Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Beyond Coalitions of the Willing: Assessing U.S. Multilateralism

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Beyond Coalitions of the Willing: Assessing U.S. Multilateralism

Article excerpt

Since the end of the Cold War, both the wisdom and the appropriateness of multilateral action have been subjects of fierce disagreement within the U.S. foreign policy community. In practice, the United States has oscillated between going it alone and joining with others. (1) While making use of some multilateral institutions, it has periodically opted out of international conventions, sought exemptions from global regimes, and acted alone in the face of global problems. (2) Subsequently, debates about the appropriate balance between unilateralism and multilateralism in American global engagement have been highly contentious. The intensity of the debate is due, at least in part, to the fact that participants disagree about both the effectiveness of the two strategies for achieving U.S. aims and their legitimacy.

These arguments are a predictable response to the practical challenges and ethical dilemmas generated by globalization. Global integration has engendered a growing number of transnational problems and opportunities unlikely to be addressed successfully by the independent actions of any one state. (3) Cooperation with other governments and international organizations is essential. Yet multilateralism can be costly and constraining, sometimes limiting freedom of action and infringing on national sovereignty. The United States is particularly sensitive to these tradeoffs since it has formidable unilateral and bilateral options. The question of whether U.S. interests are best served by going it alone or with others has no general answer: it depends on the issue and the stakes, the policies of others, and the feasibility of collective action.

In addition to raising prudential dilemmas, globalization carries moral implications. In order to manage common problems, countries have created a growing framework of international institutions and law, accepting an expanding array of mutual obligations and binding commitments among states. Simultaneously, the rise of cross-border exchanges is fast eroding the boundary between national and international, while reinforcing the connections between disparate and distant human communities. In advocating particular responses to these global concerns, policy-makers and analysts couch their positions in normative language, invoking U.S. rights and duties and highlighting the legitimacy or illegitimacy of U.S. policy choices. Because unilateralism raises ethical red flags in world politics, the United States typically offers public explanations for its decisions to act alone. Such justifications are sometimes prudential, citing threats to U.S. national security and core interests. But U.S. officials also defend unilateralism in ethical terms, depicting it as a moral imperative transcending secondary international obligations; as the only means to remain true to U.S. identity and values; as a last resort, taken after exhaustive efforts to reach consensus; as a contribution to the general welfare rather than narrow U.S. interests; or as a form of leadership to overcome inertia, mobilize a coalition, create an international standard, or enforce an international agreement. This compulsion to justify departures from multilateral cooperation suggests that there are recognized norms of international behavior and legitimacy that require invocation, even in the breach. (4)

So far the discussion of these questions has been more polemical than analytical. Because the practical and ethical terrain has not been clearly demarcated, it is easy to confuse prudential assessments about costs and benefits with ethical arguments about fairness, justice, legitimacy, and obligation. Each side has claimed the moral high ground, bundling distinct normative assertions into rival prudential arguments while failing to acknowledge the principled nature of the opposition's arguments. Greater clarity may be possible by classifying U.S. foreign policy into analytical categories based on whether the strategies adopted are unilateral or multilateral and whether the aims pursued are nationalist, internationalist, or cosmopolitan. …

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