Ralph A. Cossa
Since the end of the cold war, the United States has become—in principle if not always in practice—a strong, if somewhat uneven, advocate of multilateral security and economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. This was particularly true during the Clinton administration but appears to continue to hold true for the George W. Bush administration as well, charges of 'American unilateralism' notwithstanding.
Washington has taken an active role in establishing some regional institutions and its concurrence and active participation have been instrumental to the success of many of those proposed by others. This support for multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific has one important caveat, however: Washington will not allow such institutions to be seen as substitutes for or as threats to US bilateral efforts and arrangements. This is especially so in the security field, where several key bilateral security alliances—with Japan, South Korea, and Australia—provide the foundation for the US security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. As this chapter argues, the US does not see bilateral and multilateral efforts as being in tension; rather, they complement one another. East Asian multilateral organizations are seen as useful tools in pursuing US national security objectives.
Nevertheless, unlike Europe, where multilateral institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) play a critical role in the US national security calculus, in Asia bilateral relationships still retain pride of place by a large margin. Any multilateral organization that appears to restrain or threaten US bilateral alliance relationships will not be supported by Washington. As the post 11 September 2001 US-led international war on terrorism demonstrates, while Washington is willing, indeed eager, to develop a multilateral approach in combating global terrorism, it has made it clear that this will not deter America from pursuing its objectives unilaterally if necessary.
It is not a coincidence that the two most developed, far-reaching, and thus far—modestly—successful regional multilateral organizations—the ASEAN