PERHAPS THE most widely heard and trenchant criticism of the Bush Administration's foreign policy before September 11 was that it displayed a wilful and counterproductive unilateralism. Clearly, since the terrorist attacks, that policy has changed: We're all multilateralists now, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, a tension remains: Can an administration whose vision of international leadership is defined by a go-it-alone approach whenever possible really conduct effective multilateral diplomacy? The question is not only whether the administration can keep a motley coalition together long enough to accomplish its military and political goals in the war against terrorism. We need also to ask whether it will, and whether it should, maintain a commitment to multilateralism once the present crisis passes.
The answer is not simple; some mix of unilateral and multilateral methods surely makes sense for the United States. 1 But the problem is clear. Despite (or perhaps because of) its superpower status, the United States has grown increasingly isolated in the United Nations and other international forums. In the past year, America has been reviled for sabotaging the Kyoto climate negotiations, bullied in the UN Security Council over Iraq and Israel, kicked off the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission for the first time in history, and provoked to walk out of the Durban racism conference in a huff. These setbacks triggered not only dismay but also a reactive impulse in the Congress. As the first plane slammed into tower one of the World Trade Center, the post of U.S. ambassador to the UN had been stripped of its cabinet rank and left vacant for nearly eight months. American arrears to the UN were at an historic high, with $582 million pledged in January mired in delay.
On the other hand, despite the setbacks noted above, the United States has beaten the odds in several key recent multilateral battles. A year ago the United States kept Sudan, the duly anointed candidate of the African Group, off the UN Security Council. The United States ended Israel's fifty years of technical pariah status at the UN, winning our ally acceptance into a regional group. In late 2000 the Americans convinced the membership to accept Jesse Helms' UN finance formula, cutting its dues while forcing others to pay more.
On all of these issues, successes and failures, more was at stake than what was officially on the table. When the United States loses in international forums, both its pride and global standing are hurt. When it stands alone, even if it holds the line, it is vulnerable to accusations of high-handedness and double standards. When it succeeds by browbeating others, it feeds resentments. Every which way, it becomes harder to achieve American goals the next time around and, as we have learned this fall, one never knows when the "next time around" may be the time that really counts.
Both champions and critics of multilateral diplomatic forums have a stake in ensuring that as long as the United States is at the table in global forums, it is effective in promoting American interests and poised to marshal global support when it needs to do so. Even critics of the United Nations have to concede that it plays an important role over an array of functions that serve U.S. interests: human rights and refugee protection, international air traffic control and safety, and now perhaps even "nation-building." Likewise, the UN'S most enthusiastic supporters, both in the United States and globally, would be better off if the United States were more confident of its influence among the UN membership, and thus more willing to put trust in the organization. The tired debate over whether multilateral institutions do America more harm than good must give way to a pragmatic discussion of the recent U.S. track record in the multilateral arena and what can be done to improve it.
The need for improvement should be obvious. After the Human Rights Commission ouster, U.S. policymakers were indignant over the UN's act of defiance, having assumed that American stature alone guaranteed the seat in perpetuity. But things no longer work that way. While we remain on top militarily and economically, other spheres of influence-including Europe and China-are rising.
Moreover, America's pre-eminent status can be a mixed blessing. Even as the world pledged to support a U.S.-led fight against terrorism, one could discern an undercurrent of grim satisfaction that the United States had proven less than invincible. Resentment toward U.S. hegemony fuels efforts to use international organizations to rein America in. The United States, in turn, balks at encroachments on its sovereignty, clipping the wings of international organizations by withholding its support. As the events of this fall have demonstrated, however, stifling international organizations is risky, in that there are certain key tasks that only the UN is equipped to undertake.
In a world of competing power centers, the United States cannot rely on a strategy of curbing international organizations at its pleasure. Rather, we must learn how to translate our global military and economic clout into effective and specific diplomatic influence. American strength lies ultimately not in the ability to steamroll the world community, but in the power to turn delegations around one-by-one through persuasion and bilateral leverage. Put another way, we need to focus more on the art of retail diplomacy as a tool for multilateral advocacy.Essay Types: Essay