Two Kinds of Internationalism

Two Kinds of Internationalism

Mini Teaser: What Europeans condemn as unilateralism is in fact traditional postwar internationalism. As Lockeans, Americans prefer it to transnationalism because it's democratic.

by Author(s): Marc F. Plattner

It is often said that a prime cause of the dissension between the United States and Europe is the differing views about international cooperation that prevail on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Europeans, shaped by their experience with EU integration, are devoted to multilateralism, while Americans exhibit an increasing penchant for unilateralism. And there is no question that on a number of high-profile issues in recent years, the United States has taken stands that have put it in opposition not only to Europe, but to what is often referred to as "the international community." This includes the Iraq War (though on this matter Europe itself is very much divided), as well as such issues as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States not only has been willing to oppose such international agreements, but has been much more concerned than European nations with defending the principle of national sovereignty and much more ready to question the moral supremacy of the United Nations or of international opinion.

Yet there is a paradox here. For at the same time, the United States is widely viewed as the prime agent of "globalization" and the homogenization that it brings in its wake. Thus, the anti-globalization movement, which is animated in part by the desire to preserve distinctive national and cultural traditions and ways of life, is a hotbed of anti-Americanism. The United States is charged with being the most universalist of countries, with seeking to impose Western-style democracy on peoples for whom it is inappropriate, with believing that the whole world is--or at least can or should be--like America.

Moreover, throughout the 20th century, the United States was a leader in building the institutions that came to symbolize liberal internationalism. It was President Woodrow Wilson who was the guiding spirit behind the formation of the League of Nations and President Franklin Roosevelt who was the guiding spirit behind the creation of the United Nations. It is also true, of course, that the U.S. Senate, reflecting the isolationist strands in American political culture, rejected American membership in the League. After the Second World War, however, the United States largely overcame its older isolationist tendencies and became the key architect of the ensemble of multilateral institutions that still shape the international landscape.

What accounts, then, for the opposition to multilateralism that is seen as guiding U.S. policy in the new century? Has there been a dramatic change in the U.S. outlook and its approach to international affairs, prompted perhaps by its emergence as the world's only superpower or by the trauma of 9/11? Or has the real change been in the way the concept of multilateralism has come to be understood today, so that U.S. policy, despite a fundamental continuity, now appears to be out of sync with world opinion? In other words, might it be that the United States is hostile to a new version of multilateralism, while largely remaining faithful to the old? Of course, these two explanations need not be mutually exclusive. There probably has been a certain alteration in the expression, if not the substance, of American policy. But the more fundamental shift has occurred in the nature and meaning of multilateralism.

Global Times, Global Measures

This shift has been hailed by the champions of a remodeled multilateralism, who stress the distinction between the old "liberal internationalism" and the new "globalism." The former refers to the vision that is reflected in the United Nations Charter--and indeed in the very name of the United Nations. This is the concept of a league or organization of states whose purposes (to quote from the charter) are to "maintain international peace and security", "develop friendly relations among nations", "achieve international cooperation" in economic, social and cultural matters and in promoting human rights, and "be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends." The UN was understood primarily as an organization of sovereign states, represented by their governments. The very first principle enunciated in the charter states: "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of its Members." But this brand of multilateralism today is regarded in many respects as outmoded, if not retrograde. In the words of former UN Assistant Secretary General John Ruggie,

Simply put, postwar institutions, including the United Nations, were built for an inter-national world, but we have entered a global world. International institutions were designed to reduce external frictions between states; our challenge today is to devise more inclusive forms of global governance.

What exactly is the nature of the new globalism toward which Ruggie and thinkers like him point? This is not so easy to pin down, though the underlying premises of the "globalists" are quite clear: Thanks to technological advances, especially in communications, the world is more interconnected than ever before. Instead of separate national industries and economies, today we have multinational companies and integrated global markets. At the same time, threats as well as opportunities have gone global. Drug traffickers and other criminal networks operate across borders, and of course environmental dangers like global warming and health dangers like aids cannot be confined within national boundaries. Meanwhile, the greatest dangers to peace no longer seem to arise from traditional sorts of interstate hostility, but from non-state terrorist organizations and from internecine conflict within states. So the challenges confronting us are increasingly global, while our political institutions remain essentially national and hence unable to cope with this new wave of problems.

Thus, the agenda of the new multilateralism is to close the "global governance gaps" that result from the mismatch between the global scale of contemporary problems and the merely national reach of the most effective political institutions. Since it is obviously beyond our power to shrink the scale of the problems, the favored solution is to globalize our political institutions. Yet for a variety of both practical and theoretical reasons, the "globalists" do not advocate a world state or even world federalism. Instead, they seem to favor mechanisms of global governance that involve "networks" of international organizations, national governments, the private sector, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. They propose not to abolish existing national states, but to reduce them to one player among many--and one with a weaker claim to moral legitimacy than international organizations or "global civil society." Nor do they seem to worry about the lack of democratic accountability that will inevitably beset these new mechanisms of global governance.

This is not the place to engage in a detailed analysis of the new multilateralism, which is reflected in such initiatives as the Kyoto Protocol and the ICC. The point I want to emphasize here is that "multilateralism" is a term that can cover a wide range of practices and approaches, and that current versions of it are much more expansive than was traditional liberal internationalism. Perhaps a similar example from recent history can help make this point clearer. The isolation of the United States in international organizations is hardly a new phenomenon, as I remember all too well from the years I spent in the early 1980s working on economic issues at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. That was the period when the G-77, the group of developing nations at the UN, was pressing for a New International Economic Order. This involved a range of measures calling for redistribution from richer to poorer nations and for greater regulation of international business. Among the initiatives on which the United States was isolated in opposition in those days was something called "Global Negotiations", which was meant to restructure the world economy under the aegis of the UN General Assembly.

Whatever the merits of the U.S. position on these issues, it is clear that it would be misleading to ascribe it to hostility to multilateralism as such, rather than to concerns about the proper scope and locus of multinational authority. In fact, American opposition to Global Negotiations was based in part on the grounds that they would infringe upon the autonomy of the specialized international agencies dealing with economic issues, especially the International Monetary Fund, another U.S.-inspired creation of the postwar era. There were then, and remain today, all kinds of multilateral activities that the United States regards as vital.

In short, Americans are not unilateralists. They believe, however, that international cooperation should adhere to limits that respect national sovereignty. Despite their universalist tendencies, Americans recognize a germ of truth in the anti-globalist case--namely, that even the expression of universal principles will be significantly shaped by national cultural, religious and legal traditions. Americans believe in universal principles but hold that their implementation should be the business of democratically elected and accountable national governments.

The Declaration of Independence

This outlook, which I believe has heretofore characterized modern liberal democracy as such, is deeply rooted in American history and experience. If we turn to America's founding political document, the Declaration of Independence, we find a striking juxtaposition of an invocation of universal principles--all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights--with an insistence on the right of a particular people to determine its own destiny. In declaring their independence from the British Crown, the representatives of the American colonies affirmed their right to a "separate and equal station" among the "Powers of the Earth" and to do all the "Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."

Essay Types: Essay