Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Multilateralism, Major Powers, and Militarized Disputes

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Multilateralism, Major Powers, and Militarized Disputes

Article excerpt

American foreign policy has been animated by public debate between multilateralism and unilateralism in recent years. Some strains of traditional realist thinking suggest that major powers like the U.S. will naturally tend to be less enamored of multilateral action precisely because they possess the capabilities to engage a wider range of unilateral options and they face fewer structural limitations than other states. We empirically investigate this intriguing potential connection between major power status and multilateralism through the lens of interstate conflict. Using Keohanes (1990) definition of multilateralism as coordination among three or more states, we analyze states' propensity to participate multilaterally in militarized disputes. Contrary to expectations, we find that major powers are substantially more prone toward multilateral participation than other states. These results prove to be highly robust in the face of a number of potentially confounding factors and over time.

Public debate on American foreign policy is said to be dominated by two contentious issues. One of these, the longstanding struggle between isolationism and internationalism, has for now largely subsided in favor of the latter, particularly following the events of September 11, 2001. As a consequence of America's prevailing internationalist spirit, the equally truculent debate between multilateralism and unilateralism has now moved center stage (e.g., Kagan 2003; Prestowitz 2003; Nye 2002; Patrick and Forman 2002). Are American interests best served by cooperating with other countries or by "going it alone"?

The unprecedented degree of international cooperation observed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War revitalized interest in and hopes for multilateralism. Many analysts predicted that in the post-Cold War era, states' foreign policy will be characterized by a greater degree of multilateralism (Ruggie 1992). The failure or limited success of successive multilateral initiatives-such as, operation "Restore Hope" in Somalia and the Bosnia peacekeeping mission-and a renewed tendency on the part of the United States to prefer bilateral negotiations in the economic and security arena somewhat dampened early enthusiasms (Martin 1992; Stoll 1998). More recent choices by the United States-ranging from withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and other multilateral treaties to military action in Iraq-have led foreign leaders to voice their resentment against the arrogance of the country's unilateralist stance (see, for instance, Nye 2002; Wallace 2002).

The United States' apparent proclivity to privilege unilateral action or limited bilateralism seems to reinforce the widespread conviction that great powers are more likely to act unilaterally on the international stage. This view is based on the observation that, given their greater capabilities and potential for action, great powers enjoy a wider range of options and face fewer structural constraints (Waltz 1979; Patrick 2002). The logic of this argument is that is that they are more prone to act alone because they have the opportunity to do so. However, the relationship between major power status and international multilateral behavior has not received adequate attention in international relations. The issue of multilateralism has been treated, to a large extent, as a question tangential to the larger problem of inter-state cooperation. As a result, the discipline of international relations lacks any "off-the-shelf theory for explaining multilateralism (Caporaso 1992: 604). The absence of a theory of multilateralism is accompanied by relative scarcity of systematic evidence concerning the relative propensity of major power states to act in coordination with other states.

This article addresses the question of whether major power status affects the tendency of states to act multilaterally by looking at instances of collective participation in militarized interstate disputes (MIDs). …

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