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June 20, 2007

Why I'm Against "MultilateralISM"
Posted by David Shorr

I'm really only opposed to the word, and particularly that last syllable, but I'll get back to that. Matthew Yglesias writes today about how the presidential candidates propose to set things right internationally. He draws some critical distinctions about American moral authority and the global order, and I'd like to draw some further lines within Matthew's argument that I think are important.

Matthew sees a key difference between believing that it will be enough merely to boost the stock price of American moral authority versus the need for something more systemic than just our reputation and stature. I think he and I would agree that the constructive leadership of the superpower is vital for global security, and I also share his view that no matter how constructive the superpower, this is an insufficient condition.

But I want to press a bit on Matthew's proposed solution.

The answer that Yglesias shares with John Ikenberry and Robert Wright is "institutions" and "rules" (cue Monty Python bit about the chief weapon of the Spanish Inquisition). I agree heartily about the latter and have some ambivalence about the former. Ultimately, a strong rules-based order is the most solid basis for peace, prosperity, and freedom. International norms -- whether in the durable form of treaties or via Security Council resolutions in response to specific situations -- establish the limits of acceptable behavior in the community of nations. I should add that politically endorsed agendas such as the Monterrey Consensus are no less important for ongoing efforts to reduce poverty, even if not usually thought of as norms.

Now to institutions, where there is an important question of distinguishing ends from means. Norms represent substance; institutions are about process. I realize that the line isn't quite so clear-cut. Proper process gives legitimacy to political and legal decisions and lends order to decision-making. But to raise the same question Matthew did about moral authority v. the structure of the international community, which is more fundamental and deserves priority?

The Rwanda case helps answer this one. If a humanitarian intervention were mounted in 1994 without the blessing of the Security Council (Operation Turquoise isn't what I have in mind), I'd have to view that as a good thing. So when we press the issue, real-world needs trump process.

One other problem with institutions: they draw attention (blame) away from the true moral agents of the international community, governments and their political leaders. All too often, the UN takes the rap for the (in)actions of governments. This is pretty much the main dynamic in how the UN is discussed in US domestic politics. Which brings me to "multilateralISM." Surely that syllable at the end turns an instrument into an animating purpose. But as Bush Administration official Mark Lagon and I say in a recent jointly authored paper:

Multilateralism is not an end in itself. Yet multilateral means can often best serve the common good.


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