One man's defense of the multilateral ideal

The Lower Frequencies
Published January 15, 2003

Multilateralism is a word filled with gush. How could you be against it? The images of collaboration, cooperation and international harmony float into one's mind as its seven syllables gently draw themselves out. It rings with the tone of prosperity, tranquility and progress. If you support a proposal, elevate it with the accolade of multilateralism. If you're against a policy, tarnish it with the brand of unilateralism.

Paul Wong

Despite the power of the word and its centrality in innumerable foreign policy debates, it means practically nothing. If your state possesses colonial ambitions simply find a few other mini-states to join along in your imperial conquest. Presto! Multilateralism. It's clear that the quality of multilateralism is a useless tool for reaching a moral judgment of a specific policy. And as both domestic and foreign liberals have attacked the United States as a unilateral bully, realists and interventionists have responded, exposing multilateralism as a vacuous bogey.

Charles Krauthammer and Christopher Hitchens, two men who represent the current zeitgist quite well, have sunk their teeth into multilateralism. As Hitchens wrote in Slate, "The most dada version of the dilemma was stated by Sen. Tom Daschle, who for weeks appeared to say that if only more people would endorse the president's policy, whey then, he might be induced to support it himself! But in the meanwhile, he could only frown upon anything 'unilateral.'" Krauthammer, meanwhile, levied his attack against the United Nations' Security Council. "How exactly does the Security Council confer moral authority on American action? The Security Council is a committee of great powers, heirs to the victors in the Second World War. They manage the world in their own interest."

In the concrete sense of the word, Krauthammer and Hitchens are obviously correct. However, the object of their attack is a straw man. While arguing the merits of multilateralism in the narrow sense is a fruitless process, multilateralism can hold a much broader meaning. The possibility of a global forum for the adjudication of disputes, freedom of movement for all peoples and a world free from conflict are the ideal ends of multilateral actions. The supporters of this multilateral ideal bear much of the responsibility for the word's latent contradictions.

Leftists are eager to denounce the United States' withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the refusal to join the International Criminal Court and the international land mine treaty. But when multilateral initiatives are a source of opprobrium their cooperative aspects are neglected. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund are, of course, multilateral institutions, but you can find the self-styled supporters of multilateralism advocating unilateral withdrawal from these institutions. Unilateralism is not a serious reason for opposing a particular international action.

We need a word or phrase that is less descriptive and possesses a normative moral meaning. These phrases should also serve the dual purpose of identifying the specific ideals desired through multilateral action. Perhaps "Wilsonian collaboration" for those with utopian dreams or "Kristolian cooperation" for the neoconservative proponents of democracy. For those with economic interests, "Prebischian internationalism" could indicate moral action for dependencia theorists. "Friedmanite concurrence" would be the best phrase for rabid free-marketers' views in the international sector. Support for multilateralism is not an ideological position and anyone with an interest in foreign relations should recognize that no one position holds a monopoly on the moral force of international action.

In the dark winter of 1940, Great Britain faced a Europe controlled by its enemies. From the Urals to Gibraltar, the Nazis, its allies and its occupied territories stretched across the continent. The German betrayal of the USSR and the United States' entry into World War II would eventually give Britain allies, but in 1940 Britain unilaterally stood against fascism. Within a span of six decades, much of the European continent would resemble a well-organized state. The potential for inter-state conflict and nationalist angst that marked Europe's first half of the 20th century has been diffused. Through the formation of trade pacts, legal bodies and a currency union, Europe has achieved many of the goals of Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps the best way to achieve this multilateral ideal tomorrow is to act unilaterally today.

Zac Peskowitz can be reached at