David Malone, President, International Peace Academy; co-editor, Unilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy: International Perspectives

Philip Gordon, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution

This meeting was co-sponsored by the Division of International Studies and Conflict Prevention Project and the Center on International Cooperation of New York University, whose Director, Shepard Forman, co-chaired the meeting. This edited volume, produced by the Center on International Cooperation, explores international reactions to U.S. conduct in world affairs on issues ranging from the war on terrorism to global warming, and from national missile defense to economic sanctions. Authors from around the world address the tensions between unilateralism and multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy.

David Malone highlighted three key international trends that set the context for the regional and functional case studies presented in the volume. First, with the exception of a few thorny issues (Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, and Iraq), the P-5 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) has worked well together. Cooperation is the norm, not the exception. The United Nations has established international administrative authority in Bosnia, Cambodia, Namibia, Kosovo, and East Timor. These experiences point to the Security Council's increasing focus on internal crises threatening international security. Second, the European Union (EU) has been more successful in integrating the economic policies of member states than their foreign and defense policies. Third, NATO as an institution has been in a state of relative decline in the post-Cold War era, as have been two great powers – Russia and Japan.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a change in perspective in Washington. As the focus has shifted to domestic and international security, global issues (e.g., climate change and population) have received less attention. U.S. disenchantment with multilateral institutions (e.g., NATO during the Kosovo conflict) has led the Bush administration to shift to a more ad hoc "hub and spokes" policy in which the United States works case-to-case with so-called "coalitions of the willing." Compared to the Clinton era, the United States is now perceived as a greater risk-taker and foreigners wonder whether that will lead to hubris and disaster. The Iraq war points to the challenges facing both the United States and the international community. This contentious episode underscores the need to develop better mechanisms to manage disagreements among allies. A "with us or against us" attitude in Washington may lead to the United States facing challenges alone. The Iraq episode demonstrated that the United States couldn't be managed multilaterally and made to submit to international opinion. But it also called into question whether the United Nations can effectively deal with "the hard cases." In addressing future challenges, will there be a recognition that all states are not, in fact, equal and a willingness to accept U.S. leadership on some issues?

Philip Gordon stated that the question of our age is how to manage American power. He accepted the basic argument of the volume that United States foreign policy must be informed by a deeper appreciation of how others perceive it. But, he argued, it is also true that those abroad must also be sensitive to the dilemmas for the United States raised by its unique status in the international system. Multilateralism offers political legitimacy but is also a constraint on action. Many states are able to readily accept multilateral agreements that don't substantively affect it, but which do significantly constrain the United States. In the negotiations over a land mine ban, for example, it was easy for other states not facing the challenge of deterring a million-man army on the inter-Korean border to accept such an agreement.

Gordon observed that there was no ideal earlier world in which the United States acted multilaterally and that George Bush ended. The United States insisted on a veto in the UN Security Council for a reason. Multilateralism should not be an end in itself. In the Kosovo crisis, when the threat of a Russian veto precluded UN involvement, the nineteen democracies of NATO acted without a UN imprimatur. The current foreign policy imbroglio between the United States and others is about substance, but also about style. The Bush administration has taken the view that US policy was too multilateral under Clinton, and that, in contrast, it will tell others what Washington's policy will be with the expectation that they will follow. In the past, the United States could be hegemonic without being balanced. The issue now is how others will respond to such an approach and what consequences, if any, will follow when Washington ignores the views of others.

Robert S. Litwak, Director, Division of International Studies, 202-691-4179