Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Frustrating Aspects of Multilateralism

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on September 17, 2009


Ever since President George W. Bush’s controversial tenure, commentators and political scientists have been calling for a more open, tolerant, and compassionate American foreign-policy.  Many have laid down the argument that the United State has lost the good-graces of the international community; dictating to other states how they should act and what issues they should be of concern.

The War on Terrorism is perhaps the best illustration argument.  American military maneuvers over the past eight years only demonstrates this commitment; using all the policy tools at its disposal to track, resist, and eventually defeat terrorism in all ways, shapes and forms.  Whether this includes the use of military force (as in Afghanistan and Iraq), tactical U.S. air-strikes (as in Pakistan and Somalia) or the use of humanitarian and diplomatic intervention (as in Africa and the Middle East) is beside the point.  It is Washington’s ultimate goal that matters: safeguarding American power from the constant threats of non-state actors.

Unexpectedly, combating terrorism has often led to international disapproval towards the U.S. image.  European governments often claim that Washington relies too much on guns and bullets rather than values and human rights.  Many European countries overwhelmingly oppose U.S. Foreign policy, a figure that Fareed Zakaria alleges is close to 80 percent.  Even pro-western Arabs have complained about America’s aggressive intrusion into the internal affairs of Arab politics, suggesting that Washington is re-creating the region without taking into account the demands and grievances of the Islamic people.

With America’s image bruised, and with anti-Americanism spreading in areas as diverse as Central Asia and Latin America, political pundits have begun to mobilize around a peacenik approach…re-introducing compromise, respect, and geniality back into U.S. foreign-policy.  One of Zakaria’s comments serves as a microcosm to the culturally-sensitive viewpoint often endorsed by former State Department officials:

“What the United States is lacking in a place like Pakistan is a broader effort to assist that country in its modernization and an effort that makes it clear that the United States wants to ally with the people of that country and not merely its military.”

In other words, the United States Government needs to start strengthening its connections in ways other than coercion and self-interest.  By using Pakistan as his case-study, Zakaria is essentially stating that Washington is more concerned with fighting terrorism in the Afghan-Pakistani border than in improving the lives of Pakistani’s themselves.  In large part, he is right…most of the financial aid that the U.S. donates to the Pakistani Government is in the form of military hardware and logistical support.  There are very few instances when the White House sends money towards Pakistan’s educational system, or delivers aid for infrastructure development.

However valid, Zakaria’s statement fails to recognize the universal consensus within the political science community.  The international system is composed of hundreds upon hundreds of states, each of which possesses their own goals and ambitions.  The objectives of Pakistan are sharply different from the objectives of Sweden, while the world-view of Venezuela is starkly different from its Columbian neighbor to the north.  This is precisely why it is so difficult for states to successfully get what they want through compromise, dialogue, and “mutual respect.”

The U.N. Security Council is perhaps the best analogy, an agency that is composed of divergent opinions on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the situation in Darfur.  The reason why so little has been done on these respected issues is, in large part, due to multilateral frustration.  The unwillingness of Russian and China to support western-backed sanctions on the Islamic Republic is a case in point; when diverse cultures collide, confrontation and stalemate is often the result.

Most people wish for a unified international community, where cordial discussion can easily solve the world’s outstanding problems.  It would be amazing if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could be resolved through negotiations, minus spoiler violence and religious animosity.  It would be outstanding if Mr. Zakaria’s dreams were realized by all actors in the system.

In spite of this optimism, this is simply not practical in the world we are currently living in.  Multilateralism is difficult precisely because of the hidden motivations of individual member-states.  In the end, when the main priority of national governments is the enhancement of pure power, the consultation that Zakaria backs only reinforces stalemate.  If the United States and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have thus far failed to agree on their roles and responsibilities in a post-Saddam Iraq, how can we expect the world’s many cultures to sit down at the same table and forge a harmonious relationship?

As long as the international system is dominated by states with particular interests and concerns, no amount of mutual respect can produce cooperation on every matter of global significance.  Just look at the War on Terrorism.

-Daniel R. DePetris


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