Once again Americans are in a period of increasing contention over foreign policy. There is surely nothing unusual in this. Throughout this century, controversy over the nation’s foreign policy has been the rule rather than the exception. Not only has it been provoked by crises and apparent failures, it has seldom been stilled even by success. The sudden and unexpected victory in the conflict with the Soviet Union was soon succeeded by rising criticism of post-Cold War foreign policy. With the end of the Cold War, the argument of critics ran, the world had changed profoundly — but U.S. foreign policy had failed to change with it. Americans remain tied to a past that has become largely irrelevant, prisoners of ideas and policies developed in the long encounter with the Soviet Union.
Yet the present debate has not centered around an immediate and visible crisis. To be sure, there have been divisions over specific issues of foreign policy, but they largely illustrate the broader controversy. The view common to the participants — that the nation’s foreign policy is badly in need of correction — is not a response to any specific development that can be considered a major policy failure. Nor is it a response to any imminent significant setback to interest and position. The perceived danger lies in the future, either when (as one side contends) a world that already deeply resents American hegemonism has gained the strength to oppose arrogant U.S. assertiveness, or (as the other side argues) when a world lacking real leadership finds that it no longer enjoys the order that only the exercise of American power can bring.
The central issue in the present debate is a recurring one: whether America should act alone or with others. In employing American power, should efforts bend as far as possible toward acting collectively, even to the extent of making cooperative action a prerequisite for acting at all? Or should the United States take as its guiding principle — however desirable the approval and cooperation of others may be — that in a world as much in need of direction as ever, America has no real alternative other than to act alone when necessary to maintain the international order?
Not all the participants in the present debate lay claim to either a unilateralist or a multilateralist position. Some reject what they regard as a too-assertive unilateralism but nevertheless are far from accepting multilateralism as the principle of action. Their position is often anti-unilateralist not in principle but only in the manner it is being practiced.
America’s preponderant power has provided the point of departure for many critics. The rising indictment at home as well as abroad of a dominant America is the result not of what this nation has done in the world, but of what it is, for what it is may be expected to determine what it sooner or later will do. And even if this view misreads the American disposition, other nations will still be only too ready to believe that it does not. Edmund Burke’s famous warning and lament eloquently summarizes the deeper and persisting current criticism of foreign policy:
“I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.:
Whether the specter of unilateralism is the result of America’s position or of its actions remains ambiguous. Presumably it must be found to belong to both position and action, the effort to distinguish between the two being vain.
IMAGE VERSUS REALITY
It does not follow that the American record in the post-Cold War period is therefore irrelevant. It means only that even if this record does not betray the arrogance and assertiveness that critics insist it does, it still would have elicited much of the anxiety and dread (in Burke’s term) that American power and ambition have apparently evoked. In fact, the record does not bear out the harsh indictment increasingly made against America by domestic and foreign critics. At least it does not to the extent that it rests on a comparison with an imagined past when the United States, although exercising its Cold War role as leader of a grand coalition, accepted the constraints of a nascent internationalism.
Of what did America’s post-World War II commitment to multilateralism consist? There is, of course, the obligation that the U.N. Charter imposes to act collectively to maintain international peace and security when such maintenance requires the use of force. But this obligation is qualified by the right of the Security Council’s permanent members to veto any proposed collective action by the organization. This protected preserve of great-power unilateralism is given expression not only in the veto right but also in the charter provision that accords member states the right of self- or collective defense against an armed attack in the absence of Security Council action.
During the Cold War, successive American governments made use of the United Nations’ collective procedures when expedient. They did so most notably at the outset (in Korea) and at the close (in the Persian Gulf) of the drawn-out conflict with the Soviet Union. In the intervening decades, the United Nations played no more than a marginal role, if indeed that, in the making of American foreign policy. In determining where, when, and how to employ force, the organization was usually simply ignored. America entered into its one major conflict between the Korean and Gulf wars — Vietnam — with scarcely a nod in the direction of the United Nations.
During the last decade of the Cold War, the relationship between the Reagan government and the world organization reached its lowest point. The Reagan Doctrine, which proclaimed a right to intervene militarily against nondemocratic and particularly Marxist-Leninist regimes, not only ignored the United Nations but in doing so reflected a thinly disguised contempt for it. The unilateralism that plainly characterized the Reagan Doctrine was a de facto rejection of an organization then seen as dominated by states hostile to American interests.
The Bush administration’s commitment to a new world order during the Iraq crisis appeared to reverse the Reagan Doctrine’s outlook by reviving the order of collective security embodied by the United Nations. The commitment to that order during the Gulf War responded to the need to obtain both domestic and international support for an American-led action. Thus measures taken against Iraq had a multilateral character; their legitimacy was based on resolutions of the Security Council. A unilateralism that resulted from Cold War necessity was replaced by a post-Cold War multilateralism.
But U.S. military intervention in Panama foreshadowed the degree to which the Bush administration could be expected to make its multilateralism dependent on obtaining the right results. Bush made this quite clear following the Gulf crisis in acknowledging that America would have gone ahead to thwart Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait even had the Security Council failed to follow through.
American deference to the constraints of multilateralism was more apparent in its behavior toward western Europe. The great achievement of American foreign policy in the postwar period — the Atlantic alliance — came close to becoming something more: a community of power and principle. Yet throughout the Cold War a commitment to multilateralism generally masked the substance of unilateralism. Allies continued to chafe over America’s dominant position in the alliance, while America continued to complain over allied unwillingness to bear a greater share of the defense burden.
More than any other factor, the disappearance of Cold War exigencies has both prompted and given credibility to the charge of American assertiveness. The unilateralism that critics find in foreign policy today is condemned primarily because of the assumption that it is not a response to necessity — certainly not to the outdated imperatives of the Cold War. But even if this assumption is granted, it does not follow that the nation’s foreign policy has in fact increasingly betrayed an arrogant unilateralism. This prospect may have been held out when the Clinton administration took office. The goals of foreign policy then set forth (in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, North Korea, and China) were such that their determined pursuit would have required a pervasive unilateralism. But the administration soon backed away from its ambitious goals once the price they entailed — not the least of which would have been serious difficulties with allies — became apparent.
Before the first year of its tenure in office was over, the Clinton administration gave every appearance of relief at the obstacles that it could hold up as inhibiting the use of force. In the years that followed, the United Nations role in determining the circumstances legitimizing force expanded considerably. Pressured by its European allies, the administration accepted this expanded role for the Security Council and thereby may have created significant obstacles for future administrations confronted by the need to employ force and, in doing so, to act alone.
If we move from the United Nations to NATO, the charge of an assertive unilateralism also appears exaggerated. Whether the current administration has ever had a clear idea of where it is going in Europe, let alone why and with what possible long-term consequences, these questions continue to wait for clearer answers than have yet been given. Even so, of concern here is not the administration’s deeper design in Europe, but its actions. Has its behavior toward European allies measured up to the indictment frequently made against it? It would not seem so. The principal issues arising in the 1990s were NATO expansion and the Balkan wars. Over neither issue have America’s allies seemed particularly aggrieved by an America that threatened to act alone if it did not get its way. In the case of NATO enlargement, they might have been alarmed in view of the pledge given by Washington in early 1998 to support the efforts of the three Baltic states to become members of NATO. That they were not testified to the prevailing consensus to date on the issue of expansion.
By contrast, the outset of the war in Bosnia provoked considerable European disagreement with the Clinton administration, which favored restoration of a multiethnic, territorially intact Bosnian state, whereas the European states supported partition — a plan Washington considered rank appeasement. By 1995, an American-dominated negotiation, the Dayton Accord, formally mandated a unified Bosnia under a common government but in effect opened the way to eventual partition. The Europeans, although all but ignored in the negotiations, were content with the results.
Prior to the outbreak of war in Kosovo, America followed an even more multilateral course in that province. Not only did the administration make alignment with Europe — that is, France, Great Britain, and Germany — a requirement of policy, but in contrast to Bosnia, it even subordinated the American role in any Kosovo settlement to the role of the Europeans.
The region that has long provoked the sharpest European cries of American unilateralism is the Middle East. In the wake of the American and British air strikes against Iraq in December 1998, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin voiced this observation: “The United States often acts in a unilateral way that undermines its ambition of mobilizing the international community. That was clear in the conflict with Iraq.” It could only have been a touch of Gallic wit to contend that after the repeated failure of attempts to mobilize broad international support for effective measures against Saddam Hussein — measures that France almost invariably opposed — American unilateralism alone prevented success.
Iraq has been from the beginning the real test of the Clinton administration’s willingness to act alone, if necessary, to protect interests deemed vital. Time and again, it has failed that test, whether by refusing to act at all without the U.N. Security Council’s sanction or by acting ineffectively when the sanction has been given. This record may be applauded or decried, but it is absurd to find it a disposition to unilateralism.
POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY
Despite the abuse so often heaped on it, the argument that power creates responsibility continues to express an essential truth. It is a truth that cannot be finessed or wished away by conjuring up a multipolar world in which America would no longer have preponderant power and therefore bear a special responsibility for world order. No doubt, in a truly multipolar world, this nation could expect to play quite a different role. Its responsibility for order would certainly be much more modest. But whether an emergent multipolarity would also be attended by a greater measure of multilateralism is another matter. It might happen — if the fear of destroying the global economic order is as deep and pervasive as is commonly assumed. But the far greater likelihood is that a multipolar world would lead to an international system characterized by far more conflict than exists today.
Some observers expect that a new world is emerging where technology and trade are the great disciplining forces that not only create but guarantee order. But globalization no more satisfactorily answers the issue of relating power and order in today’s world than does multipolarity. The former exists but cannot ensure order; the latter might ensure order but does not exist. There seems no escape from the conclusion that America’s hegemonic power does create a special responsibility for world order. This is not to say that the need for order will be met, only that if it is met it will be largely through the instrument of American power.
Although the United States remains the principal guarantor of the post-Cold War order, the questions persist: Order of what? In the name of what? In defense against what? Although answers have been given, none has had the compelling character of the Cold War, when a specific great-power threat imperiled the global balance. Accordingly, none can justify the appeal to necessity that Soviet power once justified. This is apparent even with respect to the menace most often invoked in the 1990s — that of lawless, renegade states in possession of weapons of mass destruction and dedicated to the pursuit of aggressive, even terrorist, ends. The difficulties of the United States in eliciting support for more effective sanctions against Iraq testify to the absence of meaningful consensus on the threat held out by proliferation.
In these circumstances, the difficulties of justifying the use of American military power will persist. The conviction is likely to deepen further that, barring cases of self-defense against naked aggression, the legitimacy of force requires the sanction of the institution held to represent the international community. Although the deliberations of the U.N. Security Council cannot simply be ignored at our convenience, neither can they be seen as indispensable for sanctioning the use of force. The exceptional case apart, the council’s requirement of the permanent members’ unanimity regarding force will continue to be a prescription for paralysis or an invitation to unilateral action.
The sanction of the international community remaining elusive, the support of a more limited community must be sought. The Western alliance holds out the one real prospect for moderating a dilemma that otherwise promises only to worsen. It is with the states of the alliance that the United States continues to share a community of principle and interest sufficient to bear the onus of the compromises and constraints that multilateralism entails. During the momentary intimacy evoked by the war in Kosovo, the compromises and constraints may seem less than onerous. Yet a serious recasting of the alliance is bound to give rise to consequences that Washington will find unwelcome. The European states may be expected to press America, as they have previously done, to accord greater deference to decisions of the U.N. Security Council. They would in all likelihood use a refurbished relationship to urge the United States to accept a more modest view of the requirements of international order. They would almost certainly urge with even greater insistence that America pursue a more “even-handed” Middle East policy. These promptings would meet with resistance, just as in the past. Nonetheless, they would have to be listened to more carefully than before. With the end of the Cold War, the price of multilateralism has risen.
Is the prospect of a relationship of greater mutuality with Europe to be decried or even resisted? Not if we take Burke’s warning to heart. Those who worry about the possibilities held out by America’s preponderant power do, after all, have a case that a wealth of experience supports. They may exaggerate the lengths to which this power has already tempted its holders. Even so, they are right about one thing: it is rash to believe that we are alone among nations in being immune from the temptations of power — and that we need no countervailing power to save us from error and excess.