The New Republic Online


One for All

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 02.12.03

By now it would take a forensic archaeologist to dissect all the layers of global resentment directed at the Bush administration. But easily the biggest complaint is the American tendency to go it alone in world affairs. Last year's Pew Global Attitudes survey found "pluralities in most of the nations surveyed complain about American unilateralism." And why not? Within its first six months alone, the Bush administration pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court, and announced its intention to pull out of the ABM treaty. What more evidence does the world need of the administration's disregard for it?

The problem is that when you separate actions from rhetoric, this administration has doggedly pursued a multilateralist foreign policy since September 11. The reaction to the terrorist attacks themselves has been besotted with multilateral institutions. U.S. military operations in Afghanistan took place with the full blessing of both NATO and the United Nations Security Council. And the administration's approach to combating terrorist financing was to strengthen the relevant international bodies--the Financial Action Task Force, the Egmont Group, and the International Monetary Fund.

In its foreign economic policy, the administration has played the part of responsible hegemon to the European Union's petulant protectionism. Yes, the farm bill and the steel tariffs were problematic. But one can argue that these steps were necessary evils to secure congressional backing for trade promotion authority (and that they pale in comparison to EU protectionism). The United States took the lead in jump-starting the latest round of World Trade Organization talks. On both agricultural and manufacturing barriers, U.S. trade negotiators have demonstrated a willingness to liberalize that makes their European counterparts blanch. The United States has been equally aggressive in pushing a hemispheric free trade area, as well as free trade agreements with Southern Africa, Morocco, and Australia. The administration has bolstered its foreign aid budget by 50 percent and pushed for more concessionary spending from the international financial institutions.

Critics might point to the National Security Strategy (NSS), with its discussion of preemption. Even in that discussion, though, there's a pledge to "coordinate closely with our allies to form a common assessment of the most dangerous threats." And in the introduction, there's this: "The United States is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States, and NATO as well as other long-standing alliances." No wonder John Lewis Gaddis has said, "The Bush NSS comes across as more forceful, more carefully crafted, and--unexpectedly--more multilateral than its immediate predecessor."

As for the world's trouble spots, the post-9/11 approach has also been multilateral. In the Balkans, the United States has consistently deferred to the European Union on policy matters. Washington agreed to threaten aid sanctions against Yugoslavia unless the country extradited Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague. In the Middle East, the United States has willingly participated in policy coordination with the quartet--the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. In North Korea, the administration finds itself in the odd position of cajoling China and Russia to approach the problem in a coordinated fashion, when these countries would prefer to have the United States deal with North Korea alone. This past weekend, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to buttonhole his Russian counterpart on the importance of using the International Atomic Energy Agency to help defuse the North Korean crisis.

Then there's Iraq. For all of the bluster about Bush's unilateralism, to date the administration has gone through the U.N. Security Council at every step in the bargaining process (and, it should be added, the Council has hardly acted like a rubber stamp on the issue). At the core of Bush's September 2002 U.N. address was that action against Iraq was necessary to restore the credibility of the United Nations; this was the essence of Rumsfeld's harangue in Munich last weekend as well. At worst, the administration can be accused of threatening to act in a unilateral manner if it doesn't get most of what it wants through multilateral institutions. Which is pretty much how all great powers have acted since the invention of multilateral institutions.

So why does the Bush administration receive no credit for its multilateralism? Part of the explanation is obvious. First impressions are lasting, and the Bush administration made an awful one during its first six months by reflexively opposing any multilateral policy initiative supported by the Clinton administration. Throw in the brute fact that American predominance naturally breeds resentment, and you have a surefire recipe for harsh judgment.

But there are two deeper reasons for the misperception on multilateralism. The first is this administration's abject failure at "gardening," a term former Secretary of State George Shultz used to describe the careful cultivation of allies through repeated, routinized consultations. Gardening was a key part of Bush's foreign policy mantra as a candidate, but he has been unable to implement it in office. Allies (except for Tony Blair) routinely carp about being kept out of the loop when the administration makes foreign policy decisions. Without gardening, a poorly-worded utterance--a German Justice minister comparing Bush to Hitler, or a U.S. defense secretary comparing Germany to Cuba--pours salt into deepening transatlantic wounds.

The second reason is that the American view of multilateralism differs from most other countries. For the United States, multilateralism is a means to an end. The Bush NSS explicitly states: "In all cases, international obligations are to be taken seriously. They are not to be undertaken symbolically to rally support for an ideal without furthering its attainment." This administration is consistent on this point--when multilateral rules are broken, be they IMF lending agreements or UN Security Council resolutions, the United States will use the necessary means to enforce the norms underlying those multilateral institutions.

For much of Europe and the rest of the world, multilateralism remains an end in itself. Countries paper over substantial disagreements with vague communiqués. They handle outright defection from international agreements with a chorus of "stop, or I'll say 'stop' again!" There is a short-term cynicism and long-term optimism to this approach: Agreements are flouted in the present. But the hope is that a sufficient amount of Habermasian communication will eventually generate an unforced consensus.

This kind of multilateralism does have some use in world politics--just not when dealing with a dictator working overtime to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Americans could be better gardeners, but our allies must be better enforcers.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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