Mixed Messages Sent, Mixed Messages Received: Asian Views of the United States and Multilateralism 2004-2005

By Rolfe, Jim | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, October 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Mixed Messages Sent, Mixed Messages Received: Asian Views of the United States and Multilateralism 2004-2005


Rolfe, Jim, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


The United States' approach to multilateral international relations continues to be at odds with the practices and desires of most of its Asian partners.

The United States emphasizes effectiveness and good outcomes (as defined by the U.S.) rather than process. For most Asian states the processes of multilateralism are as important.

Throughout 2004, Asian governments and private commentators called on the U.S. to renounce its unilateralism, mostly on the grounds that unilateralism is a thinly disguised hegemony and is destroying the multilateral international system as developed in the second half of the twentieth century.

If the United States continues to emphasize national self- interest at the expense of the international community and of multilateral relationships it will continue to be criticized, and may not be able to achieve its desired policy outcomes because other multilateral groupings will block it.

The United States, Asian commentators argue, needs to adapt to the new international environment. A simple solution would be to accept the multilateral norms and rules of the international community, shape them where it can, but conform to them even when it cannot shape them.

Asia's reactions to U.S. foreign policy began and ended the year on similar notes: generally but not unanimously emphasizing the unilateral nature of America's engagement with the world. In January, following President Bush's State of the Union address, editorial comment throughout Asia focused on the "unilateralist" tendencies within U.S. policy. At year's end, following President Bush's re-election, the thrust remained although, as former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted in December, that did not mean that national leaders in Asia (if not commentators) wished for President Bush to be defeated.

Public comment from Asia's governments on the United States' approach to foreign policy in 2004 was restrained, but a desire for the U.S. to be "more inclusive" and to "enhance its international cooperation" also figured in official statements. For its part, the United States emphasized its theme of some years that multilateral cooperation was not an end in itself but a process that had to be "effective" if it were to have value.

International reaction to America's multilateralist philosophies in 2004 has its roots most recently in the series of decisions made by the administration in the period following the 2000 presidential election. In the space of a few months the administration withdrew from, rejected or renounced a series of international initiatives it considered to be unworkable or not in the United States' national interests. These included the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the international land mines convention, the biological and toxin weapons convention, the international plan for cleaner energy and the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

For each decision the United States had, at least, an arguable case (backed by Congress's refusal to ratify some if not all of these pacts). However, these decisions led much of Asia and the rest of the world to argue that the U.S. had rejected multilateral approaches to world affairs in favor of an American unilateralism. These perceptions were reinforced for many by the decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003 without, according to the critics, a proper multilateral (that is to say, United Nations) mandate.

In his January 2004 State of the Union address (to the extent that multilateralism was addressed at all), the President set the scene for the U.S. approach to multilateralism when he emphasized the coalition nature of America's efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and rejected the critics who "said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized." President Bush pointed to the "vital contributions" of the more than 30 countries with troops committed to Iraq. …

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