Seven Tests: Between Concert and Unilateralism

Seven Tests: Between Concert and Unilateralism

Mini Teaser: How to decide when unilateralism makes sense even within a multilateral framework.

American foreign policy has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001. Priorities have been altered, several important bilateral relationships recast and, not least, the general tone of the still-new Bush Administration toward multilateral diplomacy has softened. In the President's words, "Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call of duty and defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter." This new tone goes well beyond the White House. The State and Defense Departments, each in their own way, recognize the need to build coalitions. The Treasury, which had earlier rejected international cooperation on money laundering tax havens, rapidly became a proponent of cooperation. The Congress, meanwhile, quickly approved a large dues payment and confirmed a new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations-neither of which had been on its front-burner before
September 11.

It would be misleading to suggest, however, that the U.S. government has become, literally over a single night, wedded to full-fledged multilateralism. Some officials and observers, for example, have expressed concern that too wide a coalition against terrorism would shackle the United States, and that invoking the international authority of the UN or NATO would set a bad precedent. In November, the administration elected not to participate in a UN-sponsored conference concerning a comprehensive nuclear test ban. In the Congress, at the same time that our closest ally, Great Britain, was ratifying the treaty creating an international criminal court, Senator Jesse Helms was pressing legislation that would authorize "any necessary action to free U.S. soldiers improperly handed over to the court, a provision dubbed by some as 'the Hague invasion clause.'" So despite the new emphasis on coalitions against terrorism, Americans remain divided on how to engage the world.

This division is well appreciated abroad. Internal debates about how to implement the Bush Doctrine of eliminating terrorism have raised concerns in other countries that the United States would appoint itself the unilateral judge of whether a country is supporting terrorism, and of the appropriate methods of responding to that support. The U.S. rhetoric of coalition building has not assuaged these concerns, and in some instances may have deepened them.

There are three main approaches to this issue: isolationism, unilateralism and multilateralism. Isolationism persists in public opinion, but it is not a genuine strategic option for American foreign policy today. While some have responded to the terrorist attacks by suggesting that we cut back on foreign involvements, most realize that such a policy would not curtail U.S. vulnerability and could even exacerbate it. The main battle lines are drawn between two kinds of internationalists: those who advocate unilateral tactics and those who prefer multilateral ones. In William Safire's phrase, "uni- is not iso-. In our reluctance to appear imperious, we could all too quickly abdicate leadership by catering to the envious crowd."

Of course, the differences between these schools come down to a matter of degree, for there are few pure unilateralists or multilateralists. When the early actions of the Bush Administration led to cries of outrage about unilateralism, the President disclaimed the label and State Department officials described the administration's posture as one of selective multilateralism. But the two ends of the spectrum do anchor different views of the degree of choice that grows out of America's position in the world today. I suggest some rules here for defining a practical middle ground, but first we need to review the debate and its consequences as they now stand.

The Company We Keep

Some unilateralists advocate an assertive damn-the-torpedoes approach to promoting American values worldwide. They see the "present danger" as a flagging of our internal will and a confusion about our goals which, in their view, should be to turn a unipolar moment into a unipolar era. Robert Kagan and William Kristol have argued that a principal aim of U.S. foreign policy should be to bring about a change of regime in undemocratic countries such as Iraq, North Korea and China. Our intentions are good, American hegemony is benevolent, and that should end the discussion. Charles Krauthammer has also urged "a new unilateralism", arguing that multilateralism would mean "submerging American will in a mush of collective decision-making-you have sentenced yourself to reacting to events or passing the buck to multilingual committees with fancy acronyms." Kagan and Kristol believe that "the main issue of contention between the United States and those who express opposition to its hegemony is not American 'arrogance.' It is the inescapable reality of American power in its many forms. Those who suggest that these international resentments could somehow be eliminated by a more restrained American foreign policy are engaging in pleasant delusions."

But Americans are not immune to hubris, nor do we have all the answers to the problems of the world. In Robert W. Tucker's view, "new unilateralism" advocacy is dangerous even if its premises happen to be true: "For if we were truly acting in the interests of others as well as our own, we would presumably accord to others a substantive role and, by doing so, end up embracing some form of multilateralism. Others, after all, must be supposed to know their interests better than we can know them." As one sympathetic European correctly observed, "from the law of the seas to the Kyoto Protocol, from the biodiversity convention, from the extraterritorial application of the trade embargo against Cuba or Iran, from the brusque calls for reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the International Criminal Court; American unilateralism appears as an omnipresent syndrome pervading world politics." When Congress legislated heavy penalties on foreign companies that did business with countries that the United States does not like, the Canadian foreign minister complained, "this is bullying, but in America, you call it 'global leadership.'"

Other unilateralists, sometimes called "sovereigntists", focus less on the promotion than on the protection of American values, and they sometimes gain support from the significant minority of isolationist opinion that still exists in this country. As Jeremy Rabkin put it, the strongest and richest country in the world can afford to safeguard its sovereignty: "An America that stands aloof from various international undertakings will not find that it is thereby shut out from the rest of the world. On the contrary, we have every reason to expect that other nations, eager for access to American markets and eager for other cooperative arrangements with the United States, will often adapt themselves to American preferences." Americans should resist the encroachment of the new international humanitarian law with its claims of universal jurisdiction. Instead, as David Rivkin and Lee Casey argued in these pages, "the United States should strongly espouse national sovereignty, the bedrock upon which democracy and self-government are built, as the fundamental organizing principle of the international system." Or, as Senator Helms warned, the United Nations can be a useful instrument for America's world role, but if it "aspires to establish itself as the central moral authority of a new international order . . . then it begs for confrontation and, more important, eventual U.S. withdrawal."

Multilateralists and unilateralists often dismiss each other's views with no little derision. We would be wiser to take a more dispassionate, analytical view, because this debate has serious consequences: namely, a kind of schizophrenia in American foreign policy that is often but not only played out in a struggle between the president and Congress. We must remember that the Executive Branch took a prominent role in promoting such multilateral projects as the Law of the Seas Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Mine Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and others, but the U.S. government as a whole has failed to follow through with congressional ratification on any of them. In some instances, this schizophrenia has given rise to what The Economist calls "parallel unilateralism-a willingness to go along with international accords, but only so far as they suit America, which is prepared to conduct policy outside their constraints." For instance, the United States asserts the jurisdictional limits of the unratified Law of the Seas Treaty. It has pledged not to resume testing nuclear weapons but, because of the unilateral nature of the decision, it does not gain the benefits of verification and the ability to bind others. In other instances, such as proposals to ban anti-personnel landmines, the United States has argued that it needs them to defend against North Korean infantry, but it has undertaken research on a new type of mines that might allow it to join by 2006. In still other cases, such as the Kyoto Protocol, President Bush refused to negotiate and pre-emptorily pronounced it "dead." The result was frustration and anger abroad that undermined U.S. soft power and galvanized others to do things they might not otherwise have done.

This seemed to some ironic, for during the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate Bush had aptly described the situation: "Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power. And that's why we've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. . . . If we are an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." Yet, of course, our allies and other foreign governments considered the early practice of his administration arrogantly unilateral. In the words of one observer, at the start of his administration, President Bush "contrived to prove his own theory that arrogance provokes resentment for a country that, long before his arrival, was already the world's most conspicuous and convenient target." Thus, as candidate Bush had predicted, within a few months, America's European allies joined other countries in refusing to re-elect the United States to the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in reaction that "gratitude is gone", while Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that "the 'sole superpower' charge is always out there and that may have influenced some." In the less temperate words of television commentator Morton Kondracke, "we're the most powerful country in the world by far, and a lot of pipsqueak wannabees like France resent the hell out of it. . . . When they have a chance to stick it to us, they try." The House of Representatives responded by voting to withhold funds for the UN.

But things are more complicated than such responses acknowledged. It is true that America is resented by some just because it is so powerful and wealthy. But it is also true that American behavior affects the extent of resentment and the ways in which it is expressed. Candidate Bush was right, and so was Teddy Roosevelt. As we all know, at the beginning of the last century, as America rose to world power, Roosevelt advised that we should speak softly but carry a big stick. Now that we have the stick, we need to pay more attention to the first part of his admonition-and we need not only to speak more softly, but also to listen more carefully, for we do not hold a monopoly on either truth or virtue.

That is why the United States should aim to work with other nations on global problems in a multilateral manner whenever possible. It is plainly in our national interest to do so, most of the time. The recent bipartisan commission on U.S. national security, chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, was right to conclude that "emerging powers-either singly or in coalition-will increasingly constrain U.S. options regionally and limit its strategic influence. As a result we will remain limited in our ability to impose our will, and we will be vulnerable to an increasing range of threats." Borders will become more porous, rapid advances in information and biotechnologies will create new vulnerabilities, the United States will become "increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on the American homeland, and the U.S. military superiority will not entirely protect us." This means we must develop multilateral institutions that constrain others and provide a framework for cooperation. In the Commission's words, "America cannot secure and advance its own interests in isolation."

But again, that does not mean-or at any rate should not mean-that multilateralism is always appropriate. Multilateralism can be used as a strategy by smaller states to tie the United States down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. It is not surprising that France prefers a multipolar and multilateral world. Nor is it difficult to understand why less developed countries see multilateralism as being in their interests, because it gives them some leverage on the United States. Multilateralism does involve costs, but it is still generally in the American interest because in the larger picture such costs are outweighed by the benefits. As Joshua Muravchik put it: "By resting our actions on a legal basis (and accepting the correlative constraints), we can make the continued exercise of our disproportionate power easier for others to accept." International rules bind the United States and limit its freedom of action in the short term, but they serve U.S. interests by binding others as well.

The upshot of all this is that the United States should use its power now to shape institutions that will serve its long-term national interest in promoting international order. Action to shape multilateralism now is a good investment for the future. Problems may arise; as John Ikenberry has observed, "worried states are making small adjustments, creating alternatives to alliance with the United States. These small steps may not look important today, but eventually the ground will shift and the U.S.-led postwar order will fragment and disappear." But these tendencies are countered by the very openness of the American system. The pluralistic and regularized way in which foreign policy is made reduces surprises. Opportunities for foreigners to raise their voices and influence the American political and governmental system are not only plentiful, but constitute an important incentive for alliance. Ever since Athens transformed the Delian League into an empire, smaller allies have been torn between entrapment and anxieties over abandonment. The fact that American allies can effectively voice their concerns helps to explain why U.S. alliances have persisted so long after Cold War threats receded.

The other element of the American order that reduces worry about power asymmetries is U.S. membership in a web of multilateral institutions ranging from the UN to NATO. Some call it an institutional bargain. The price for the United States was a reduction in Washington's policy autonomy, in that institutional rules and joint decision-making reduced U.S. unilateralist capacities. But what Washington got in return was worth the price. America's partners also had their autonomy constrained, but were able to operate in a world in which U.S. power was more restrained and reliable. Seen as a sort of a constitutional bargain, the multilateralism of American pre-eminence is a key to its longevity because it reduces the incentives for constructing alliances against us. And to the extent that the European Union is the major potential challenger in terms of capacity, the idea of a loose constitutional framework between the United States and the societies with which we share the most values makes even more sense.

The Seven Tests

Of course, as we have suggested, not all multilateral arrangements are good or are in the U.S. national interest, and the United States should employ unilateral tactics in certain situations. A presumption in favor of multilateralism need not be a straightjacket. Almost everyone knows and understands this; as we have said, there are almost no pure unilateralists or multilateralists among us. But unless we have before us some general guidelines to determine when unilateralism makes sense and when it does not, we run the risk of oscillating unpredictably between one inclination and the other, moved this way and that by the vicissitudes of political fortune and the surprises of the world. Fortunately, it is possible to devise such guidelines. Here are seven tests to consider.

First, we should not rule out unilateral action in cases that involve vital survival interests, though when possible we should seek international support for such action. The starkest case in the last half century was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. American leaders felt obliged to consider the unilateral use of force, but President Kennedy still sought the legitimacy of international opinion expressed in multilateral forums such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States. The campaign against terrorists and those who harbor them is a current case in point: we will act unilaterally, but again, coalition support provides both help and added legitimacy.

Second, we should be cautious about multilateral arrangements that interfere with our ability to produce stable peace in volatile areas. Because of our global military role, the United States sometimes has interests and vulnerabilities that differ qualitatively from those of smaller states with more limited interests-as with, for example, the role of landmines in preventing North Korean tanks from crossing the demilitarized zone into South Korea. The multilateral treaty banning landmines was easy for other countries to sign because it had little or no practical significance for them-not so, obviously, in the U.S. case.

Similarly, given the global role of American military forces, if the procedures of the International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot be clarified to assure protection of American troops from unjustified charges of war crimes, they might deter the United States from contributing to the public good of peacekeeping. The ICC procedures currently proposed give primary jurisdiction over alleged war crimes by American servicemen to the United States, but there is still a danger of overzealous prosecutors egged on by hostile NGOs in instances where the United States finds no case. We should seek further assurances on such points, such as clarifying declarations by the UN Security Council. While the ICC has problems, helping to shape its procedures would be a better policy than abetting the current trends toward national claims of universal legal jurisdiction that are evolving in ad hoc fashion beyond our control.
Third, unilateral tactics sometimes help lead others to compromises that advance multilateral interests. The multilateralism of free trade and the international gold standard in the 19th century were not achieved by multilateral means but by Britain's unilaterally opening its markets and maintaining the stability of its currency. America's relative openness after 1945 and, more recently, trade legislation that threatened unilateral sanctions if others did not negotiate, helped create conditions that prodded other countries to move forward with the WTO dispute settlements mechanism. Sometimes the United States is big enough to set high standards and get away with it-witness our more stringent regulations for financial markets. Such actions can lead to a "race to the top" in creating higher international standards. The key, however, is that the unilateral action be designed to promote a global public good.

The Kyoto Protocol, which caused President Bush such trouble at the beginning of his presidency, could have been another case in point had it been handled differently. Many who accept the reality of global warming and support the Framework Convention on Climate Change (the "Rio Agreement" signed by the first President Bush and ratified by the Senate in 1992) believed that the Kyoto agreement was badly flawed because it did not include developing countries in its target for emission cuts and, according to The Economist, "could not be done except at ruinous cost, and perhaps not even then." A longer-term plan based on milder reductions at the start, followed by more demanding targets farther out, would provide time for capital stocks to adjust. It would also allow market-based instruments such as tradable permits to lower the costs of emissions reductions and to reduce the trade-off with economic growth (which would benefit a wide range of nations, including the poor). If, instead of resisting the science and abruptly pronouncing the protocol dead on grounds of domestic interest, the Bush Administration had said "we will work on a domestic energy policy that cuts emissions and at the same time negotiate with you for a better treaty", his initial unilateralism would arguably have advanced multilateral interests.

Fourth, the United States should reject multilateral initiatives that are recipes for inaction, that cater disproportionately to the self-interest of others, or that are contrary to our values. The "New International Information Order", proposed in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in the 1970s, would have helped authoritarian governments restrict freedom of the press. Similarly, the "New International Economic Order" fostered by the General Assembly at the same time would have interfered with the public good of open markets. Sometimes multilateral procedures are deliberately obstructive; for example, Russia and China's efforts to prevent Security Council authorization of intervention to stop human rights violations in Kosovo in 1999. Ultimately the United States decided to go ahead without Security Council approval, but even then the American intervention was not purely unilateral, but was rather taken with the strong support of our NATO allies.

Fifth, multilateralism is essential on intrinsically cooperative issues that cannot be managed by the United States without the help of other countries. Climate change is a perfect example. Global warming will be costly to us, but it cannot be prevented by the United States alone cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and particulates. The United States is the largest source of such warming agents, but three quarters of the sources originate outside our borders. Without cooperation, the problem is beyond our control. The same is true of a long list of items: the spread of infectious diseases, the stability of global financial markets, the international trading system, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, narcotics trafficking, international crime syndicates, and transnational terrorism. All these problems have major effects on Americans, and their control ranks as an important national interest, but one that cannot be achieved except by multilateral means.

Sixth, multilateralism should be sought as a means to get others to share the burden and buy into the idea of providing public goods. Sharing helps foster a commitment to common values. Even militarily, the United States should usually intervene with others. Not only does this comport with the preferences of the American public, but it has practical implications. The United States pays a minority share of UN and NATO peacekeeping operations, and the legitimacy of a multilateral umbrella reduces collateral political costs.

Seventh, in choosing between multilateral and unilateral tactics, we must consider the effects of the decision on our soft or attractive power. If we continue to define U.S. power too heavily in military terms, we may neglect investments in other instruments. Soft power is becoming increasingly important in a global information age, but soft power is fragile, and can be destroyed by excessive unilateralism and arrogance. In balancing whether to use multilateral or unilateral tactics, or to adhere or refuse to go along with particular multilateral initiatives, we have to consider how we explain it to others and what the effects will be on our soft power.

In short, American foreign policy in a global information age should have a general preference for multilateralism, but not all multilateralism. At times, we will have to go it alone. When we do so in pursuit of public goods, the nature of our ends may substitute for the means in legitimizing our power in the eyes of others. As the editor of this magazine has put it, "Sometimes, as a matter of discrete policy choices, the United States will, and should, find itself isolated. . . . But auto-isolation as a tenet of strategy is harmful to American primacy at a time when, strange though it may sound, we cannot act selfishly without the cooperation of others."

If, on the other hand, the "new unilateralists" succeed in elevating unilateralism from an occasional tactic to a full-fledged strategy, they are likely to fail for three reasons: the intrinsically multilateral nature of a number of important transnational issues in a global age; the costly effects on our soft power; and the changing nature of sovereignty. The September 11 attacks dramatically illustrated the importance of all three of these factors. How well the lessons will take remains to be seen.

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