World Orders: Unilateralism vs. Multilateralism

Article excerpt

We have heard much in recent years, during the administration of US President George W. Bush, about the tension between unilateral and multilateral foreign policy. Many claim that the United States, many claim, is unilateralist, while Europe is multilateralist. The issue predates the present debate, dating back to at least to the end of World War II. The United States does often act more unilaterally than other nations, and Europe does emphasize multilateralism. Yet neither has a monopoly on one paradigm or the other.


For many, the debate has taken on moral overtones. Unilateralism is "bad," while multilateralism is "good." For some, multilateralism has become an ideology. Eschewing selfish national interest and adopting world governance and its corollary, universal jurisdiction, is the only way to survive the dangers of globalization and the challenges of the new century. Others take the opposite view. This is a "Hobbesian" world. We must be willing to act unilaterally to protect our interests, even when doing so is unpopular; to rely on the cooperation of others threatens our security. For committed multilateralists, multilateralism is a universal moral imperative, based on the primacy of international law and the notion that there is universal jurisdiction that should supersede national boundaries. The cynical Hobbesian would respond that this view is naive and ignores the realities and dangers of the world in which we now find ourselves.

More thoughtful commentators might adopt the view that any concept of universal jurisdiction is inherently undemocratic and, in fact, runs directly counter to US democracy, which is constitutionally based and which, through checks and balances, protects our values. Why should the United States subject itself to an organization like the International Criminal Court or even to the United Nations, which has members that are not democratically governed and might arbitrarily interfere with our freedom of action or even with our constitutionally based sovereignty in certain instances?

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld pointed out in his essay "The Two World Orders" that Europeans experienced the consequences of national polities gone berserk in both Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. For many Europeans, universal jurisdiction is critical not just to guard against brutal dictatorships but also to protect against tyrannies associated with mass political psychosis. Some have argued that the United States has an obligation to act multilaterally because it was the prime architect of such postwar international organizations as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. Rubenfeld drew the distinction that the United States was not itself acting multilaterally; rather, it was imposing multilateralism because it was in its national interest to do so. Its Security Council veto and weighted voting in the IMF protected the United States from the perceived dangers of multilateralism.

In the late 1940s, the United States scuttled a treaty establishing a formal international trade organization because Congress in particular feared that the United States would be surrendering some of its sovereignty. Even today, some US politicians say that the United States should withdraw from the World Trade Organization for essentially the same reason.

A more extreme version of the argument is that the United States need not subject itself to the dictates of any international organizations because in our "exceptionalist" view, we do things correctly. Our constitutional system protects democratic values, and multilateral organizations--to the extent we need them at all--are there to shield us from possible abuse at the hands of other states.

Bridging the Gap

The question then becomes, how can the gulf between unilateralism and multilateralism be bridged? The answer lies in how the issue is framed. …