The Death of Multilateral Man


George Bush is having a good war, as they used to say during the Blitz. So is Tony Blair, who arrives in Washington today. So is Jacques Chirac, who was in Washington Tuesday. Generally speaking, the past two months have been good ones for leaders of large nation-states with relatively significant military capabilities. For multilateral institutions, on the other hand—for the United Nations, for the European Union—they’ve been an unmitigated disaster. Where have they been? What on earth have they been doing?

Of the two, it is the EU whose prestige has suffered most since Sept. 11. This is because the EU had the greatest pretensions to strategic significance before Sept. 11. As recently as last summer, ESDI—the European Security and Defense Identity—was one of the hottest buzzwords in the acronym-friendly world of security policy. Europe (meaning EU members) had long intended to develop a common foreign and defense policy and had recently gotten more serious about it. Europeans had announced plans to develop their own Rapid Reaction Force and their own military planning capabilities. They even went so far as to appoint former NATO boss Javier Solana as spokesman for the EU’s common foreign policy. Any time anything serious happened in the world, Europe was supposed to speak with Solana’s voice.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, however, hardly anyone mentioned the ESDI, and no one was particularly interested in Javier Solana either. There were a few joint statements, but the American government immediately looked not to Solana but to Britain’s Prime Minister Blair, France’s President Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. So did the general public. Even this week, when George Bush called for the broadening of the coalition in Afghanistan, the talk was of French commandos, perhaps, or British planes or German battlefield hospitals—but certainly not of EU forces.

Mostly, this is because there aren’t any EU forces. Quite frankly, the ESDI has always sounded much grander and more important on paper than the reality merited. Yet ask any continental European diplomat about the mysterious disappearance of the EU, and you’ll get another explanation as well: Tony Blair. When he took the lead on Sept. 11, declaring that “Britain”—and not “Europe”—stood “shoulder to shoulder” with America, he left other European leaders, as well as the EU itself, in the dust.

Enormous resentment resulted, reaching a ludicrous pitch last weekend, when a number of “lesser” European leaders rang up 10 Downing St. and demanded to be present at a meeting Blair had called to discuss military strategy. Originally, the British prime minister had invited only Schröder, Jospin, and Chirac, on the not unreasonable grounds that only Britain, Germany, and France had any military hardware worth sending to Afghanistan. Once they caught wind of the meeting, however, the Italian, Spanish, and Belgian prime ministers got on the phone and demanded to be included, as did the Dutch prime minister and even poor old Solana himself. “When you have Blair ticking off who is worthy to be in the military club and who is not, it does little to foster solidarity,” harrumphed one diplomat in the Financial Times. British officials responded by expressing “concern” that countries involved in the military campaign may now find it impossible to meet on their own.

Since Sept. 11, the United Nations has been far less affected by this sort of jealous infighting. On the contrary, Kofi Annan has politely hovered in the background, mumbling soothing words about world peace. The General Assembly even gave Rudy Giuliani a standing ovation. I am not sure, however, that this innocuous response speaks very well for that institution either. The United Nations, an organization of the world’s governments, ought to be the perfect forum for the fight against terrorism, a scourge that ultimately threatens them all. Yet the United Nations has been—and will continue to be—excluded from the fight against terrorism simply because everyone knows the United Nations has no ability to deal with security issues of any kind. For one, memories of the U.N. “peacekeeping” operation in Bosnia are still raw. (When emergencies occurred in the morning, U.N. commanders had no one to talk to, because U.N. employees had yet to arrive at their New York offices.)

Worse, the United Nations and its agencies persist in wasting their efforts on pointless and time-consuming activities, which then give the whole organization a bad name. Were you aware, for example, that 2001 just happens to be the United Nations Year for Dialogue Among Civilizations? I think we can all agree on the need for such a dialogue at the moment, but I am less certain whether a UNESCO conference titled “Dialogue of Civilisations: Key Priority for the 21st Century?” (note the question mark) or an exhibition of Romanian photographs in Andorra is precisely the best way to reconcile Osama Bin Laden to the existence of global capitalism.

True, there is some talk of putting postwar Afghanistan under a U.N. mandate, and the odd U.N. resolution may help things along. Deep down, however, we all know that America will ultimately have to take responsibility for postwar Afghanistan. And if, in future, the United States and Europe decide to create any permanent police or military institutions to fight terrorism, I suspect that they will be quietly organized outside the U.N. system. No one will want them to fall victim to the United Nations’ peculiar institutional culture and deadening bureaucracy.

All of this has larger, quasi-philosophical implications as well. Only recently, we were all talking earnestly about the death of the nation-state and the growth of “transnational space,” about the end of statesmanship and the powerlessness of government. Modern European countries were being dismissed as “19th-century inventions” that had no role to play in the 21st century. I’d even heard discussions of the coming of a “post-patriotic” or a “post-nationalist” world, in which we would all cease to consider ourselves citizens of separate countries, in which transnational institutions would gradually take over the management of the world’s affairs, in which we would all morph into a new species of Multilateral Man.

Needless to say, all of that has fallen by the wayside. In the wake of Sept. 11, statesmanship is in, transnational space is out, Multilateral Man is dead—and the creaking, aging nation-state, with all its flaws, appears to be with us for the duration.