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Going It Alone on the World Stage--a Case-by-Case Quandary

November 03, 2000|ABRAHAM F. LOWENTHAL | Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy, an independent leadership forum

A key issue for the next president is whether the United States can best exercise world leadership by working primarily through international organizations or by going it alone as the sole remaining superpower.

Unilateralists argue that the United States should avoid commitments to other nations that might limit U.S. initiatives, constrain U.S. choices or restrict U.S. sovereignty. They reserve their strongest skepticism for the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Multilateralists assert that the United States cannot expect to advance its interests effectively in an increasingly complex and interdependent world without a high degree of international cooperation, whether through formal institutions and agreements or through "coalitions of the willing," i.e., ad hoc multinational groups organized to pursue specific objectives.

This debate is not limited to the United States, but it is more intense and significant here than elsewhere. Perhaps this is because in no other country today does the image of "sheriff" come to mind as the appropriate definition of a nation's international role.

But the public debate, and the way it has been briefly discussed in the campaign, is far too pat and dichotomous. The real policy choices faced by the United States differ according to the context and circumstances of each particular issue. Our approach can't be an either-or, off-on or unilateral-multilateral.

Ordered from the most multilateral approach to the most unilateral, the spectrum looks like this:

* Disinterested or benevolent multilateralism, with policies advanced on behalf of the "global community," not of one country's interests;

* A consistent bias toward multilateral approaches, but in pursuit of national interests and objectives;

* An ambivalent, inconsistent bias toward multilateralism, with specific policies determined by the particular circumstances and the changing dynamics of domestic politics, as illustrated, for example, by U.S. policies in the Balkans or toward Iraq;

* A preference for engaging in multilateral operations only when there is freedom of action and little domestic political opposition. The Clinton administration entered office tending toward approaches higher along the spectrum or choices and ended up more often than not at about this point;

* An ambivalent, inconsistent bias toward unilateralism, with specific policies determined by particular circumstances and domestic politics, as in the case of U.S. policies in Haiti and Peru;

* A consistent preference for going it alone, except when the expected gains from interactive approaches are obvious, or where multilateralism can easily and effectively be employed as a fig leaf for U.S. policy;

* A preference for asserting unilateral leadership of multi-nation coalitions of the willing. The foreign policy advisors surrounding George W. Bush tend to cluster between favoring this position and the one above it on this spectrum;

* Consistent and insistent unilateralism, even when the costs of deference to international approaches would not be high;

* Hyper-unilateralism, involving not merely going it alone in pursuit of national objectives but also efforts to impose U.S. approaches on all comers, even on allies, as in the case of the Helms-Burton legislation to establish extraterritorial jurisdiction for U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Discussions about what posture the United States should take in the post-Cold War world would be more constructive if they took account of this full spectrum. There are real issues and choices here.

We must examine the trade-off between autonomy and effectiveness in dealing with such tough issues as curbing the narcotics trade, halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting human rights and expanding international trade. Careful consideration of the costs and benefits of our approach should be based on concrete analysis of each particular case, not on the dictates of domestic politics or on the pull of abstract ideology.

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