) what might be dubbed "the new unilateralism," the practice of the United States going it alone in the world. It merits attention. The 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was a unilateral exercise, as for all intents and purposes were the interventions in Grenada and Haiti (at least in its initial phase). Sanctions against Cuba have become a mostly unilateral endeavor, as have those against Iran. The United States broke rank over nato's enforcement of the Bosnian arms embargo, and Congress has tried to effect an unilateral abrogation of the embargo itself. Meanwhile, despite membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Clinton administration chose to confront Japan unilaterally, and again to threaten sanctions, over the marketing of automobiles and their parts.
The list could go on and no doubt will. Explaining why acting alone is as popular as it is in the United States is not all that hard, given the obvious advantages. It is much easier to act without having to gain the consent of others. No compromise is necessary and there is no one to slow you down. It is easier to keep secrets secret. And unilateralism has always been attractive to a people suspicious of the old world and wanting a free hand in dealing with matters closer to home.
Two features of the post-Cold War international environment-less automatic resistance from great power adversaries and less dependable assistance from erstwhile allies-also strengthen the temptation, and at times create the necessity, to act alone. The unilateralist impulse was strengthened further by both Somalia and Bosnia, two multilateral undertakings widely perceived as failures.
It should be recognized that on some occasions unilateral action is surely the best choice. This is especially so when interests are narrowly national, and when the logistical support of others is deemed unnecessary or undesirable, lest surprise be sacrificed or a friend embarrassed. Both Panama and Grenada fit this bill. Retaliating against state sponsorship of terror, as the United States did against Iraq in the wake of the failed attempt on the life of former President Bush, was something best done by the United States alone. In this latter circumstance, new technologies, such as ship-launched cruise missiles, provide opportunities for the United States to strike a limited set of targets with little or no third country role.
But in many instances, including the most significant ones, unilateralism is neither wise nor sustainable. Most military interventions, for example, require either the indirect or direct support and participation of others. Access to bases, the right to overfly, intelligence support-all are usually necessary if an action is at all complicated or distant. Those operations that promise to be large in scale, or long-term, or both, need the active participation of others-their forces and equipment-for several reasons: to share the military burden, to distribute economic costs, and to assuage domestic political demands that the United States not assume a disproportionate share of the costs of acting in the world when the interests of others coincide with our own.
Burden sharing is increasingly relevant as a consideration in an era of flagging domestic support for defense and assistance budgets-and those budgets are all but certain to decline further in real terms over the next decade. Seen in the context of such increasing resource constraints, a penchant toward U.S. unilateralism would inevitably result in our progressively doing less overseas.
Economic burden-sharing apart, the support of others can also help politically. The endorsement of a course of action by the United Nations or a relevant regional body can add an aura of legitimacy and, in the eyes of some, legality to an undertaking. This can have several advantages: in generating domestic political support, in bringing about the military and economic participation of others, and in reducing resistance on the part of the target regime or its backers.
A pattern of seeking such international endorsement can also help inhibit intervention by those who would abuse their power. Russia, for one, might think twice before dispatching forces to its "near abroad" if it knew that the absence of a Security Council Resolution endorsing its intervention made it more likely that criticism and even sanctions would follow.
Unilateralism on our part also carries the risk that it will encourage unilateralism by others. The best argument against unilateral abrogation of the Bosnian arms embargo is that it would encourage others to do the same with respect to, say, sanctions against Iraq. If we pay a price for multilateralism we also receive dividends; if we see an advantage for unilateralism we also must be sensitive to its costs.
Unilateral action in other realms-export controls and economic sanctions more generally come to mind-risk being feckless except in those circumstances where the U.S. component is so central that doing without or finding a substitute supplier is not a viable option for the target state. Increasingly, though, such U.S. dominance in the economic realm is rare, as others can provide comparable technologies, large markets, and substantial amounts of capital.
Thus, and despite its undeniable domestic political appeal, unilateralism is in most instances not a realistic foreign policy for this country. Putting aside those isolationists or minimalists who reject the need for any substantial foreign policy orientation, either because they discount the importance of overseas interests or want to focus attention overwhelmingly on domestic matters (or both) the real choice facing this country in the foreseeable future is not between unilateralism and multilateralism but among forms of the latter.
There are three forms that a multilateral foreign policy can assume. The first type is the most familiar because it was often at the heart of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. It depends on formal alliances and other standing organizations as the principal vehicles for U.S. engagement in the world. A second approach is to create powerful international (and, in some cases, supranational) institutions, or to focus on making those that already exist-the United Nations, the World Court and others-more capable. A third approach is to build temporary coalitions to address specific challenges, be they problems or opportunities.
The traditional organizational approach that has characterized American foreign policy over the past half century was exemplified by NATO, although there were political and economic institutions to match. The North Atlantic Council was paramount in the political realm; in economic matters, the International Monetary Fund and the OECD were created to help manage monetary coordination. The World Bank was given the task of promoting development. Although there was no counterpart trade body-the International Trade Organization was stillborn-there was the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which provided rules of the road concerning government trade that served much the same purpose in favoring liberalization, and in offering a venue and process for dispute settlement.
Such institutionalism was possible because the international situation was, for all its potential dangers, essentially stable. If they are to function, standing alliances and other organizations require predictability, both as regards the source of problems and the friends and allies who can be counted upon to act in responding to them. There is time to consider scenarios and to prepare plans and capabilities for addressing them. NATO was made possible by the potential for a Soviet/Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe, and the collective readiness of the United States, Canada, and NATO's European members to resist aggression in that location.
As useful as these institutions were, they had (and have) their limits. As associations of sovereign members, they were unable to force governments to do much of anything. France could not be compelled to remain in nato's united military command. Several European governments balked at supporting the deployment of intermediate range missiles. Trade disputes festered. Chronic surplus and debtor states could not be forced to adjust their currencies or underlying economic policies. The need for consensus and voluntary adherence to collective decisions often became an explanation-or an excuse-for inaction.
Such standing bodies also tend not to deal well with non-core issues. NATO, for example, stood nearly helpless to contend with problems between its members-the conflict between Greece and Turkey comes to mind. It also had little to contribute to solving internal problems experienced by any of its members, or with challenges that could affect most or all members but fell outside the area covered by its charter. At the same time, formal organizations of any sort could not be successfully created and maintained in those regions of the world where friends and allies were few and/or weak, where perceptions of threat were not shared, and where scenarios were many but uncertain. The failure of CENTO (along with the Baghdad Pact before it) and SEATO provided demonstrations of how difficult it was to establish and maintain capable standing alliances, even in an international setting as highly regulated as the Cold War.
With the Cold War over, the limitations of standing alliances are even more obvious. They have become less relevant and at times counterproductive. Groups of countries that once shared common purposes now no longer do, or do so only in circumstances increasingly less common. NATO is again the classic case. The core mission-protecting members against a hostile external threat-has essentially disappeared. Meanwhile, NATO's unsuccessful attempts at undertaking ambitious new missions, as is the case in the former Yugoslavia, reveal a lack of consensus in the alliance. In this instance at least, the alliance has become an obstacle to effective action rather than its agent. Clearly, it would be better for NATO to concentrate on lesser but still important tasks: preserving a residual capacity to carry out its basic mission, integrating new members, and providing support for efforts undertaken by selected members in their individual capacities.Essay Types: Essay