Defining Terms Unilaterally
culture insofar as it is intelligible to speak of such a concept
seems to have a gift for asking the wrong, mostly irrelevant,
questions and then obsessing about them at great and usually unhelpful
length. Thus in recent weeks we have heard a great deal about "unilateralism"
and various talking and writing heads have gone on and on about
whether the Bush administration is guilty of it.
Some critics even go so far as to describe the unilateralism
they claim to see in Bush-league maneuvers as "isolationism."
One might only wish that it were so.
But the inappropriate introduction of the term does offer a
hint as to what some of the right questions might be. It is less
important, for example, whether a national government acts unilaterally
or in concert with other government gangs than just how much meddling
it intends to do overseas. The Bush administration seems inclined
to do quite a bit, much of it multilaterally but a fair amount of
it unilaterally. And that seems to be the rub.
GOING IT ALONE?
So what has the
classes chattering? Well, President Bush has said that the United
States will withdraw from the Kyoto global warming treaty, and will
not participate in the latest protocol revision of a germ-warfare
treaty. Although he has consulted with and tried to explain his
position to European and Russian leaders, the president has made
it clear that he plans to move toward building a missile defense
system whether European leaders approve or not.
Few critics are as waspish as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
The outwardly mild-mannered solon, who never passes up an opportunity
(some warranted, some not) to get in a partisan dig, accused President
Bush right smack-dab in the middle of the president's recent
European trip of "fostering isolationism." He later apologized
for his timing but didn't take it back, and went on to insist that
Bush has a "dictatorial approach" to foreign relations.
Dictatorial approach? Our Dubya? Perish the thought! Most critics
are a bit milder, but would still prefer that the United States
take a more "multilateral" approach. Petra Holtrup of the German
Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, for example, deplores what
she views as "this massive retreat on all multilateral issues."
The United States,
the general line goes, would be better off consulting with and sometimes
yielding to traditional allies, especially the Europeans, rather
than going it alone. The arrogant unilateralist "we're the sole
superpower and we can do what we like" attitude will eventually
come back to haunt the United States when it wants cooperation on
issues it deems important.
A reasonably representative view comes from France. "If they
are negative about everything, they cannot expect cooperation from
their allies," said Philippe Morau Defarges of the French Institute
for International Relations in Paris.
DEFINING SOME TERMS
Perhaps it would
be helpful to define some terms and try to sort through some of
In international relations, the classic theory is that in a
world of nation-states each nation, large or small, is equally sovereign
in its own territory and equally endowed with the right to make
its own decisions about foreign relations. When a country makes
decisions about foreign policy on its own and carries them out,
it is said to be acting unilaterally.
When a country chooses to act in concert with others members
of a treaty organization like NATO, signatories to a special-purpose
treaty (e.g., ballistic missile or land mine control), all the members
of the United Nations, a group assembled for something like the
Persian Gulf War it is acting multilaterally.
There is no logical
or necessary relationship between unilateralism and isolationism.
As Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute told me last week, "You could have
an entirely imperial, entirely unilateralist policy that would be
the antithesis of isolationism."
Going it alone (leaving aside the question of whether that's
a good idea) does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the rest
of the world. A country could retreat on its own, attack another
country on its own, make decisions about opening up trade on its
own, withdraw into a virtual cocoon on its own, or simply muddle
through on its own. Whether it acts alone or with others has little
if any bearing on the policies it decides to pursue.
In recent years
many analysts have shown a preference for multilateralism, entering
into treaties and acting in concert with other countries most of
the time. This might be because, as Charles
Krauthammer put it in a recent Weekly Standard article,
many in the American policy elite "saw their mission as seeking
a new world harmony by constraining this overwhelming American power
within a web of international obligations." Or it might be because
they calculate that multilateral action is the best way to achieve
American goals. But multilateralism has become almost a religion.
In practice, multilateralism means increasing degrees of governance
by international boards, commissions and committees that are not
elected and not especially accountable to anyone. A trade, environmental
or weapons treaty almost always generates a new agency with broad
authority to enforce compliance among signatories and to make decisions
when there is disagreement about ambiguous provisions.
A MODE OF GOVERNANCE
whatever the policy goal pursued, becomes a method of governance,
with power transferred to discrete and identifiable people. As our
world is presently constituted, this is what the media usually refer
to as the "international community" and what I like to think of
as the floating crap game of professional international diplomats.
Most of these people are quite capable and many of them quite sincere
in their desire to do good, but as a rule they are more devoted
to internationalism as such than to any particular country's interests
As for the personal freedom and independence of the actual
people who live in the country they putatively represent, the international
community is too busy with grand global concerns and designs to
pay such puny interests much mind.
FAR FROM DEMOCRATIC
This is about
as far from democratic governance as you can get. If anything, it
resembles the old Soviet theory of "democratic centralism," with
trained, enlightened, professional people at the center of things,
knowing better what is good for the people than the people themselves
know. The people, of course, are supposed to be grateful that their
wise rulers are so vigilant in protecting them from their baser
impulses and preferences.
There are other models, none of them very close to a "bottom-up"
democracy attentive to the stated desires of the people. Insofar
as the model is the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels, we should
note that most people in that institution view events like the recent
vote in Ireland not to join the unitary currency regime as a nuisance
or a sign of reactionary obstructionism but only a temporary
setback. The people are supposed to go along with the grand vision
espoused by the experts, not tell the experts what to do.
Now, given the
assumption that the nation-state system has any moral or practical
justification (I have my own doubts), the question of unilateralism
v. multilateralism is essentially a practical one. There might be
times, for nation-states, as for individual people, when it is worthwhile
to give up a bit of sovereignty, a bit of self-rule, a bit of freedom
for a worthwhile goal. But one should be clear that multilateral
agreements and action always involve these costs and weigh them
In short, there are times when unilateral action is appropriate
and times when multilateral cooperation is appropriate. Neither
is always right or wrong.
Focusing on this
essentially pragmatic question as if it were the central question
and a matter of deepest principle enshrines by default a regime
of governance by unaccountable elites. It also deflects the much
more important policy question: how extensively does the United
States plan to meddle in the affairs of other nations?
Most Americans, I suspect, would like to see fewer interventions,
bombings and flawed "nation-building" efforts. Whether they are
done unilaterally or multilaterally is a secondary question. So
even while understanding that there are implications to the multilateral
option, friends of freedom would do well to keep the conversation
focused on the question of just how much meddling the United States
plans to do in the rest of the world.
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