Tuesday, December 21, 2004

No More Wimpy Multilateralism?

In Foreign Policy Javier Solana makes a thoughtful plea for a muscular multilateralism:

The enduring lesson of the war in Iraq is the importance of linking force and legitimacy. Without the use of force, Saddam Hussein would still be in power in Iraq. No one in Europe wishes that. But force alone will not and cannot advance the cause of plural modernity. For that mission, legitimacy is required. And in the international sphere, legitimacy comes through multilateral action. The best way to advance the cause of political and economic freedom in the next century is multilateralism with muscle—rules with teeth.

Of course, the other nations involved have to a) have legitimate internal governments based on the rule of law and a respect for human rights b) be willing to actually use force c) have a self interest in resolving the dispute or be persuaded that pursuing a larger global strategy is in the long run in their self interest.

International agreements and international organizations are a good start. But it is no use agreeing to treaties only to ignore them. It is no use setting up international organizations only to prevent them from functioning. If we want the world to work, we need multilateralism. But if we want multilateralism to work, then the powerful need to put their power behind it. A complex world needs multilateral bodies—but it also needs leadership. In most cases, only the United States can provide the necessary leadership.

Very good points, but how do you convince the US that it should provide this leadership? How do you convince the rest of world that they should follow the US’s lead?

Some economists predict that in fewer than 40 years China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy and that, together, Brazil, Russia, India, and China will eclipse the economic might of the current Group of Seven industrialized nations.

Sobering prospects.

I would agree that multilateralism backed by sufficient force and with the power to enforce the rule of law could be a viable alternative in the future. But in the here and now I don’t see other major players (China and Russia, for example) willing to play along by these rules, especially with the US leading the charge. Nor do I see the US willing to reduce its role to make it more palatable for these countries. Nor do I see many of these countries seriously committing to the use of force to enforce such rules. There may be a multilateral approach that involves the democratic countries of the world, perhaps something along the lines of the prenatal UN Democracy Caucus. Giving current global realities, I am skeptical that a large-scale version of this approach will work anytime soon. It may be a worthy goal to work toward, but in the meantime, I think we will have to depend on a small-scale multilateralism that relies on regional alliances working with larger states, and that appeals to internationally accepted standards like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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