Defining Terms Unilaterally

Our political culture – insofar as it is intelligible to speak of such a concept – seems to have a gift for asking the wrong, mostly irrelevant, questions and then obsessing about them at great and usually unhelpful length. Thus in recent weeks we have heard a great deal about “unilateralism” and various talking and writing heads have gone on and on about whether the Bush administration is guilty of it.

Some critics even go so far as to describe the unilateralism they claim to see in Bush-league maneuvers as "isolationism." One might only wish that it were so.

But the inappropriate introduction of the term does offer a hint as to what some of the right questions might be. It is less important, for example, whether a national government acts unilaterally or in concert with other government gangs than just how much meddling it intends to do overseas. The Bush administration seems inclined to do quite a bit, much of it multilaterally but a fair amount of it unilaterally. And that seems to be the rub.


So what has the classes chattering? Well, President Bush has said that the United States will withdraw from the Kyoto global warming treaty, and will not participate in the latest protocol revision of a germ-warfare treaty. Although he has consulted with and tried to explain his position to European and Russian leaders, the president has made it clear that he plans to move toward building a missile defense system whether European leaders approve or not.

Few critics are as waspish as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The outwardly mild-mannered solon, who never passes up an opportunity (some warranted, some not) to get in a partisan dig, accused President Bush – right smack-dab in the middle of the president’s recent European trip – of “fostering isolationism." He later apologized for his timing but didn’t take it back, and went on to insist that Bush has a “dictatorial approach” to foreign relations.

Dictatorial approach? Our Dubya? Perish the thought! Most critics are a bit milder, but would still prefer that the United States take a more “multilateral” approach. Petra Holtrup of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, for example, deplores what she views as “this massive retreat on all multilateral issues.”


The United States, the general line goes, would be better off consulting with and sometimes yielding to traditional allies, especially the Europeans, rather than going it alone. The arrogant unilateralist “we’re the sole superpower and we can do what we like” attitude will eventually come back to haunt the United States when it wants cooperation on issues it deems important.

A reasonably representative view comes from France. “If they are negative about everything, they cannot expect cooperation from their allies,” said Philippe Morau Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.


Perhaps it would be helpful to define some terms and try to sort through some of these issues.

In international relations, the classic theory is that in a world of nation-states each nation, large or small, is equally sovereign in its own territory and equally endowed with the right to make its own decisions about foreign relations. When a country makes decisions about foreign policy on its own and carries them out, it is said to be acting unilaterally.

When a country chooses to act in concert with others – members of a treaty organization like NATO, signatories to a special-purpose treaty (e.g., ballistic missile or land mine control), all the members of the United Nations, a group assembled for something like the Persian Gulf War – it is acting multilaterally.


There is no logical or necessary relationship between unilateralism and isolationism. As Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute told me last week, “You could have an entirely imperial, entirely unilateralist policy that would be the antithesis of isolationism.”

Going it alone (leaving aside the question of whether that’s a good idea) does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the rest of the world. A country could retreat on its own, attack another country on its own, make decisions about opening up trade on its own, withdraw into a virtual cocoon on its own, or simply muddle through on its own. Whether it acts alone or with others has little if any bearing on the policies it decides to pursue.


In recent years many analysts have shown a preference for multilateralism, entering into treaties and acting in concert with other countries most of the time. This might be because, as Charles Krauthammer put it in a recent Weekly Standard article, many in the American policy elite “saw their mission as seeking a new world harmony by constraining this overwhelming American power within a web of international obligations.” Or it might be because they calculate that multilateral action is the best way to achieve American goals. But multilateralism has become almost a religion.

In practice, multilateralism means increasing degrees of governance by international boards, commissions and committees that are not elected and not especially accountable to anyone. A trade, environmental or weapons treaty almost always generates a new agency with broad authority to enforce compliance among signatories and to make decisions when there is disagreement about ambiguous provisions.


Thus multilateralism, whatever the policy goal pursued, becomes a method of governance, with power transferred to discrete and identifiable people. As our world is presently constituted, this is what the media usually refer to as the “international community” and what I like to think of as the floating crap game of professional international diplomats. Most of these people are quite capable and many of them quite sincere in their desire to do good, but as a rule they are more devoted to internationalism as such than to any particular country’s interests or concerns.

As for the personal freedom and independence of the actual people who live in the country they putatively represent, the international community is too busy with grand global concerns and designs to pay such puny interests much mind.


This is about as far from democratic governance as you can get. If anything, it resembles the old Soviet theory of “democratic centralism,” with trained, enlightened, professional people at the center of things, knowing better what is good for the people than the people themselves know. The people, of course, are supposed to be grateful that their wise rulers are so vigilant in protecting them from their baser impulses and preferences.

There are other models, none of them very close to a “bottom-up” democracy attentive to the stated desires of the people. Insofar as the model is the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels, we should note that most people in that institution view events like the recent vote in Ireland not to join the unitary currency regime as a nuisance or a sign of reactionary obstructionism – but only a temporary setback. The people are supposed to go along with the grand vision espoused by the experts, not tell the experts what to do.


Now, given the assumption that the nation-state system has any moral or practical justification (I have my own doubts), the question of unilateralism v. multilateralism is essentially a practical one. There might be times, for nation-states, as for individual people, when it is worthwhile to give up a bit of sovereignty, a bit of self-rule, a bit of freedom for a worthwhile goal. But one should be clear that multilateral agreements and action always involve these costs – and weigh them carefully.

In short, there are times when unilateral action is appropriate and times when multilateral cooperation is appropriate. Neither is always right or wrong.


Focusing on this essentially pragmatic question as if it were the central question and a matter of deepest principle enshrines by default a regime of governance by unaccountable elites. It also deflects the much more important policy question: how extensively does the United States plan to meddle in the affairs of other nations?

Most Americans, I suspect, would like to see fewer interventions, bombings and flawed “nation-building” efforts. Whether they are done unilaterally or multilaterally is a secondary question. So even while understanding that there are implications to the multilateral option, friends of freedom would do well to keep the conversation focused on the question of just how much meddling the United States plans to do in the rest of the world.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).