JOANNE MYERS: There is no question that on September 11, "night fell on a different world," which has resulted in a sea change in American attitudes towards the rest of the globe. The events of that day demonstrated that we are vulnerable to international threats, and that sustained multilateral cooperation will be essential in order to confront these dangers.
Throughout history, however, the U.S. has been deeply ambivalent about multilateral engagement and highly selective in assuming new international committments. At the core of this debate is an underlying question which asks how should America work with others to foster a world conducive to our particular set of interests and values.
Our guests this afternoon, Shep Forman and Stewart Patrick, will explore the causes and consequences of U.S. ambivalence toward multilateral cooperation. They will also address why they believe that the events of September 11 may require the U.S. to both reform its policymaking structures and to reconsider its longstanding assumptions about national sovereignty and freedom of action.
Shep Forman is the founder and director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. The Center conducts a program of policy research and international consultations on the management and financing of multilateral obligations. Prior to establishing the Center, Mr. Forman directed the Human Rights and Governance and International Affairs Programs at the Ford Foundation, where he also was responsible for developing and implementing the Foundation's grantmaking activities in Eastern Europe. His publications include Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement.
Stewart Patrick is a research associate at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He is coeditor with Mr. Forman of Good Intentions: Pledges of Aid for Postconflict Recovery. He is also a recipient of an International Affairs Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations and will be going to Washington D. C. to work at the State Department.
Please join me in welcoming our guests this afternoon. Thank you for joining us.
STEWART PATRICK: As many of you will know, Shep founded the Center on International Cooperation about five years ago. Our institute conducts policy-relevant research on the preconditions—political, financial, legal, and institutional—for the effective multilateral management of global issues. We’ve launched a number of projects in specific areas, such as humanitarian assistance, health and development, international courts and tribunals, and post-conflict reconstruction. But the more we delved into these and other global challenges, the more it became clear that one of the main preconditions for effective international action was whether the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, took a constructive attitude to addressing them. It was with this in mind that we decided in January 2000 to launch a project to examine the tensions between unilateralism and multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy. Thanks to a generous grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we have been able to complete this book—as well as a companion volume due out this summer on international perspectives on U.S. "unilateralism" (to be edited by David Malone of the International Peace Academy and Yuen Foong Khong of Oxford University).
This evening I’d like to discuss the rationale for our book, outline of its contents, and assess briefly how the events of September 11 have—or have NOT—altered the pattern of U.S. behavior that we document.
The book’s topic could hardly be timelier. The news coverage of the Davos meetings has repeatedly noted international concerns that the United States is inclined to "go it alone" on major issues of foreign policy—from the use of force against Iraq to the manner in which the United States deals with al-Qaeda prisoners, from our stance on global warming to our policy on foreign aid. It is important to stress, however, that U.S. ambivalence toward multilateral institutions did not begin with the Bush administration.
Indeed, we began this initiative at the start of Clinton’s last year. The project had its origins in a paradox: On the one hand, globalization was drawing the world ever closer together and raising challenges that no one country, even as powerful as the United States, could solve on its own. Yet the United States often chose to opt out of treaties or other initiatives, to limit its commitments to global institutions and organizations, and to act alone rather than collectively. This tendency has been clear both in the Clinton and Bush years.
Consider non-proliferation and arms control, for example:
In 1997, the Clinton administration chose not to join the vast majority of the world’s countries in signing the Ottawa Convention banning production and trade of anti-personnel land mines.
That same year, the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, but only after inserting controversial national security exemptions contradicting the treaty’s multilateral underpinnings.
Most dramatically, the Senate’s rejection in October 1999 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Last summer, the Bush administration scuttled efforts to add optional verification protocol to Biological Weapons Convention.
At about the same time, the administration rejected a draft UN convention to reduce illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons (would infringe U.S. citizens’ "right to bear arms").
And in December, the administration confirmed its determination to pursue National Missile Defense by repudiating the ABM Treaty, viewed by many as the cornerstone of strategic stability.
U.S. relations with the United Nations have also been a source of concern. These reached their nadir during the mid-late 1990s, as Congress withheld annual U.S. assessments and peacekeeping contributions, in violation of U.S. obligations, hoping to impose reform on the world organization.
At the same time, the United States retreated from its early post-Cold War involvement in UN peace operations and adopted a more restrictive and selective attitude. While willing to intervene in Europe, through NATO, it devoted little support to UN peace operations in Africa. Most recently the Bush Administration has declined to include U.S. forces in the UN operation in Afghanistan.
At the same time, many international observers have been troubled by U.S. willingness to use military force without explicit Security Council approval, as against in Iraq in 1998 and, in some minds, the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Concerns about military unilateralism have re-emerged abroad after the President’s "axis of evil" statement.
In another vein, the United States has often resisted submitting itself to the jurisdiction of international legal bodies or embracing key human rights regimes, despite its support for the international rule of law.
In summer 1998, the Clinton administration tried to block the International Criminal Court, but lost by a 120–7 vote. Although Clinton eventually signed the Rome Statute, Bush has no intention of submitting it to Congress, where there is strong support for the American Serviceman’s Protection Act.
In the arena of human rights, the United States remains the only industrialized democracy not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and one of only two countries that has not ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child.
At the same time, the United States continues to use a variety of unilateral sanctions and annual certification processes to punish countries that do not conform to U.S. standards in areas like human rights and narcotics enforcement. The most controversial are extraterritorial sanctions like Helms-Burton that penalize foreigners doing business with what the United States considers pariah states.
Even in trade, U.S. multilateralism remains in doubt. In November 1999, the Seattle WTO summit collapsed when the Clinton Administration proposal to incorporate binding labor and environmental standards in the trade regime. And despite the strong leadership the United States showed at Doha to address the concerns of developing countries, protectionism remains strong.
One might also note the Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration opposes. Last summer it stood on the sidelines in Marrakech as treaty parties hammered out a compromise approach.
Finally, one might note that U.S. foreign aid, which has fallen to the lowest percentage of GDP since World War II and lowest among OECD countries. Last week, the Bush administration rebuffed a global campaign to double levels of foreign aid from wealthy countries.
I should stress that some of these past policy decisions can be justified on persuasive grounds. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the interests of the United States—or of the international community—are best served by going it alone or with others in specific cases. But the episodes taken together suggest a pattern, and we hoped to understand the causes and consequences of U.S. ambivalence and selectivity.
To answer these questions, we formed a study group of U.S. foreign policy specialists that ultimately numbered twenty people. Ten of the book’s chapters look at particular case studies:
- the use of force;
- UN peace operations;
- U.S. nuclear weapons policy;
- the Chemical Weapons Convention;
- UN financing;
- human rights;
- the ICC;
- unilateral sanctions;
- international trade and monetary relations; and
- the Kyoto Protocol.
Five other chapters look at crosscutting themes:
- The first of these, written by Ed Luck, attributes frequent U.S. discomfort within international organizations to the clash between domestic and international conceptions of political legitimacy.
- The second, by former Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State Princeton Lyman, examines the changing domestic context of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the structural shortcomings of the Executive Branch and Congress, as now organized, in addressing transnational issues.
- The third, by Steven Kull, documents the strong support that the U.S. public gives to multilateral institutions, asking why these attitudes are not translated into U.S. foreign policy decisions.
- The fourth, by John Ikenberry, argues that multilateral cooperation has historically played an important role in U.S. "grand strategy"—and should continue to do so.
- And the fifth chapter, by Sir William Wallace of LSE, looks at European reactions to perceived U.S. unilateralism and its potential consequences for transatlantic relations.
Given time constraints, I won’t try to summarize each chapter, but rather I’ll paint in bold strokes.
To begin with, what can one say about the causes of U.S. misgivings? The first thing to note is that the United States has long been of two minds about multilateral cooperation: It has both proposed many of the world’s most important international institutions while at the same time resisting the constraints of multilateralism and being tempted to act unilaterally. Second, the precise mix of U.S. concerns, motivations, and misgivings have varied by issue area: no issue area is identical to any other.
At the same time, we can point to three general sources of U.S. ambivalence and selectivity:
 There is a natural desire on the part of the United States, as the world’s most powerful country, to maximize its freedom of action abroad. Multilateral cooperation is especially attractive to weaker countries, since it is premised on equal treatment and self restraint. In contrast, the United States, lacking a major adversary and able to secure many traditional objectives bilaterally or unilaterally, appears at first glance to have few obvious incentives to rely on global institutions and to run few risks in bypassing them. Moreover, the scale of American dominance provides positive justifications for acting alone. As the world’s most powerful country, this argument runs, the United States has unique "responsibilities" to preserve global order. In discharging these obligations, it cannot afford to be hamstrung by global rules and institutions. The United States invoked this claim in demanding special exemptions from the ICC and the land mines ban—which other countries refused to give it.
 American ambivalence is reinforced by a sense among some that U.S. national sovereignty is increasingly besieged by undemocratic and unaccountable organs of "global governance." Just as there is fear of losing freedom of action abroad, there is anxiety that the country’s domestic legal framework, constitutional traditions, and political institutions will become subordinate to international regimes of widening scope and deepening intrusiveness. Such bodies may lack domestic standards of transparency and accountability, usurp the authority of the people’s elected representatives, and open domestic institutions and private enterprises to unwarranted external scrutiny. Defenders of American sovereignty espouse a doctrine of American "exceptionalism", arguing that domestic institutions and law take supremacy over international commitments and obligations and that domestic standards of political legitimacy may require opting out of certain international initiatives.
 A third impediment to American multilateralism is a constitutional separation of powers that grants the executive and legislature joint control over foreign policy. This shared mandate — absent in parliamentary democracies — often complicates domestic approval of multilateral commitments, particularly when the two branches are controlled by different parties. Because the ratification of treaties requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate, political minorities frequently block U.S. participation in proposed conventions. As the debates over the League of Nations in 1918–19 demonstrated, the separation of powers can complicate America’s assumption of multilateral commitments. This became increasingly apparent during the first post-Cold War decade, when Congress reasserted itself, making use of its legitimate constitutional prerogatives to competed with the executive branch to shape the terms of U.S. global engagement. This competition can be healthy, encouraging open debate and the sustainability of foreign policy initiatives. But Congress’s renewed activism also increases prospects for fundamental conflict over America’s international obligations, particularly when partisanship runs high and when individual legislators serve as independent foreign policy entrepreneurs.
What have been the consequences of U.S. ambivalence and selectivity? In our view, the United States has sometimes acted alone or opted out—to pursue immediate gain or avoid short-term pain—without considering the long-term ramifications for its national interests and the sustainability of international institutions. This behavior carries certain risks. Among other problems, it can:
Thwart the pursuit of coherent and effective policies toward particular global problems. Internally divided about the merits of the International Criminal Court, for example, the Clinton Administration failed to propose a compelling alternative or launch a timely initiative to build support for its preferences. Now the United States faces the creation of a Court that could well come into conflict with U.S. objectives and complicate our security arrangements overseas.
Undermine collective responses to pressing transnational challenges. The U.S. decision to repudiate the Kyoto Protocol without charting an alternative course, for example, has hindered prospects for a solution to the problem of global warming. It also threatens to block American companies from participating in some economic opportunities available to firms from countries that have adopted the treaty.
Weaken institutions critical to U.S. national interests. By resisting a rigorous verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, for example, the United States may send an unfortunate signal to potential proliferators and increase its risk of eventual exposure to biological weapons.
Slow the spread of international norms and regimes. By rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Washington jeopardizes a longstanding bargain under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whereby the non-nuclear states have foresworn such weapons in return for a commitment by nuclear states to eventual disarmament.
Undercut the credibility of the United States to lead on certain topics. By failing to ratify major human rights regimes, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the United States may undermine its own human rights advocacy abroad (e.g., human rights).
Undermine cooperative security: In the 1990s, the United States chose to limit the UN’s capacity to engage in peacekeeping by holding back U.S. dues, holding down the UN budget, and opposing UN programs in nation-building.
Hinder U.S. ability to mobilize the support of other countries. Perceived U.S. high-handedness and selectivity toward international obligations can carry diplomatic costs, making it more difficult to forge coalitions or build support within international institutions.
Undermine the reputation of the United States as an enlightened world leader. By providing only modest levels of political and financial support to important international institutions, the U.S. risks undercutting the "soft power" that helps to sustain its global leadership.
Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy
Our book suggests that in dealing with transnational challenges, unilateralism is neither wise nor sustainable. The United States has little choice but to collaborate with foreign governments and international institutions in order to grapple with today’s most pressing global agenda, whether in managing the global commons, keeping the peace in troubled regions, ensuring global financial stability, or curbing weapons of mass destruction. In each of these realms, cooperation is less an option than a necessity. In most situations, multilateral cooperation expands rather than restricts U.S. options.
Multilateralism also has a strategic, or "realist" justification, since it helps to legitimate America’s tremendous power. By exercising U.S. leadership through consensual institutions that give voice and satisfaction to the less powerful while placing modest constraints on its own policy autonomy and sovereign prerogatives, the United States can reassure weaker states that fear exploitation or abandonment. They will be more willing to follow the U.S. lead and, the United States will find it easier to consolidate a peaceful world that advances its long-term U.S. interests.
Accordingly, the book argues that departures from multilateralism should tend to be the exception rather than the rule. A corollary to this principle is that while the United States must reserve the right to act alone, unilateralism should be rare and restricted to certain narrow circumstances. For example:
When national security or survival is in jeopardy and requires immediate independent action;
When fundamental interests clash;
When institutions are paralyzed, and unilateral action is a way of taking the initiative and a mobilizing a coalition;
When unilateralism is required to pursue a moral imperative (e.g., Kosovo);
When unilateralism serves the goals of multilateralism, by raising standards or creating a public good.
Once we accept that in most circumstances multilateralism is neither wise or sustainable, the task becomes one of making multilateralism more effective. Anyone who has spent time in international institutions knows they can suffer from serious shortcomings (including free riding, buck passing, glacial decision making, insufficient accountability, and lowest-common-denominator policymaking). A conscious policy of multilateralism requires a consistent commitment to overcoming and correcting these deficiencies and improving the emerging framework of international cooperation.
A Few Reflections on the Impact of the Terrorist Attacks
In its first several months, the Bush administration, by its words and actions, revealed considerable skepticism about the capacities of multilateral organizations. To many observers, the impression was that the administration regarded alliances, multilateral treaties, and international organizations as more trouble than they were worth. By mid-summer, the administration’s policies on Kyoto, NMD, CTBT, the BWC, the small arms treaty, peacekeeping, the ICC, and "nation-building" were widely described as "unilateralist". Despite its espoused commitment to "consultations", its negotiating strategy appeared to be a willingness to listen while holding unswervingly to fixed positions: all "take" no "give", if you will.
The administration’s initial response to the terrorist crisis seemed to mark an abrupt reorientation. Washington worked assiduously to build a broad coalition to defeat the Taliban, to root al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, and to deal with the terrorist threat globally. The United States paid its outstanding arrears to the United Nations, took a more constructive approach to OECD efforts to regulate offshore banking centers, worked within the UN to win broad support for Resolutions designed to combat the terrorist threat, and committed itself to assist post-conflict reconstruction and political stability in Afghanistan.
Prior to September 11, pundits had been preoccupied with the question of whether the country should "go it alone or with others"—that is, with whether multilateral frameworks and partnerships were useful in the pursuit of U.S. national interests. The terrorist attacks exposed the unreality of this debate. In responding to terrorism—and to other transnational problems that define our global age—the United States has little choice but to combine its own efforts with those of other countries and international organizations. The more relevant debate today is over the form and mix of different multilateral frameworks.
Still, a few unanswered questions remain:
How multilateral is the coalition effort? The administration wisely adopted a multidimensional approach, seeking cooperation not simply at the military level but also in monitoring and regulating financial transactions, gathering intelligence, policing terrorist networks, providing humanitarian assistance, and (ultimately) rebuilding Afghanistan. Closer analysis, however, suggests that the coalition is less a multilateral effort than a "hub-and-spoke" model, involving bilateral deals cut with a heterogeneous collection of countries whose objectives overlap only imperfectly. Multilateral organizations like the UN and NATO have been largely sidelined in the antiterrorist struggle. This "variable geometry" may make consensus elusive as the antiterrorist effort moves beyond Afghanistan.
What are the limits of the ad hoc approach? Today, the key foreign policy debate is less about unilateralism versus multilateralism than about the trade-offs of alternative strategies and frameworks of multilateral cooperation. The Bush administration champions "coalitions of the willing" that coalesce temporarily around limited objectives under U.S. leadership. Such coalitions are useful in meeting discrete contingencies when no standing international frameworks exist, but ad hocism carries costs, requiring one to reinvent the wheel in every circumstance and lacking the legitimacy of policies sanctioned and implemented by international institutions. We need to ensure that formal institutions and ad hoc coalitions are complementary, not competing, and that the latter do not undermine formal orgs.
How far will the administration’s new multilateralism extend? It is not yet clear whether the coalition strategy represents a fundamental shift in U.S. engagement or simply a limited response to a dramatic but discrete and time-bound challenge. Thus far, the administraition has not built on its anti-terrorist coalition to address other pressing items on the global agenda. Its attitude has not changed on Kyoto, the ICC, CTBT, or NMD.
Finally, is a high degree of selectivity plausible in the long run? In the days before the attacks, Richard Haass described the administration’s strategy as one of "a la carte" multilateralism. Whereas its predecessor had made a blanket commitment to international institutions, the Bush administration would take a more discriminating approach, assessing proposed treaties and organizations on a hard-headed, case-by-case basis. Certainly, some selectivity in the country’s global engagement is unavoidable. But the United States may need to face the reality that other countries will shirk from cooperating on issues about which the United States cares a great deal, if the United States reserves the right to opt out of or say "no" to other rules and institutions of equal importance to them.
SHEPARD FORMAN: Stewart has described to you the thinking that went into our project on multilateralism and U.S. foreign policy and the findings of the first volume on the costs and consequences of U.S. ambivalence regarding multilateral engagement. It remains for me to discuss the policy implications of our work and how we hope to continue to advance the multilateral agenda beyond the war on terrorism. The policy paper that we are issuing with Princeton Lyman of the Aspen Institute’s Global Interdependence Initiative is one step in that process. Before taking note of the recommendations in that policy paper, let me say a few words about the context in which the work now unfolds.
As Stewart notes, this project began two years ago under very different circumstances. While not intended as a review of Clinton Administration policies, the book does describe a decade of ambivalence regarding the use of multilateral engagement—all pretensions to ‘muscular’ or ‘assertive multilateralism’ notwithstanding. This ambivalence, conditioned in large part by political currents—in particular by congressional indifference or hostility to global multilateral organizations and international law—resulted in an inconsistent use of multilateral instruments (especially noteworthy between economic and political objectives), a backtracking on some important commitments (particularly in the areas of non-proliferation), and a degree of scapegoatism (especially of the UN). This at a time when the United States enjoyed unprecedented economic and political power in a global environment that manifested few threats to our national security and well-being; hence an environment in which the potential for leadership on forms of global engagement was especially marked.
We now find ourselves in dramatically different political and economic circumstances, especially in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. While Congress may be much more open to the use of multilateral instruments and to meeting our legal obligations, the current administration’s approach to global engagement appears far less ambivalent, indeed highly selective, based on an overriding conviction in the right and responsibility of the United States to go it alone as circumstances require, a position reinforced at the World Economic Forum by the statements of both the Secretary of State and of Treasury. Indeed, we may well be seeing a convergence around the quintessential "selective" processes defined earlier by Richard Haass as "a la carte multilateralism" and more recently as "hard-headed multilateralism." Yet, whereas many thought September 11 might have the effect of turning the Administration’s attentions to the need for multilateral cooperation, we may find the opposite lesson being learned—that despite the nation’s newly discovered vulnerability—or perhaps because of it, we are obligated to go it alone. As Dominique Moisi said in a talk at the IPA yesterday, when it comes to the security of the American people, the United States trusts no one but itself. Even as globalization and interdependence have made the United States more vulnerable, the twin notions of indispensability (eventually others will follow because they cannot do without us) and exceptionalism ("we stand taller and can see further") combine to compel us to act alone in the national interest.
In my mind, September 11 should hold another lesson: that globalization and interdependence have rendered sovereignty so porous as to require cooperative action, and that ensuring cooperation over the long term requires a continuing sense of partnership. What occurred on September 11 was the use of the basic elements of globalization—the free movement of capital, goods, labor and ideas—to terrible and terrifying ends. To continue to turn these elements to positive advantage and rebuild confidence in them needs to be a major focus of U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead. That will require more cooperation, not less, and across a range of issue areas that go way beyond building and maintaining the kind of transitory coalition we have pulled together for the current war on terrorism. It will require a common vision of the world in which we want to live and shared strategies to achieve it. And that will require precisely the kind of leadership the United States has provided in the past and that the world—especially our European colleagues—long for now.
Of course, the United States has demonstrated this kind of leadership many times in the past, most notably in the wake of World War II when it helped to establish the principal global and regional organizations that have comprised the architecture for global governance over the past half century. This has been, however, a half-century that has witnessed dramatic changes, and the United States now needs to operate in a vastly different international environment than that which prevailed in 1945.
188 nations, compared to 50+ at its founding, are now members of the UN and capable of making far more demands
1,800 intergovernmental organizations, with considerable devolution from global to regional and sub-regional
annual public expenditures of some $200 billion for goods and services provided by these agencies, but with no system for tracking and accountability
5000 conventions and treaties, accompanying regimes
tens of thousands of NGOs, many contracted to exercise public functions
hundreds of thousands of international civil and lay workers
increasing number of wealthy individuals making their mark on international public policy
and, as September 11 has amply demonstrated, a host of new transnational problems ranging from narcotics trafficking to infectious diseases to terrorism have now washed up on our shores, for all intent and purposes obliterating the distinction that characterized domestic and foreign policy over centuries past
The United States is ill-equipped to act in this new environment and has adjusted poorly to it. Three problems need to be addressed:
1) The United States needs to identify those collective action problems that are both national and global in scope and that require concerted collective action to address. It needs, in collaboration with governmental and non-governmental partners around the globe, to examine the capacity of the current array of multilateral organizations to deal effectively with these problems and to seek innovative solutions where they are not effective, including new forms of international public-private partnerships. Dozens of experiments in recent years—involving institutional hybrids comprised of intergovernmental and non-governmental partners—have demonstrated a flexibility in addressing problems from corruption to HIV-AIDS that deserve further attention and support. They may take less time and money and prove more effective than efforts at reforming existing international bureaucracies.
2) The Executive and legislative branches need to work together to restructure the current modalities for making foreign policy in this country—in fact the very concept of "foreign policy" may itself be anachronistic. More and more agencies with previously "domestic" mandates are now actively engaged in international affairs. These include: HHS, Treasury, Agriculture, Justice, Energy, and Education to name but a few. There has been an organic process to their involvement as a set of functional issues abroad have made their way to our shores. But often the policies and interests of these agencies are at odds with the traditional state-to-state diplomacy of the State Department that, along with NSF, has had an increasingly difficult time coordinating our policies and activities overseas. This is further compounded by the lack of functional area expertise within State and the NSC (although the later has beefed up its capacity on global issues in recent years) and by the budgeting process that splits authority between State and the functional agencies. The overall level of international financing has demonstrably fallen short of what is needed to maintain a critical U.S. presence overseas.
3) We need—through the media and audiences such as yourselves—to reach out to the American public and help to inform them of the intersection between domestic and international affairs, about the points at which the national interest and the shared global interest converge, and about how the U.S. government should and can engage.