Academic journal article Global Governance

U.S. Unilateralism at the UN: Why Great Powers Do Not Make Great Multilateralists

Academic journal article Global Governance

U.S. Unilateralism at the UN: Why Great Powers Do Not Make Great Multilateralists

Article excerpt

The 1990s saw a renewed interest by U.S. scholars in multilateralism as an important institution in international affairs. These scholars may have been sparked by former president George Bush's call for a new world order in which the U.S. government was to be more receptive to universal aspiration, cooperative deterrence, and joint action against aggression. Thus, Robert Keohane and others rediscovered a U.S. commitment to multilateralism as a "practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states." [1] It is fitting that Keohane's article appeared in a Canadian journal devoted entirely to the subject because multilateralism has long been a major theme in the study of Canadian foreign policy. One major addition to this literature in the 1990s was by Tom Keating. [2] Indeed, the Canadian practice of multilateralism might well serve as a benchmark for judging U.S. commitment to it.

There are, after all, grounds for doubting the constancy of the U.S. commitment to multilateralism. In negotiations leading to the 1997 landmine treaty and the 1998 international criminal court treaty, the United States not only refused to lead the world community but--in a striking display of unilateralism--also refused to sign agreements supported by a majority of states and most of its Western allies. This behavior led the Economist, a British magazine not usually noted as a bastion of radicalism or anti-U.S. sentiment, to publish an editorial in December 1998 calling the United States "a two-faced, half-hearted friend" rather than a champion of international law. Important indicators of multilateralism are the negotiation and support of new international norms. However, as the editorial observed, "the United States has a sorry record of shilly-shallying, or plain obstruction, in the development of international law. Instead of leading, America has ratified many human-rights treaties only after most other countries have already done so." A litany followed.

It took 40 years to ratify the Genocide Convention, 28 for the Convention Against Racial Discrimination, 26 for even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the most important treaty of all. Over 160 countries have ratified the convention banning discrimination against women but not the United States. Only two in the world have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. . . . And even when America has ratified treaties, it has often attached extensive reservations, making them inapplicable at home. It has also paid scant respect to monitoring mechanisms set up by the treaties, and to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. . . . Alone among its allies, it now opposes the permanent international criminal court endorsed by 120 nations at a UN conference last July primarily because it could not win an absolute exemption for its own soldiers. [3]

In assessing commitment to multinationalism, the UN also provides an important benchmark. But consider the unilateralist behavior of the United States at the UN in the selection of the last secretary-general and the ongoing financial crisis provoked by nonpayment of U.S. dues. [4] Any observer of the UN General Assembly in the 1980s would more likely be impressed with the obvious unilateral nature of U.S. voting behavior. In the last year of the Bush administration--after the end of the Cold War and the supposed creation of a new world order--the U.S. representative to the Forty-seventh General Assembly was moved to vote "nay" on 61 percent of final resolutions adopted by a majority of the membership. This record was unmatched even by Israel, the second most "nonaccommodating" member, which had a record of voting against the majority only 45 percent of the time.

Accordingly, my purpose here is to examine this apparent paradox and to raise three questions: (1) Does U.S. behavior in the General Assembly confirm or disconfirm the claim of U.S. commitment to multilateralism? …

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