"Multilateralism and Its Discontents"

Peter W. Rodman

When President George Bush organized the Gulf War coalition in 1990-91, it was a euphoric moment in international affairs. The President spoke of a "new world order," and so it seemed to be. With the U.S.-Soviet rivalry fading, there seemed to be unprecedented possibilities for collaboration among the world's nations, especially the major powers. In the early '90s, an unusual degree of consensus was apparent among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--reflected most dramatically of all, of course, in the mandates that the Security Council gave to the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War. Given the conciliatory posture of Soviet foreign policy at the time--and the hopes that could only grow once the USSR was replaced on the world stage by a democratic Russia--we seemed indeed to be entering an era of great-power harmony unlike anything seen since the end of the nineteenth century. It was a great-power harmony, moreover, that seemed quite content to follow the U.S. tune.

     While these hopes were widely shared, the Bush Administration's private calculations were in fact more sober. The Bush concept of a "new world order" was never really fleshed out; it was more of an optimistic slogan than a grand design.1 It is also clear now that President Bush was prepared to go to war to liberate Kuwait with or without a UN mandate. If a Security Council endorsement proved unobtainable, the United States was prepared to pursue its course with whatever "coalition of the willing" could be cobbled together, invoking the inherent right of collective defense recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter.2 The supportive Security Council resolutions that were obtained only made the American task of coalition-building that much easier.

     In the decade since then, much has changed, both in the state of relations among the major powers and in the American attitude toward multilateral action. But, perversely, these changes have pulled in opposite directions. Among the major powers, many disagreements and tensions now characterize the policy discourse on such important issues as Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, the Arab-Israeli dispute, and proliferation questions. Harmony no longer seems so automatic. And in the same period, the Bush Administration has given way to a Clinton Administration that has had much more of a moral and psychological investment in the United Nations and in the principle of multilateralism. The result is an increasing frustration in American diplomacy and a period of intellectual confusion about what role multilateralism can and should play in American foreign policy.

The Clinton Administration and Multilateralism

The Clinton Administration's philosophy of international engagement has reflected the Wilsonian strain in American foreign policy thinking. A humanitarian emphasis, rather than a focus on strategic national interest, has characterized its approach. In this framework, collaboration with other nations has taken on an ideological and not merely instrumental purpose.

     In 1993, Madeleine Albright, then our Permanent Representative to the United Nations, spoke of an "assertive multilateralism" as a hallmark of our foreign policy. It included, in her definition, multilateral engagement with other nations in the world community and prevention of crises through American leadership in international organizations.3 But there seemed to be the implication that multilateralism offered not only the practical benefit of spreading the burden of international security, but also a legitimization of American actions. Morton Halperin, one of the administration's leading intellectuals, wrote in the summer of 1993 (before joining the government) that U.S. military intervention, if not a matter of self-defense in the strictest sense, was not legitimate unless blessed by the UN or other international organizations:

     The United States should explicitly surrender the right to intervene unilaterally in the internal affairs of other countries by overt military means or by covert operations. Such self-restraint would bar interventions like those in Grenada and Panama, unless the United States first gained the explicit consent of the international community acting through the Security Council or a regional organization. 4

     American unilateralism was the principal sin to be avoided, as if to atone for a shameful past. Indeed, many in the administration (including the President) had begun their careers actively opposing U.S. involvement in Indochina.

     In the post-Cold War era, moreover, it was believed that humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping operations were in any case the principal kinds of military actions that were likely. Most American military involvement was thus expected to be in the service of others, rather than for any selfish American strategic interest. Accordingly, when the United States intervened in force in Haiti in September 1994 to replace the rightist government, the Halperin prescription was followed: The United States did so with the prior endorsement of a UN Security Council resolution5--an historic innovation for U.S. military engagement in the Western Hemisphere.

     The failed international interventions in Bosnia and Somalia in 1993-94, however, eventually led the Clinton Administration to distance itself from the United Nations somewhat in the military sphere, at least in operational terms.6 In Bosnia, the inadequacies of UN involvement in military command and control quickly gave way to a NATO operation, a procedure followed in Kosovo in 1999. In Somalia, in October 1993, after the U.S. military contingent was turned over to a UN command, a deadly firefight killed 18 American GIs, and the corpse of one was dragged publicly through the streets of Mogadishu. But even before that disaster, the casualties suffered in the Somalia exercise were undermining American public support for such multilateral endeavors. A Presidential Decision Directive working its way through the bureaucracy in 1993 to formalize the more central role of the United Nations in peacekeeping ran into a barrage of public criticism. In his UN General Assembly address of September 1993, President Clinton was forced into the rather embarrassing posture of warning against the excesses of UNophilia that his own administration had been fostering. "The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world's conflicts," a chastened President cautioned. "If the American people are to say yes to UN peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no."7

     By the time the administration came forth in May 1994 with its formal policy statement on the U.S. role in UN peacekeeping, it had absorbed the lesson that such operations within the UN framework must be seen as "one useful tool to advance American national interests and pursue our national security objectives."8 Likewise, the administration took pains to stress that the President would never relinquish his command authority over U.S. troops.9 But the damage was done: A pledge never to permit U.S. troops to serve under UN command became a prominent part of the Republicans' "Contract with America," the platform that is thought to have contributed to the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in November 1994.10

     If the Administration has reined in its initial exuberance over UN peacekeeping, it has continued to place great stress on the UN Security Council as a forum for diplomacy. Witness the extraordinary fact that more than one-third of all the UN Security Council resolutions in the history of the UN since 1945 have occurred in the Clinton Administration.11 It is as if the United States has found it most comfortable, on a wide range of international issues, to speak in the language of UN Security Council resolutions rather than in its own voice. Yet, as consensus among the major powers becomes more difficult on the most important issues, the commitment to multilateralism promises to be more and more a source of frustration for such an American approach. It only heightens the dilemmas of American policymaking, as we are more frequently required to choose between maintaining an international consensus or decisively shaping events. 

A World Transformed

The Clinton Administration's multilateralist impulse, alas, has run up against a retrograde trend in international politics in the last decade. To some extent it was probably inevitable that the euphoric afterglow of the Cold War's end would prove temporary. History moves on. But there was also another effect: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States' emergence as the sole superpower have led other nations-- even friendly ones--to see the new unipolar world as unbalanced. Classical balance-of-power principles have led others to see an interest in leaning against the sole superpower to one degree or another, building counterweights against American dominance rather than cheerily following America's moral lead. It is the revenge of history, and somewhat of a shock to a Wilsonian administration that identifies its goals with universal principles. For much of the rest of the world, restoring "multipolarity" to the international system has become a major goal of foreign policy.

     Russia and China, in particular, have made it a staple of their own strategic relations that "hegemonism" (meaning American dominance) was a principal danger to world peace and that promoting "multipolarity" (meaning resistance to American dominance) was a principal task of their foreign policies. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Beijing in April 1996, for example, the communiqué of his summit with President Jiang Zemin declared bluntly that: 

[T]he world is far from being tranquil. Hegemonism, power politics and repeated imposition of pressures on other countries have continued to occur.12 

     Therefore, the goal of their own strategic partnership was to counter this, as stated in their next summit statement in December 1996:

[A] partnership of equal rights and trust between Russia and China aimed at strategic cooperation in the 21st century promotes the formation of a multipolar world.13

     The Europeans have expressed similar views. One of the purposes behind the current push for monetary union and a common European foreign and security policy is "to counterbalance the United States," Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok has stated bluntly.14 And similarly, French Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine, at a conference of French ambassadors in August 1997:

Today there is one sole great power--the United States of America--...When I speak of its power, I state a fact...without acrimony....But this power carries in itself, to the extent that there is no counterweight, especially today, a unilateralist temptation...and the risk of hegemony.15

     Therefore, according to Vedrine, Europe's role is: 

to contribute...to the emergence of several poles in the world capable of constituting a factor of balance...Europe is an actor, a means of influence that is absolutely necessary for this multipolar world to arrive.16

     It is not surprising, therefore, that these powers see the UN Security Council as especially important as a restraint on American unilateralism. This explains the insistence of France (and some other allies) that NATO military actions other than collective defense be under the authority of the Security Council. This featured prominently in the debate over the Alliance's new "Strategic Concept" in advance of the April 1999 NATO Summit.17 Even more explicitly, the Russian-Chinese summit communiqué in November 1998 stressed at length the Security Council's value as a guarantor of "multipolarity":

UN action can display more fully and prominently the increasing multipolar potential of the world. The United Nations is gradually excluding unilateral or narrow nationalist moves in international affairs....Any attempt to bypass the Security Council will lead to damage to the existing peacekeeping mechanism and to chaos in international affairs....The most ideal way is to seek unanimity through consultation among all member states of the United Nations.18

Dilemmas of U.S. Policy 

In short, we have come a long way in this decade, from a view of multilateralism in 1990-91 as something that enhanced American leadership and multiplied America's effectiveness, to a view of multilateralism today (at least in the minds of the other major powers) that it is useful most of all as a restraint on American action. This has posed a conceptual problem that is particularly difficult for the Clinton Administration, which came into office more than half-believing that restraints on American unilateralism were a good thing. Toward the end of its term, however, the Administration has found itself frustrated in the pursuit of its own goals by the resistance of others.

     One example, already mentioned, was the debate over the new NATO "Strategic Concept." The Administration believed that in the post-Cold War era, NATO needed to demonstrate its value by taking on new challenges besides the military defense of NATO territory. In the U.S. view, ethnic violence elsewhere in Europe, terrorism, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction were serious potential threats to common NATO interests. And, while the United States was prepared to consider UN involvement on a case-by-case basis, it was not prepared to establish the blanket principle that a UN Security Council mandate was required for all such activities.19 The allies, the administration believed, were going much too far in insisting on this. (NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 seemed to validate the U.S. position, in that the issue was kept out of the Security Council, where Russia would have exercised its veto.)

     Another chastening example was the Anti-Personnel Land Mine Treaty, signed in Ottawa by scores of nations at the end of 1997. The ban on land mines was enormously popular around the world--it emerged out of a grassroots movement that was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and even enlisted the Princess of Wales as an advocate. The United States had long committed itself to using only self-destructing land mines and to taking responsibility for mine clearing, and was prepared to share its mine clearing expertise widely. It sought in this negotiation only a limited exemption for the use of land mines in dangerous areas like the Korean peninsula, where U.S. and allied forces faced a deadly threat. It also sought a delay before the treaty's entry into force. The international community rebuffed these U.S. requests, and the administration was forced to withhold its signature from the treaty.

     Yet another example was the multilateral negotiation to establish a permanent International Criminal Court to try crimes against humanity and war crimes. The administration strongly supported this negotiation when it began, seeing in it a great advance for international law. Yet, again, when the negotiation produced a treaty in July 1998, the international community had pushed it further than the United States felt it could safely go. The administration wanted to assure that U.S. personnel involved in peacekeeping operations--in which we, after all, were bearing a disproportionate burden--would have some protection against such prosecutions, especially since our own military code provides a credible and sufficient basis for enforcing these civilized principles.

     The United States had two even more fundamental problems with the treaty on the International Criminal Court. One was the treaty's bald assertion of "universal jurisdiction," meaning that the United States and its nationals could be subject to the new court's criminal jurisdiction even if the United States did not sign the treaty. This was "contrary to the most fundamental principles of treaty law,"20 which had held for centuries that states could be bound only if they gave their consent. Beyond this, there was a serious constitutional problem for the United States, in that the creation of "instant customary international law," as the founders of this new court were attempting, could not override subsequent U.S. statutory law or the sovereignty of the U.S. Constitution. No treaty could override the Constitution; even less a treaty we had not signed. The protests of the court's advocates could not be accepted, as John Bolton has argued:

One must be wary of any theory of international law so quick to declare the world's strongest and freest representative democracy to be in constant flagrant violation, simply for adhering to its own constitution. One should be especially concerned when that constitution happens to be used as a model by liberal democracies around the world.21

     But perhaps the most frustrating challenge to the administration's faith in multilateralism has been the continuing confrontation with Iraq. The Clinton Administration had set great store by the Security Council consensus that, until the end of 1998, had supported the continued inspection activity of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) that monitored Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The President shied away from military action in several of the various diplomatic confrontations with Iraq in deference to the lack of enthusiasm for it in the Security Council--as, for example, in the crisis in February 1998 which culminated in UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's negotiated agreement with Saddam Hussein. While the United States and Britain attacked Iraq in December 1998 without seeking additional Security Council authorization--a rare step for this administration--they then found themselves facing renewed pressures from other members of the Security Council (Russia, China, France) to weaken the sanctions and inspection regime.

     The United States, in the future, will be forced more and more to choose between its convictions on what is essential to spare the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, on the one hand, and deference to the more assertive resistance of other major powers that either do not share the U.S. alarm or are driven by other motives. Iraq may turn out to be multilateralism's last hurrah.

     The Kosovo intervention raised a different kind of problem. It was a collective NATO endeavor, so no ally could accuse the United States of "unilateralism." But the outcome may in fact encourage some Europeans to distance themselves from America in future conflicts. At bottom, the key to multilateralism is not what one thinks of the United Nations but what one thinks of the United States. Those who believe the United States guilty of too many sins in the past--and these include some Americans--will be eager to see restraints on American unilateral action. Those who believe that global freedom and peace and the cause of human rights have more often than not been advanced if not sustained by the United States, acting out of some combination of its own self-interest and a general interest, will find multilateralism a potential source of paralysis. In the face of a deadly threat like Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, such paralysis is no service to world peace.

     The dilemma will not go away, for any American administration. Congress makes clear with increasing vehemence its desire that we share our burdens with others. The United States can be far more effective (as in the Gulf War) if we succeed in building a coalition to join us. Isolationism is no option for the United States, and unilateralism sometimes hazards important relationships that we should value.

     But our friends abroad, too, should see the problem as a dilemma. A turbulent history, to be sure, has taught them to be wary of any dominant power. They are entitled to their own views and interests; especially those that are our allies are entitled to a relationship of mutuality, consultation, and trust. But our allies, especially, cannot possibly have a stake in American paralysis. And America's moral self-assurance is at the core of its motivation for international engagement. As Kim Holmes has argued:

Much of the will and stamina which America musters to shoulder the burden of global leadership rests on its own perceived moral authority as a leader of the West. Hamstringing and weakening U.S. global leadership by insisting on UN mandates for every overseas military operation or other multilateral action could undermine the will of the United States to lead.22

     An America that does not believe in itself cannot lead. The passing of the early post-Cold War euphoria only signals that we are entering a period of new uncertainties and perils. Many of those abroad now complaining of American exuberance would soon enough discover the dangers to themselves in a world from which America had abdicated. The United States needs to temper its enthusiasms with concern for the views and interests of those it wishes to lead, especially among its democratic allies. But it cannot escape its responsibility, even if occasionally it must face it alone.


1. Don Oberdorfer, "Bush's Talk of a `New World Order': Foreign Policy Tool or Mere Slogan?" Washington Post, May 26, 1991, p. A31.

2. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed. (New York: Knopf, 1998), pp. 355-356.

3. Amb. Madeleine Albright, statement before the Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, June 24, 1993.

4. Morton H. Halperin, "Guaranteeing Democracy", Foreign Policy, Summer 1993, p.120. 

5. UN Security Council Resolution 940 (31 July 1994)

6. See John Hillen, Blue Helmets: The Strategy of UN Military Operations. (Washington: Brassey's 1998). esp. Chapters 6 and 7.

7. President Bill Clinton, "Confronting the Challenges of a Broader World," address to the UN General Assembly, New York City, September 27, 1993.

8. U.S. Department of State, The Clinton Administration's Policy on Reforming Multilateral Peace Operations, Department of State Publication No.10161 (Washington: Department of State, May 1994), p.15.

9. Ibid., p.9.

10. Ed Gillespie and Bob Schellhas, eds., Contract With America (New York: Times Books, 1994), pp.10, 101-106.

11. Just before the Clinton Administration took over, the total number of UN Security Council resolutions had reached 801. At this writing, the number is 1231.

12. Russian-Chinese Joint Statement on President Boris Yeltsin's Summit Visit to Beijing, April 25, 1996.

13. Russian-Chinese Joint Statement on Premier Li Peng's Summit visit to Moscow, December 18, 1996.

14. Wim Kok quoted in Der Standard (Vienna), October 27, 1998, p.2.

15. Remarks of Minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Vedrine at Conference of Ambassadors, Paris, August 28, 1997. 

16. Ibid. 17. E.g., Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, intervention at North Atlantic Council meeting, Brussels, December 8, 1998.

18. Russian-Chinese Joint Statement on President Jiang Zemin's Summit visit to Moscow, November 23, 1998.

19. See Secretary of state Madeleine Albright's intervention at the North Atlantic Council meeting, Brussels, December 8, 1998. 

20. Amb. David Scheffer, Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues, testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, July 23, 1998.

21. John R. Bolton, "The Global Prosecutors: Hunting for Criminals in the Name of Utopia," Foreign Affairs, January/February 1999, p. 164.

22. Kim R. Holmes, "U.S.-European Strategic Bargains: Old and New," Heritage Lectures, No. 627, November 13, 1998, p. 5.

Peter W. Rodman, a former White House and State Department official, is Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center and a trustee of Freedom House.

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