A few weeks ago in Berlin I was honored to address a small but august lunchtime group of German policy intellectuals (augmented by a former U.S. ambassador to Germany). Having just an hour before concluded a sleepless economy-class Atlantic transit, I confess that my memory of that meal may be imperfect. But I think it went something like this.
With a new Bundeskanzler in office and the rarified air of a brighter Transatlantic future in our nostrils, I set out to speak of such prospects from the perspective of someone recently employed as principal speechwriter to the Secretary of State. But with the “cabalistic” accusations of a former State Department chief of staff having alighted in Europe just before me, I expected more salacious questions to entwine around my remarks twixt pâté and penne, and I was not disappointed. After dodging those tendrils, one German colleague asked about the Bush Administration’s attitude toward America’s European allies: Were the early second-term trips by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush just eyewash and spin, or did they signify a genuine resolve to atone for the sins of unilateralism committed in the first term?
Now, even though I had accompanied Secretary Rice to Europe and had assisted in preparing her marquee address at Sciences Po in Paris, I declined to answer this question directly because, by doing so, I would have granted the premise of the Administration’s first-term unilateralism. That would have been indelicate. So instead I chose to parse the term, trying to show that the unilateralist rap did not match the Administration’s record.
I nearly got away with this, too, and was about to turn to a parfait in need of my attention when, of all people, the only other American in the room took issue with me. The Administration had been utterly unilaterialist where and when it really mattered, this former ambassador said, and none of the qualifications I had mentioned could change that. We two Americans politely agreed to disagree, but I sensed that the Germans around the table were comforted by this reaffirmation of their belief in American unilateralism and German diplomatic innocence. Not for the first time in Europe I felt alone in a crowd, and by then my parfait had melted.
What struck me about all this a bit later, as I found myself on the edge of a sudden postprandial nap (read: headlong collapse), is how delicately disagreement can become embedded in political life. Different truths about the same recent common history can become simultaneously self-evident to separate actors, but since life must go on it becomes necessary, especially among allies, to bracket off these differences from new business. Not least among their tasks, that is what diplomats are paid to do.
What also struck me, however, about the Transatlantic argument over American unilateralism was that its depth is usually inversely proportional to its decibel level. It was easy to get the impression, particularly but not only in Europe, that the source of the whole problem was bad American diplomatic manners and certain questionable U.S. policy judgments. If people realized that something more fundamental was at play, they were reluctant to say so. But if we examine this still-audible undertone to Transatlantic relations more carefully, we see that it is symptomatic of a new structural reality in international politics, that it reflects the diplomatic logic of American unipolarity. Then we see the real stakes involved and find the questions we now need to answer about the Transatlantic future.
The first step in any such examination is to sort out just what everyone got so agitated about in the first place, now some three years ago. As best I can make out, charges of unilateralism against the Bush Administration took at least three related forms.
Some claimed that the Administration was hostile from the start to America’s traditional European allies, the United Nations and other multilateral fora as a matter of both instinct and principle. As to instinct, it was said that senior administration figures (the Secretary of State aside) did not particularly like or trust foreigners. As to principle, the main personalities in the new administration (again, the Secretary of State excepted) were pronounced “not interested” in partnerships, which they believed would be used by lesser powers to encumber American freedom of action. This point of view, sometimes summarized as the un-Clinton, was said to be apparent in the curt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court already before September 11, 2001. It was magnified afterwards in the belief that the institutional arrangements of the Cold War had become impediments to the United States in the dangerous new world of rogue states, WMD proliferation and apocalyptical terrorism.
Other claims of unilateralism were of a para-legal kind. Many in Europe (and elsewhere) argued that all use of force in international relations except perhaps the repulsion of direct aggression is illegal save through prior UN Security Council authorization. The word “unilateral” was thus used to mean any American use of force lacking explicit—one may even say imminent—UN Security Council blessing, no matter how many allies supported and fought with the United States.
Still other claims of unilateralism made sense only against certain broader assumptions about what multilateralism is and means. These assumptions went well beyond instincts and legalities to encompass certain deeply rooted habits of mind connecting the existing international institutional order with the very idea of multilateralism itself.
Many observers have commented over the years that old-fashioned “exceptionalist” American isolationism inverts itself outward with special ferocity when stung by a foreign nettle. There is undeniably something to the claim that the Bush Administration did react ferociously to 9/11, circling the wagons in a quintessentially American way: Think John Wayne in Stagecoach, think Gary Cooper in High Noon, or, if you must, think Chuck Norris in just about anything.
The most noteworthy early moment in that reaction was the Administration’s decision to decline NATO’s help in the war in Afghanistan. Having in mind the cumbersome arrangements of the Kosovo war, some feared that NATO involvement would harm U.S. military operations. Others wanted to ensure that the allies would not use Afghanistan as precedent to claim a voice within future U.S. inner councils. Whatever its motives, Administration decisions sealed the devolution of NATO from a standing coalition to its current status as a “toolbox” for the mutually willing and able.
The most representative expression of the Administration’s operating premises about Europe came soon thereafter, not in a sin of commission, but one of omission. President Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address made international headlines by referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” It was a speech that also made reference to the United States working with China, Russia and India, as well. But no U.S. president since the late 1940s had ever spoken at such length about U.S. foreign policy and failed to mention NATO, and not a single one of America’s oldest and closest allies by name.
That turned out to be no speechwriting accident. Eight months later, in September 2002, the National Security Strategy of the United States was released, complete with its doctrinal innovations concerning preemption and the new focus on the nature of domestic regimes. Not only did the White House not discuss these innovations with its closest allies, as would have been pro forma during the Cold War, it did not even give most allied heads of state as much as 24 hours advance notice of their being made public. The White House held that document so closely for fear of press leaks that not even the Secretary of State was aware of which allies, if any, were briefed.
Is this what the ambassador across the lunch table in Berlin meant by the Administration’s being unilateralist when and where it mattered most? Yes, it is, and I confess that the point sticks. But it does no good to exaggerate or misconstrue it. Having doubts about NATO and the UN, whether for good reason or not, is not the same as shunning all alliances and all multilateralism. Yet that is the conclusion many drew at the time, giving rise to rhetorical excesses so acute that only the incomparable Mr. Dodgson could provide the proper orientation to understand them—which is to say, as Humpty Dumpty did, that when certain people used certain words, they meant whatever they chose them to mean.
For example, when in September 2003 the Bush Administration sought UN Security Council imprimatur for the international legal outcome of the invasion of Iraq, many critics took immense pleasure in characterizing that effort as “a major policy departure.” The Administration’s hubris and vainglory had backfired, the punditocracy agreed, sending George W. Bush scurrying back to the derided UN Security Council for relief.
This made for great applause lines in certain circles; but it simply wasn’t true. If the Administration really had been shifting policy gears in September 2003, it would have meant: that the Administration had not sought UNSCR 1373 after September 11, 2001, which endorsed the U.S. contention that the fight against terrorism must include the states that support and abet it; that the President had not gone before the United Nations on September 12, 2002, to urge the Security Council to enforce 16 of its own resolutions concerning Iraq; that Resolution 1441, which warned the Iraqi regime to comply with its own obligations under previous UN resolutions, had not passed unanimously in November 2002; and that the Administration had not tried early in 2003 for a further resolution to unite the international community before the war began. It would have meant, too, that the Administration had neglected to go to the Security Council in May 2003, after the fall of the Ba’ath Party, to secure Resolution 1483 (lifting obsolete sanctions against Iraq), and in August 2003 to secure Resolution 1500 (recognizing the Iraqi Governing Council).
But the Administration had done all of these things, so it would in fact have been a departure from policy not to go to the Security Council when, in its judgment, the next phase of Iraqi developments was at hand. If there was any “departure” here, it was the departure of Administration critics from observing basic rules of evidence and logic.
Nor is it the case that the United States spurned all partnerships either out of principle or instinct. It is true that presidential rhetoric directed mainly to a domestic audience kept insisting on undiluted U.S. sovereign prerogatives, but the multilateralist modus operandi of U.S. policy did not cease functioning. On the contrary, the first Bush term, led by the State Department but in every case approved by the White House, excelled at devising partnerships and shaping them to current needs.
Sometimes the most appropriate partner was NATO, as with its post-combat efforts in Afghanistan. Other times it was the G-8, as with its training of constabulary forces for post-conflict stabilization. Sometimes it was an ad hoc regional grouping like the Six-Party Talks for Korea, or the African support group that helped achieve the North-South agreement ending decades of civil war in Sudan. At other times it was a special multilateral gathering like the 2002 Monterrey Development Summit, which led to a new international consensus on development. Sometimes it was an existing regional grouping, as with the African Union in the Darfur crisis or ECOWAS in the Liberian crisis. Sometimes it was a made-to-order international grouping like the Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations to support Arab-Israeli peace. Other times it was a deliberately short-lived organizational bridge in a humanitarian emergency, like the Core Group formed in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
All these partnerships and others besides were developed and employed by the Bush Administration between January 2001 and January 2006, and many are still in use. It is in light of this record that we see how words like unilateral and multilateral have been thrown like half-bricks which, as Robert Nisbet once put it, aren’t as useful in construction as whole bricks, but do have the advantage that they can be thrown roughly twice as far.
So, did the Administration reduce reliance on traditional Cold War structures on account of its interpretation of post-9/11 realities? Whether wisely or not, yes. Did it wholly discount partnerships and multilateral mechanisms in general? No.
Many European policy intellectuals think of the United Nations as the institutional embodiment of an evolving international political community. The fact that every country has one vote is presumed to convey legitimacy on collective outcomes just as the principle of one man, one vote does within democratic civil society. Hence the view that only the UN Security Council can render the use of force legitimate, save in cases of obvious self-defense (Article 51 of the UN Charter). So again, no matter how many allies the United States may have when using force, it is “unilateral” without explicit UN Security Council approval and hence “illegal.”
This is a strange definition of “unilateral.” (Humpty Dumpty and the Red Queen would be proud.) But that is precisely how Kofi Annan used the word when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2003, and several times thereafter when he termed the Coalition’s actions in Iraq “illegal.” And this is why the doctrine of preemption announced in the September 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy upset those who take this view. They ignored the limits that attended the doctrine’s articulation—particularly then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s October 1, 2002 Wriston lecture in New York—and saw only the link between it and the fact that the U.S. government does not for practical purposes read the UN Charter the same way Mr. Annan does.
Now, it is important to be careful here in defining the issue. Virtually everyone agrees that aside from cases of literal self-defense, there are only two conditions under which the use of force is legitimate: in preemption of an imminent threat, and in support of international peace and security as authorized by the Security Council. The disagreement has to do with what “imminent” means in practical terms, and with whether a state’s judgment of imminence must be ratified by the Security Council in advance of a use of force. The United States interprets “imminent” more broadly than most, who in turn see American views as blurring the distinction between preemptive war, which may be legitimate, and preventive war, which cannot be. All U.S. administrations have rejected the newly dominant international view that only the Security Council can bless interpretations of imminence in given cases (though it bears noting that, ironically enough, the U.S. legal basis for the Iraq war was not Article 51, but prior Security Council resolutions citing threats to international peace and security). They have rejected this formulation in principle, as an intolerable infringement on U.S. sovereignty, and in practice, because it amounts to giving a veto over its actions to the governments of the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China.
This disagreement puts the United States almost automatically at odds with EU countries (except Britain, for the time being) when it comes to dealing with even remotely complex international crises that might involve the use of force. And it raises tricky problems for any president. Suppose it were possible for an American administration to win UN Security Council consensus on the need to use preemptive force against, say, Iran. If the administration were to seek Security Council approval, it would ratify a view of the Council’s authority it does not credit. But if consensus were at hand and the administration did not “cash it in” with a vote, it would burden its allies politically and diminish its own international authority. Sometimes it’s no fun being president.
The New Multilateralism
There have always been differences between American and European conceptions of international order, but these differences seem to have grown in recent years, causing a good deal of confusion. We need to be clear that just as not every European disagreement with American policy is an example of anti-Americanism, not every American disagreement with European views of international order is anti-multilateralist.
Multilateralism as a diplomatic strategy has been the default position of every U.S. administration since World War II, and the main reason is obvious: by acting with others, the U.S. government renders American power more attractive than repellent (and power has always the potential to be both). So the United States acted far more often than not in the post-World War II era, hence the apt description of the Cold War U.S. alliance structure as an “empire by invitation.” But no U.S. administration ever defined multilateral as a synonym for universal, and none ever believed multilateralism to be coterminous with the United Nations. The attitudes of the Bush Administration are different from those of its predecessors, but not all that different. What is different is the context in which multilateralist desiderata play out.
In the post-Cold War era, and particularly in the post-9/11 era, America’s traditional allies no longer need the United States as they once did, and a very powerful America no longer views its own security predominantly through the prism of a Eurocentric coalition. There is no more perception of a common threat and no more possibility of equality of risk-the two conditions that enable coalitions to congeal and to cohere. Even absent American bad manners and the occasionally errant judgment, therefore, things would not “return to normal.” For NATO, “normal” means the Cold War, and no one in his right mind should want to return to that.
In this new and looser context, where American leaders incline more often to act alone, where American power is not balanced and where American judgment is not always trusted, some formal U.S. allies have both motive and means to obstruct Transatlantic cooperation. Sometimes they engage in political masquerades to do so, to ensure that the United States gets blamed for any unseemly outcome. For example, which country’s government in February 2003 obstructed the Security Council’s ability to enforce its own resolutions concerning Iraq, thereby injuring the Council’s reputation and credibility? Which government did the most to prevent the Council from standing united so as to show the collective resolve that was the only chance to avoid war? Which government, among several, insisted before the passage of Resolution 1511 that the Coalition turn Iraq over to the United Nations, even though everyone knew that the UN could not assume this burden and plainly did not wish to do so? Essayez de deviner.
Ad hoc coalitions of the willing have become more important to the United States largely because the more permanent sort now has little basis in geostrategic reality. The difficulties that arose as all parties to NATO were exiting one era and navigating into the next were not entirely the fault of one side. Perhaps the United States was unilateralist at times, but it, too, was alone in a crowd. How else to characterize Chancellor Schröder’s proclamation of German opposition to war even if the Security Council were to approve it?
So much for the possibilities and limits of alliance in the current era; what about the nature of multilateral action itself? For many years now U.S. multilateralism has not been only or mainly about the United Nations and NATO, but also the IMF, the GATT/WTO, the G-8, the OSCE, ASEAN, APEC, the Community of Democracies and more besides. The Bush Administration has innovated in this regard, however. Within Fukuyama’s “paradox of international action” that so often sets legitimacy against effectiveness, the Administration chose to lean hard toward effectiveness. That is why—as the record once more shows—it has designed new forms of multilateralism when other venues were unavailable or unworkable.
The Administration has explained its approach to multilateralism as having five basic tenets. First, it prefers to adapt principles from many sources to specific problems rather than try to stuff specific problems into one-size-fits-all templates. Second, it prefers multilateral approaches that judge performance and stress accountability rather than those that maintain detached neutrality. Third, it prefers forms of accountability that focus on sovereign states rather than those which undermine sovereignty in hopes of building common enterprises. Fourth, it takes a view of international law in which democratic accountability is central. And fifth, it prefers multilateral approaches that produce concrete results in the form of problems solved and new norms established rather than symbolic measures that cannot be enforced.1
One may praise or protest these tenets, but it is not inherently anti-multilateralist to reject existing international fora that don’t work in favor of new ones that do, or that might. It is reactionary to hold otherwise, and if that label applies to those who defend the United Nations as an end in itself, so be it. If, just to clarify the broader point, as several observers have, the choice in Iraq on the one hand was to put an end to the Ba’athi regime, to its torture chambers, its jail cells for children, its rape rooms for women, its production of mass graves, and its WMD programs, but at the expense of violating what now passes for international legitimacy; or, on the other hand, to respect international legitimacy and let those horrors go on, then the Coalition did the right thing. If existing “legitimate” international law and institutions prolong, abet and in practice condone crimes against humanity, then who needs them?
Unilateralism as Tactic
There is a further complication, and another source of misunderstanding. For multilateralism to work as an instrument of U.S. strategy under conditions of American unipolarity, it is sometimes necessary to resort to unilateralism as a tactic. Often nothing will get done unless the U.S. government asserts an intention to act alone if it must. Perhaps we should call this phenomenon uni-multilateralism, following Samuel Huntington’s view that we live in an age of American “uni-multipolarity.”2
The U.S. readiness to act alone in order to create multilateral coalitions is the source of much chicanery. If, for example, you relate to an implacable critic of U.S. policy the record of the United States going consistently to the UN over Iraq, he will reply that this was only cynical, pretend multilateralism because we said in advance that we would do it alone if we must. One can understand the sentiment, particularly in the Iraq case.
On the other hand, the United States has no monopoly on cynicism. Other countries sometimes join coalitions led by the United States, but sometimes they prefer to let U.S.-led coalitions solve problems without their having to pay or risk anything by joining them. Some instances of supposed U.S. unilateralism, diplomatic as well as military, result not from an American preference for acting alone, but from the unilateral preferences of others to hitch a free ride.
More often than not, the choice of venue before the United States is not so extreme, as the broad international support for the Afghanistan campaign shows. The United States can, has, and should seek allies in international fora as a matter of course. But there are times when gaining allies is not easy, and in such cases, unless the United States frames choices as “join us or we act alone”, it risks making itself a hostage to foreign governments that wish to attach an undeserved claim to when and how the United States uses its power. The American choice is thus not always simply between acting multilaterally or unilaterally. It is between expressing a willingness to act unilaterally in order to create a multilateral venue, acting unilaterally at significant hazard to itself, or, fearing that hazard, not acting at all. This is the diplomatic reality of American unipolarity.
So what does this mean? For one thing, it means that when I am asked at a lunch in Berlin whether the Bush Administration has finally sworn an oath of abstinence to its unilateralist habits—a “have you stopped beating your wife?” question if ever there was one—it is hard to answer both briefly and seriously. But it means a good deal more than that, and the crux rests in these questions: Under conditions of American unipolarity, how does the international system deal with violations of international law, international regimes and international norms? And how do we create new norms that are moral advances over old ones?
One way to approach these questions is to observe a contrast between American and European definitions of realism. Europeans are all for changing norms. Their efforts try to bridle “old” concepts such as sovereignty and nationalism in an effort to turn the anarchic nature of international politics into one resembling domestic civil society. EU intellectuals are skeptical of the nexus between power and traditional values and, given their history, who can blame them? But they are persuaded that structural change in international politics is possible. And looking at Europe today compared to any previous century, again, who can blame them? This combination of pessimism about power but optimism about structural change is Eurealism.
Most Americans are skeptical of structural change in international politics. We don’t see the UN as the seed of world federalism, following ineluctably upon the consolidation of the EU. But we credit the possibility that our updated Enlightenment principles and considerable power will prevail in the long run within the existing structure of international politics. Looking at our history, who can blame us? This combination of pessimism about structural change but optimism about the rightful uses of power is Amerealism.
Americans tend to see power justly applied as the way to advance international norms. Piracy, slavery and, for that matter, ritual human sacrifice were not vanquished by pious hopes alone. For new norms to arise it is necessary that people conceive them, but it is not sufficient; that takes enforcement, which requires power and the willingness to use it.
The piracy of the Barbary Coast was once an irritation simply taken for granted, like gout and old age: Europeans paid tribute and, before President Jefferson, so did Americans. But Jefferson decided that this norm was immoral, and a man who had before evinced little taste for federal military spending ended up creating not just the U.S. Navy but the Marine Corps as well in an effort to quash Barbary piracy. And quash it he did. But in 1803 piracy was not illegal according to international common law. It only became illegal after enforcement became possible and was regularly applied. The same pattern obtained with regard to the slave trade: Power (mainly British) and the will to use it to enforce a new norm against slavery and the slave trade preceded its legal anchoring.
Contemporary Eurealism is generally uncomfortable with power and undervalues the importance of enforcement in the creation of new norms. Most European policy experts and scholars seem to think that new norms can emerge if only enough intellectuals write enough articles, convene enough conferences and place enough imaginative judges, like the irrepressible Baltazar Garzòn, on the bench. But to Amerealists, this is the Kellogg-Briand version of norm-making, which may suit reality within the European Union, but which otherwise just doesn’t work.
The clash between Eurealism and Amerealism threatens the prospect of effective international action in the 21st century, because that prospect depends above all else on a new Atlantic consensus. Eurealists must come to accept that the use of force is not just a means that a sovereign state may use to protect its people in extremis, but also, inherently and irrevocably, an act that strengthens, weakens or redefines norms, depending on the circumstances. And Amerealists must accept that it is authority that produces true and lasting influence; that is, not power alone, but power plus legitimacy.
That is why the United States should wish to lead the effort to establish a new consensus on ways and means of principled preemption, both to protect the legitimacy of its own actions and to prevent others from hijacking the principle for parochial, aggressive uses. As things stand today, the United States faces a potential double-bind in every consequential international security judgment it makes: It can use its power to improve the international normative order, but often at the cost of its own legitimacy; or it can husband its legitimacy by conceding to the present international procedural consensus, but often at the cost of forbearing avoidable evils.
Something has to give. If the United States uses its power without concern for preserving its authority, it will run down (or out of) its political capital and find itself isolated by dint of its own actions. If it concedes to the present international consensus and in practice allows itself to be constrained beyond prudence, the world will likely become a much nastier and more dangerous place. Since neither option is the least bit appealing to either Americans or Europeans, we together must use our power to build better norms while at the same time we reconstruct the framework of international legitimacy for the use of force. That dual task is what needs to be at the core of a new Transatlantic compact.
The Bush Administration has never had a problem with the first part of this formula; it could stand to pay more attention to the second. My luncheon partners in Berlin and their Continental associates, meanwhile, have their own adjustments to master, and their own confessions to make.
1 As explained, with examples, three years ago in The National Interest (Spring 2003) by Philip Zelikow, who has since become State Department Counselor.
2 Foreign Affairs (March/April 1999).