American Diplomacy And the New Shape of the World: Critics who accuse the United States of a strident new unilateralism often have an agenda of their own: to keep America’s power in check. (Clive Crook, 12/31/03, Atlantic Monthly)
The past year has seen a momentous change in the way the world is ordered—a change very much for the worse, according to a good deal of supposedly informed opinion in the United States and the great majority of commentators everywhere else. To assert and advance its own interests, America has repudiated the institutions and the very principle of lawful cooperation among nations, it is argued. This would be immoral, the charge continues, even if it were not directly counterproductive—but it is that as well. America’s new posture, the critics agree, has made the world a more dangerous place, not least for America itself.
The destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the most forthright demonstration of this new thinking. The Bush administration explicitly rationalized the war in terms of a new security doctrine that calls for pre-emptive action against emerging threats. This is a policy that, to put it mildly, is difficult to square with current understanding of international law. […]
Some of the administration’s critics are willing to admit that the U.N. has its faults, and even to acknowledge that America’s government owes its first duty to America’s citizens. Nonetheless, they argue that the United States, in its own interests, should lead efforts to reform the U.N.—and to breathe life into multilateralism more generally. With American goodwill, and not without, a global order based on law and international cooperation could be built. That is the claim. By the same logic, the Kyoto accord may be flawed, but America should strive to fix it rather than merely walk away. And again, despite safeguards already built in, some supporters of the International Criminal Court concede that it may leave Americans unfairly exposed to unwarranted or malicious prosecution; so strengthen the safeguards, they insist, rather than trying to wreck the whole process.
This kind of argument is based on two very serious mistakes. The first is a delusion about goals. The premise here is that the United States and its putative U.N. partners have the same priorities, or at any rate that the goals they have in common matter more to them than the aims that divide them. After September 11, in fact, one might have hoped that this were true: The whole civilized world, it is clear, really does face a terrible common foe. Yet many countries still see the main purpose of the U.N. and its satellites as not to meet such threats but to contain the power of the United States. French diplomacy before the Iraq war made it plain that France sees untrammeled American power as a greater threat to its interests than Saddam Hussein ever was. France is not alone in this. […]
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that intelligence and good faith prevailed around the world, and that different countries’ goals and priorities were sufficiently well aligned to make formal and institutionalized multilateral approaches at least feasible. Would that clinch the argument? Not at all, because the multilateralists’ second fatal error is to suppose that structured multilateralism is intrinsically superior to the unilateralist alternative of ad hoc “coalitions of the willing.”
Why is this a mistake? Because the kind of institutionalized multilateralism that the U.N.’s champions dream of is inescapably undemocratic. America’s government can be ultimately accountable to the American people or ultimately accountable to the U.N.; it cannot be accountable to both.
Mr. Crook here captures quite nicely the two great challenges to traditional sovereignty, that by the Left–transnationalism–which seeks to bypass democracy and impose a global elites’ agenda; and that by the Center/Right, which holds any regime that does not meet liberal democratic standards to be illegitimate. Each new vision is revolutionary to a degree we don’t yet seem to realize.