Multilateralism

The absolutist philosopher Jean Bodin pointed out that the sovereign cannot credibly bind himself. Any promise that a sovereign king might make, can be reversed with impunity in the future.

That’s a serious problem for the biggest kid on the block. Nobody can ever trust his promises.

As the only superpower, it is difficult for the United States to make credible commitments. Nobody believes us when we say that we are not in Iraq for oil and bases. For the same reason, nobody believes Condoleezza Rice when she insists that there is no torture in Guantanamo.

That’s a problem that could have easily been remedied had we allowed multilateral institutions to bind us. We would have lost a marginal amount of freedom and won the trust of the world. That is a precondition for the success of the war. For without trust, no one can afford to lay down arms.

If the Bush administration is serious about snatching victory from defeat then it better design a multilateral vehicle to realize America’s national interest.

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10 thoughts on “Multilateralism

  1. Good point. There’s consequences to tearing up every international treaty that doesn’t suit your interests. One of them is a huge loss of trust and ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of most of the international community. I’ve often wondered how much weaker the Iraqi insurgency would be if the invasion were conducted under the aegis of the UN. There was tremendous goodwill and leeway given to the US prior to the invasion because of 9-11. If the US argued that Saddam needed to be removed on the basis of human rights violations and allowed the weapons inspection process to play out a little longer, I think they could have eventually got UN approval for an invasion with dissenters abstaining. Having international support, and giving ‘freedom’ as a primary reason for the action prior to the actual invasion (the case the international community was built entirely on security), IMO would have produced a far weaker insurgency.

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  2. Even if it had been impossible to get the United Nations on board there would have been alternatives. The Kosovo invasion, for example, was a NATO action. With a little bit of creativity and some good sense, a lot is possible.There are still opportunities today. Unfortunately, there are few signs that Bush is getting it.

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  3. 1. I have no idea what it means to “let multilateral institutions bind us”. Do you? Please explain. I find myself fascinated by the kind of blind homage that is usually offered to “multilateralism” and to international agreements. I honestly have no idea why the UN–once separated from the aura of sanctity multilateralists have attached to it–is a credible organization. It feigns democracy but is populated with autocrats and undemocrats…. 2. Whose fault is it that no one believes us when we say we’re not in Iraq for oil? Is it our fault that a European public that embraces Norm Chomsky (about whom Democratic stalwart Arthur Schlesinger concluded “it has long been impossible to believe anything he says”) is embraced by the European mainstream as a credible critical voice? Or is the European public just predisposed to view America in that light? (Yes, they are). 3. Is it our fault that US critics, absent ANY evidence, widely conclude that Guantanamo is a torture center when the worst that anyone has come up with to date is that some air duct accidentally sprayed urine on a Koran?

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  4. Totally… the Coalition of the Willing was pretty much the US and Guatemala. Not the US with the other two oldest and most transparent democracies in the world (us, Aus, UK). Not the US with a handful of European powers plus the bulk of Europe’s newly democratic members (who have more recent memories of what it means to need help from an outside power). Not the US with a handful of European powers, new democratic states of Eastern Europe, plus the two most democratic states of Australasia (Japan and Australia). So Russia (hands bloodied with Chechnya) questioned the legality of the invasion? Yeahhhh. And China sitting on Tibet and persecuting Christians thinks it wasn’t defensible? Buying it. And France, hell bent on blocking American power and fresh from dropping 2,000 paratroopers in West Africa w/o so much as a by-your-leave from ANY international body didn’t think it was cool? Right. And Germany? Ah yes, then there’s Germany. Much can be said, little need be said.

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  5. Multilateral approaches engender trust essentially for the same reasons why we can trust a president who submits to judicial review more than a tyrant who governs at will.The United Nations or other multilateral organizations would allow the United States to make credible promises because within the framework of the United Nations the United States accepts constraints. In this case, the veto power of other permanent members of the security council and majority rule are constraints that may render US promises credible.The United States could have used the UN or another multilateral institution to promise that it will not loot Iraqi oil or occupy Iraq for a long time. Had we turned over the oil to an international organization there might have been similar abuse as now but America could not be reasonably suspected of avarice.It does not matter what the US says about its intentions. What matters is that the US puts itself into a position so that its words can be believed. The events have proven that skepticism is justified. Under Bremer some ten billion dollars of oil money have been stolen. The same logic applies to torture allegations in Guantanamo. If there were more transparency then we could actually believe that there is no torture. Since the Bush administration has done its utmost to remove the prisoners from judicial review, the US government has lost the ability to demonstrate that there is no torture in its prison camps.By the way, the argument that there is no evidence about torture is absurd. There are witness statements by FBI agents, defense lawyers, and military chaplains. Even the consensus of JAG officers is to sue the administration over its torture policy. Whether or not France is hell bent on constraining American power, she supported the US during the second Gulf War and during the Bosnia bombings and the Kosovo invasion. Reasonable objectives competently pursued have obtained French support in the past.In light of how things turned out in Iraq, one must congratulate the French government on its good sense.

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  6. Or one might also reasonably conclude that had the French government not been so adolescent in their opposition and we had been able to show a united front the outcomes in Iraq might have been different and hundreds of Iraqi lives might have been saved.That said, I’m always intrigued by how lightly Coalition accomplishments in Iraq are treated.**Free elections in which millions of people voted, which terrorists and insurgents failed to prevent**An independent judiciary**Every public school is functioning**Oil sales have increased sharply**In 14 of 18 provinces life is better than in recent memory**In December 70% of Iraqis said “life is good” and 69% were optimistic it would get better this yearThe French opposed the invasion of Iraq not out of “good sense” but out of a preference for “stability” (a fancy term that diplomats use to dignify inertia and complacency as global sophistication), self-interest, and an adolescent determination to block any exercise of American power.Nevertheless, the War in Iraq was by definition a multilateral action. The fact that France, Germany and Russia did not sign on does not make it unilateral.

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  7. The relevant feature is the decision making process. It does not matter how many countries do or do not join the United States in Iraq. What matters is that the United States accepts constraints.

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  8. Again, we need to define multilateral. Is it only multilateral if France and Germany sign on? Did the US delaying their invasion several months to make their case to the UN and to secure a unanimous resolution confirming that Iraq was in “material breach” of its disarmament obligations count as “multilateral”?The US delayed its planned invasion for a substantial amount of time in order to get backing and to cooperate with the international community. In the end it concluded that further delay was not justified. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t unilateral. It means that the UN didn’t sign on. There’s a diff.

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