Fighting Words

Multilateralism and Unilateralism

A self-canceling complaint.

I recently had a debate on The Charlie Rose Show with, among others, Professor Harold Koh. The subject was regime change in Iraq and the related question of intervention in its favor. (If the name Harold Koh is unfamiliar to you, it is because he was President Clinton’s undersecretary for human rights.) In the course of the exchanges between us, he must have pronounced the words “multilateral” or “multilateralism” several dozen times. Whoever taught him these terms did a thorough job. He could fit them into any sentence at any time. If he will allow me to summarize his view (and the transcript would bear me out here), Professor Koh had nothing much against regime change or indeed against intervention, so long as it was brought about in a “multilateral” manner.

One could have stooped, of course, and been “partisan.” The Clinton administration, served by Koh, allowed itself to bomb Sudan without demanding inspections, without resorting to the United Nations, without consulting Congress, and without even telling several of the Joint Chiefs. The same administration bombed Baghdad from the day that the impeachment trial of the president began until the day that the trial was over, again without troubling to pass any of the above tests. In another episode, Madeleine Albright was instructed to veto a Czech motion calling for strengthening U.N. forces in Rwanda to “pre-empt” the genocidal plan prepared by Rwanda’s racist government.

But let us rise above such petty temptations. If the United States had supported the Czech proposal, then that proposal would have automatically ceased to be unilateral and become, just like that, bilateral or (since bilateral carries the implication of two contrasting parties) well on its way to becoming multilateral. That’s if you agree to forget that multilateral means “many-sided,” whereas the recruitment of more nations or forces to any one “side” means that the cause may remain “one-sided” but has at least succeeded in attracting multiparty or multiple-country support.

Tautology lurks here. In October, I went to speak at a meeting at the Labor Party conference in Blackpool, England. Tony Blair had carried the day in the plenary session, but many delegates were muttering darkly about the “unilateral” or “go-it-alone” attitude of the United States. I suggested that, if this was indeed the problem, the solution was ready at hand. Simply support the U.S. position against the Iraqi or Russian or French one and—presto—the U.S. position would no longer be “unilateral.” I was promptly made aware of what I already knew—that the true objection to the policy has little to do with its “unilateral” character.

The supporters of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were the next to make the same mistake. Of course, they said, something must be done about Iraq. But how can America expect to do this without European support? A good question, but posed by people who would not stay for the answer. The most dada version of the dilemma was stated by Sen. Tom Daschle, who for weeks appeared to say that if only more people would endorse the president’s policy, why then, he might be induced to support it himself! But in the meanwhile, he could only frown upon anything “unilateral.”

This self-canceling complaint echoes the non-distinction on Capitol Hill between the terms “partisan” and “bipartisan.” A proposal is partisan if made by one party, but becomes “bipartisan” (while remaining exactly the same as a proposal) if it is endorsed by enough members of the other party. There’s no trick to it really. It’s all a matter of wooing rather than principle.

Thus, the United Nations is now committed—multilaterally if not unanimously—to an inspection program backed by the threat of force, which had to originate somewhere and was actually put forward—therefore “unilaterally” by definition—by the American team. But does that stop anyone from persisting in saying that the implied other shoe of enforcement must not be “unilateral” either? Apparently it does not. Thus, an accusation of “unilateral” behavior can be made to stick, almost by axiom, by any power that withholds consent. When that consent is eventually given, the prize of “multilateralism” has been attained, again by definition. But the charge of acting “unilaterally” may not, for some reason, be laid against (say) France.

There are diminishing returns to this false antithesis. And they partly arise from the sad fact of its being a false definition in the first place. The American attitude toward the Middle East could well be “one-sided” and still enjoy or attract wide support from other countries. A majority can in theory and practice act one-sidedly, just as a single state may have more respect for pluralism than a dozen rival states put together.

This also raises the related question of how decisions are actually made. The Syrian vote on the crucial U.N. resolution was not a fragment or component of another country’s vote. It was a decision made, at least to all outward purposes, by Syria alone and for reasons congruent with Syrian interests. And this is Syria’s perfect right. What could be more “unilateral” than that? But the vote happened to coincide with the expressed views of 14 other delegations, which gave it a nice “multilateral” feel. Yet the Iraqi delegation, for some reason, has been flagrantly in breach of a number of overwhelmingly passed resolutions for more than a decade. And yet one never seems to read any well-reasoned denunciation of this “unilateralist” attitude on the part of Baghdad. Add another clause to the regime-change manifesto: Intervention will put an end to Saddam Hussein’s unilateralism.

Part of my intention in writing this has been to make the reader thoroughly sick of both terms and the empty usage to which they have been put. Are you sick yet? I predict that you soon will be.