Multilateralism may sound like something you had to learn in geometry, but it’s a great word that every college student should know. In the context of world affairs, it means working with other countries in broad coalitions and through institutions like the United Nations to achieve goals, instead of acting on our own (unilaterally).
Bashing the United Nations is a common pastime of political pundits. When things don�t get done, may people blame the United Nations itself instead of the countries that make it up. As Americans, we come from a tradition of independence and isolation, so these feelings are understandable. But hostility toward countries like France that often disagree with us, the United Nations itself and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is, at best, selfish, and at worst, terribly destructive. Here’s why:
United States dominance in the world won’t last forever. We’re used to being the most powerful country in the world both militarily and economically, and we are undoubtedly still on top. Right after World War II the United States dominated the globe in a way never seen before, but our lead has been shrinking ever since, as other countries recovered from the scars of war, and from that extended economic distraction we call communism.
Today we are anything but economically independent. We’re conscious of our dependence on foreign oil, but our dependence on other foreign goods is even stronger, and not likely to go away. In a consumer society, the desire for goods with ever-lower prices will continue to drive production to the cheapest locales, and wealthy nations such as our own will grow more and more dependent on countries like China and India. We might be able to win a war with China, say, over Taiwan, but neither of our countries can afford the level of decimation to our economies that would result.
And militarily, countries like China can in the long term simply muster greater numbers of troops and a broader production base to supply them. If we spent as much as the next 20 countries combined on our military (oh wait, we do) we might maintain a lead for a few more generations, but history teaches us that no nation can be dominant forever.
So the question we should ask is, how can we best advance our own economic interests and the moral principles on which our nation is built, acknowledging that we won’t always be able to bully other countries into submission? If the United Nations didn’t exist, we’d have to build something a lot like it.
If we find the United Nations difficult to work with, it is because it represents in a very real way the desire of nations from around the world. Our inability to gain support there is representative of how our self-serving foreign policy is viewed globally.
And as for Annan, his second term as Secretary-General ends in December, and the members of the U.N. are currently selecting his replacement. What many Americans seem to forget is that Kofi Annan was practically hand-picked by the U.S. because he was seen as being more favorable to America than other candidates. Compared to many of its member states, the United Nation’s leader is much more sympathetic to American ideals and interests.
Unfortunately, the unilateral actions of the current administration in Iraq have made it difficult to gain world support on other issues of great importance. Iran, having seen that we are willing to attack nations whose leaders we dislike with little world support, has rightly recognized that nuclear weapons are the only sure deterrent for an American invasion. And our strained relationship with the countries of the European Union has made working together to thwart Iran’s desire for nukes significantly more difficult.
The first step toward progress is recognizing that most of our past actions have been blatant attempts to advance our own interests, merely using moral arguments as a cover. If anyone mistakenly believes we invaded Iraq solely to restore freedom to an oppressed people, I would raise this question; why didn’t we intervene elsewhere, where conditions were worse, and where there might have been less resistance to American armed forces? The conflict in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, has killed at least 50,000 people in the last few years. Or how about intervening a few years ago in the Congo? While there is a tenuous peace now, the civil war that began in the Congo in 1998 resulted in the deaths of over 4 million people.
I am no isolationist calling for the selfish withdrawal of our troops from anywhere that looks dangerous. In fact, if we really want to advance the principles on which the United States is founded, like liberty and justice for all, there are enough terrible situations in the world to keep our troops fighting for years.
But our nation would benefit from picking its fights more wisely in the future. We simply do not have the resources to fix the problems of the world on our own. To find a path forward, we must learn to work with other countries, and abandon our instinctive hostility toward the United Nations.