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Multilateralism and Unilaterism in U.s. Foreign Policy

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Many observers have lamented the movement from multilateralism to unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy (Maynes, 2000; Spiro, 2000; Boniface, 2001; Nye, 2002; Hoffman, 2003; Prestowitz, 2003).1In recent years, the U.S. has rejected a series of major international treaties and agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Landmine Ban Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Program of Action on Illicit Trade in Small and Light Arms, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and a new protocol designed to verify compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. The U.S. decision to launch a war against Iraq despite the lack of an explicit mandate from the U.N. Security Council and without the support of many key allies is the most dramatic manifestation of American unilateralism. These events raise a number of significant questions for analysts of U.S. foreign policy: how sharp a break from past practice is the ‘‘new unilateralism’’? What factors account for growing U.S. isolation from international institutions and multilateral cooperation? To what degree has the behavior of other states played a role in America’s changing foreign policy orientation? Are recent unilateralist policies a passing anomaly, or do they presage a long-term retreat from multilateralism?

American Unilateralism

American unilateralism is a distinct feature of United States foreign policy throughout its existence. It was used in different presidencies for the purposes of advancing national interests such as the pursuit of global primacy and natural resources possession. Instead of being a leader in establishing and strengthening rules and institutions that promote international peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability, the Bush Doctrine places the United States in opposition to them and hypocritically professes in adherence. This term of presidency can be seen as a most provocative, muscular, and proactive period in American foreign policy.

Background: Hegemony, not Multilateralism

John Gerard Ruggie (1993:11) defines multilateralism as ‘‘an institutional form that coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of generalized principles of conduct.’’ A multilateralist foreign policy involves two crucial commitments on the part of cooperating states:

  • To invest in the creation and maintenance of international institutions that serve to facilitate coordination. This dimension of multilateralism has to do with the inputs necessary to sustain international institutions. Institutional investment may take three principal forms: participation (ongoing involvement in deliberations over the substantive and procedural terms of multilateral cooperation), provision of resources (contributions of money, soldiers, information, expertise, and other assets essential to the operation of particular institutions), and rhetorical support (public expressions of backing for the norms, principals, and goals of particular institutions)
  • To comply with the rules, norms, principles, and decision-making processes of these institutions on an equal basis with other states. This dimension of multilateralism has to do with institutional outputs how institutions affect state behavior. As Ikenberry (2003b:534) notes, multilateralism ‘‘entails some reduction in policy autonomy’’ as participating states conform to institutional constraints on behavior. Compliance involves not only the narrow question of whether a state is in violation of specific commitments but also whether a state seeks waivers, exemptions, veto or weighted voting privileges, or other prerogatives that allow it to more easily evade institutional constraints that would otherwise apply. A state that subjects itself more fully to constraint is more genuinely multilateralist than one that consistently takes advantage of loopholes.

Critics of unilateralism often point to the generally successful record of the post-World War II period as evidence that multilateralism has precedent in U.S. foreign policy and that such an approach leads to positive results. Yet, this exaggerates the degree to which U.S. foreign policy during this era was genuinely multilateralist in either theory or practice (McCormick, 2002). In the wake of World War II, the U.S took seriously the first of the two multilateralist commitments cited above, but not the second. While the U.S. invested in the creation of international institutions, postwar administrations only loosely subjected themselves to the constraint of institutional rules and procedures. In other words, the U.S.-sponsored institutional order was designed to bind the behavior of other states, but not that of the U.S itself. This strategic approach to constructing international order is hegemonic rather than multilateralist. Appreciating this distinction leads to a somewhat more pessimistic assessment of the likelihood that the U.S. might ‘‘return’’ to a recent set of multilateralist traditions.


The U.S. has never pursued a genuinely multilateralist foreign policy. Rather, U.S. strategy in the post-World War II period is best characterized as hegemonic. While the U.S. embraced the creation of international institutions as an effective means for exercising U.S. power and maintaining international order, the rules and procedures of these institutions bound other states far more than the U.S. itself.

The growing conflicts between the U.S. and its major allies in recent years are the result of two shifts: the waning willingness of the U.S. to invest in strong international institutions and the growing insistence by other states that the U.S. conform to the same international rules as the rest of the international community. These dual challenges to the two principal pillars of U.S. hegemony have resulted in an increasingly unilateralist American foreign policy, one that rests more upon the raw application of power and less upon the willingness of other states to follow the U.S. as a legitimate international leader.

This move from hegemony to unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy can be traced to the end of the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union removed an important constraint on U.S. power while reducing the dependence of allied states on U.S. protection. At home, the removal of the Soviet threat weakened the authority of the president to pursue broad national interests while empowering parochial interests that generally oppose multilateral commitments.

The foreign policy differences between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are not as stark as many have perceived. The preferences, ideologies, and rhetoric of the two presidents are quite different. But structural forces at home and abroad have played more important roles in driving both pres-idents (Clinton reluctantly and Bush enthusiastically) toward a pattern of unilateralist behavior in U.S. relations with the world. The appropriate contrast is not between a multilateralist Clinton and a unilateralist Bush, but between two unilateralism that differs not in kind but more in tone, emphasis, and degree. Although the passing of George W. Bush’s presidency may result in numerous consequential changes in U.S. foreign policy, a decisive or lasting shift toward a genuinely multilateralist brand ofU.S. diplomacy appears unlikely.

The end of the Cold War has altered the institutional orientations of both the U.S. and its major allies. U.S. strategy has gradually moved away from hegemony in the direction of unilateralism. The main adjustment that this has entailed is not an assertion of independence from institutional constraints the U.S. generally avoided such constraints throughout the postwar period anyway but instead the steady withdrawal or abandonment of political and financial investment in new and existing international institutions. Europe and many other states, by contrast, have gravitated from a position of acquiescence free-riding on U.S institutional investments while generally acquiescing in the rules and procedures of these institutions to multilateralism. This entails a dual commitment to both invest in and comply with the rules of an institutionalized international order. This helps to explain why the transnational debate over unilateralism versus multilateralism has assumed heightened salience in recent years in ways that it seldom did when the U.S. pursued a hegemonic strategy in association with a constellation of generally inactive allies.


Given America’s vast resources and power advantages over other states (Brooks and Wohlforth, 2002), the answer is probably yes but only at considerable cost. Even though structural forces at home and abroad weigh heavily against a multilateralist turn in U.S. foreign policy, it does not follow that unilateralism serves well the interests of either the U.S. or the world. While a full accounting of the consequences of American unilateralism is beyond the scope of this paper, three kinds of costs deserve mention. Despite the increased willingness of other states to invest in the maintenance of a strong institutional order that provides important international collective goods, there is considerable danger that such efforts will fail without the active support of the world’s most powerful state. The meager progress in devising international solutions to the problem of global warming is only one example. The U.S. is simply too large and too central to the present international order for it to successfully free-ride on the contributions of others. As a weakened international institutional order fails in providing significant public goods, the U.S. will suffer along with everyone else.

A second cost lies in growing U.S. isolation from the main currents of world opinion. Since the 1950s, for instance, the proportion of UN General Assembly rollcall votes in which the U.S. has voted with the majority has steadily declined (Karnsand Mingst, 2002:270). The U.S. runs the growing risk that other states, even if they lack the capacity or will to ‘‘balance’’ against the U.S. in traditional military terms, may nevertheless complicate U.S. foreign policy through active non-cooperation with unilateral applications of American power. An important example has been the reluctance of some major allies to aid American and British occupation efforts in Iraq. Even in cases where allied cooperation is eventually secured, the incentives or price that the U.S. must pay in order to obtain that cooperation may be driven up by the questionable legitimacy surrounding unilateralist U.S. policies.

Finally, the yawning gap between the unilateralist character of U.S. foreign policy and the multilateralist public preferences revealed in numerous opinion surveys points to a troubling democratic deficit at home. The growing influence of parochial interests over U.S. foreign policy suggests an additional reason for concern. A democratic deficit can lead to unexpected consequences. When faced with a skeptical public, presidents have strong incentives to oversell threats and solutions in an effort to secure domestic support for controversial foreign policies. The result can be a politics of fear and an unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy. In short, the U.S. has greater freedom, by virtue of its unchecked international power, to pursue a unilateralist foreign policy than at any time in its history. Yet, the wisdom of such a course remains as doubtful as ever. Indeed, one might wonder whether the maladaptive consequences of unilateralism will someday prove sufficient to prompt a reconsideration of the multilateralist option in spite of the structural biases that work against such an approach. Unfortunately, it is precise because the U.S. is so large and powerful that it is less sensitive to negative feedback from its policies abroad than smaller states, which have less margin for error in their international endeavors (Skidmore, 1994). An ocean-liner, once-off course, takes considerable time to turn in a new direction. In an iceberg-strewn sea, one can only hope that the near-sighted captain locates his corrective lenses in time.

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