America's Stake in the Multilateral World

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, LL.D. '03, president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000 and now director of Yale's Center for the Study of Globalization, delivered the following address as chief speaker at the Harvard Alumni Association's annual meeting on the afternoon of Commencement day, June 5, 2003. (Three introductory paragraphs have been omitted.)


Harvard is an institution that has made a great difference to you, ladies and gentlemen, as indeed it has to all the people of the United States and to humanity at large. You are right to be proud of this great institution.

You also should be proud of many other institutions that the United States has envisioned and nurtured and that have provided great service to this nation and to the world.

I am speaking of those international institutions that, by promoting the causes of peace, prosperity, and human rights, have helped decisively to improve the quality of human life in the last 50 years. The world improved over its execrable performance of the first half of the twentieth century not solely but significantly because of the international system of rules and institutions that was developed in the period around the end of the Second World War. This afternoon I want to speak for this international system.

The international system, Zedillo said, reflects "the political genius of great American leaders."
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Particularly at this time, let us not forget that this system was to no small extent the product of the political genius of great American leaders. Let us not forget what your admired president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, meant to do when in 1941—just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor—he spoke not only of winning the war, but also of winning the peace that would follow. Roosevelt's purpose was to promote the enactment of rules to govern international behavior and the creation of institutions to foster international cooperation. He foresaw nothing less than the building of the United Nations as the centerpiece of a system charged with keeping the peace among all nations and making them collaborate for the common good.

And so, when the time came, the United States led the world in creating a system of multilateral institutions to restore stability and security. The United Nations charter was negotiated and ratified in San Francisco, and the organization itself was housed in New York. At a conference not far from here—in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire—the IMF and the World Bank were established to guide international economic cooperation and invest in reconstruction and development; they were subsequently headquartered in Washington, D.C. The United States led the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to foster international commerce. Eleanor Roosevelt played a key role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Europe, the United States created NATO and later encouraged the development of the institutions that became the European Union.

General George Marshall stood on these very steps in 1947 and warned of the dangers that "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos" posed to the newly freed nations of Europe. By paving the way for postwar reconstruction, those words helped remake the world.

Why did American and other world leaders in the 1940s and '50s devote so much energy and so many resources to building international institutions? Because they had learned from the bitter lessons of two world wars and the Great Depression. Because they had seen the destruction that results when nations are divided and pursue only their own self-interest. So they sought to create a system, anchored in freedom, openness, and the rule of law, that would support the security and prosperity of all its members.


How well has this system worked?

Like any human creation, it has had its shortcomings and even some big failures. But its successes are impressive beyond doubt.

International institutions have fostered a greater convergence of values than has ever before occurred in human history. For the first time, most of the world's governments are democratic. Principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law are almost universally accepted. Even regimes that routinely violate these principles proclaim their allegiance to them—proving that freedom has won the argument! A principal reason for this universality of rights and values is the wide array of United Nations documents that define and prescribe them. Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has orchestrated a series of global covenants that together make up the body of international law. Let us remember that none of this was foreordained. It is owed to the patient efforts of committed individuals and governments across the world.

The multilateral order has also presided over mankind's greatest period of wealth creation. The impressive economic expansion achieved by the United States and other industrial countries would not have been possible without the multilateral economic system. The great strides we have seen in technology, healthcare, and the many other things that enhance the quality of our lives emerge directly from this prosperity. In the developing world, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, though much more remains to be done. Again, none of this was foreordained. The international economic order has encouraged nations to trade and interact with each other. Without this framework, we would live in a much worse world than we do today. Allow me to emphasize this: International cooperation has not been a useless abstraction. It has been a powerful and tangible force driving global prosperity.

Today, however, the international system appears to be in crisis. Deep disagreements have emerged about how best to combat new threats to international peace and security and how best to preserve and extend prosperity in the world.

Contempt for the multilateral system can be seen in the marginalization of the UN, the transatlantic rift, the division in NATO and the European Union, and the current resentment among old friends, neighbors, and partners.

Does the record warrant this contempt?

Certainly not, as I have just argued. But that is not the relevant question. What is at stake now is not the interpretation of the past but the building of the future. So the relevant question is: At the beginning of this new century marked by unquestionable unipolarity, who needs the multilateral system?

My claim (along with many others') is that all nations, even the most powerful, need the multilateral system.

Certainly the weaker members of the international community would prefer to navigate in the international arena according to agreed international rules and by means of institutions in which their voices can be heard and their legitimate interests represented and recognized. This case for multilateralism is too clear to need elaboration.

What about the United States, the true hyper-power of our era? For this country, the case for multilateralism is no less compelling, though it is more subtle. Of course, this country's leaders must look after U.S. national interests. In deciding how to interact with the rest of the world, any government must put its own national interests before global altruism. Perhaps this is why some influential people are tempted to believe that to protect its national interests, all the United States need do is to exert its unmatched military and economic power—even if that means sidelining the multilateral system.

I dare to dissent with this view, however, not only because it can lead to unwarranted adverse consequences for other countries, including my own, but also because, as a friend, I want to suggest that unilateralism may actually undermine the interests of the United States itself.


The fundamental flaw of the unilateralist way of thinking is that it ignores how interdependent all countries—the United States among them—have become, for better or for worse. True, the rest of the world depends perceptibly on what the U.S. does or does not do, but the converse is also true. The world in our time may be unipolar, but it is interdependent, too.

At this hour of global interdependence, even the mightiest power has limits to its influence, to its capacity to control how others react to its actions. For unipolarity to be more than a moment in history, others must perceive it not as a threat but as a true anchor of peace. Peaceful and lasting unipolarity depends on the multilateral system—as much as the multilateral system depends on the enlightened, not the aggressive, leadership of the sole hyper-power. Aggressive unipolarity, sooner rather than later, would set the world in search of a different equilibrium, one in which the military power of the United States could be balanced. This process would prove expensive and tragic. A world with so much poverty cannot afford another arms race. A world that has made so much progress in embracing the values of democracy deserves better than to relapse into threats of mutual destruction.

Further, the United States is not exempted, even by the sheer force of its power, from problems that inexorably call for internationally coordinated responses.

Consider for a moment the biggest security concern of this and many other nations: transnational terrorism. It would be dangerously naive to think that terrorism can be fought single-handedly. Can terrorists be defeated without international cooperation? Can the international trafficking in deadly weapons or the spread of fanaticism be stopped if countries do not work together? Never. Combating terrorism requires the support of friends, allies, and sometimes even adversaries. To achieve security, military might is not all that counts.

International cooperation advances not only the security but also the military superiority of the United States. It would be cynical not to believe that the multilateral instruments, including the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, adopted to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction in fact help to entrench the overwhelming military advantage of the United States.

Besides security, the United States and all countries face other problems that respect no national boundaries and therefore require global cooperative solutions. Think of global warming, destruction of biodiversity, depletion of fisheries, ocean pollution, infectious diseases, drug trafficking, or human smuggling, just to name a few. Not one of these dire challenges can be met by a nation acting alone. Only through international cooperation can there be any hope of success in combating them.

Equally, in the pursuit of prosperity and the prevention of evils such as international financial crises, recessions, and now deflation, international cooperation is vital to success. Economic cooperation is needed now more than ever. There is a danger that the multilateral trading system could become the battleground of unsettled geopolitical disputes, with disastrous consequences. This danger haunts the ongoing WTO Doha round of trade liberalization—now practically deadlocked—and fuels numerous trade disputes between old partners. The Doha round must be saved and the neoprotectionist spiral must be checked right now; any later may be too late. International cooperation is also needed to tackle in a coordinated fashion the very serious macroeconomic imbalances afflicting all the major economies of the world. Failure to coordinate will make the unavoidable adjustment more painful and could eventually cause a major headache in the international economy.

I am aware that some in the unilateralists' camp are mindful of these arguments. They are ready to concede that the United States must swallow a dose of international cooperation in the pursuit of legitimate national interests. And so they propose to live by double standards.

Interesting but not convincing.

Could international cooperation coexist with aggressive unipolarity? Hardly, if at all. A useful multilateral system depends on negotiations, compromises, and agreements. None of these can be cultivated in a soil of acrimony and resentment. From this soil spring the weeds of antagonism, envy, and fear—weeds that may crowd out the inclusive globalization and constructive interdependence that are needed today more than ever.

Inclusive globalization is needed not only by the weak of the world but also by the strong; not only to defeat economic and social polarization but also to alleviate old and new resentments that threaten the security and stability of our world. Constructive interdependence is needed, not only to better share the benefits of prosperity but also to achieve better mutual understanding—and, eventually, irreversible mutual respect and tolerance. Interdependence is not always free of transitional tensions. But embracing interdependence is the only way to achieve a truly international regime of toleration—that is, of the peaceful coexistence of people with different histories, cultures, and identities. I believe it is only through the deliberate building of this interdependence, practical step by practical step, that we can achieve a more prosperous world with lasting security—a world in which the poor and excluded are released from misery and the privileged are released from fear.


In 1945, the United States saw the wisdom of building an inclusive world order in which every country could have a voice. True, since then much has changed, but much abides. True, the United States now enjoys unprecedented strength, but so it did in 1945. True, we face appalling new dangers today in the form of terrorism. But, in a deeper sense, terrorism feeds on the same forces that General Marshall fought to overcome with his plan for rebuilding Europe: the eternal enemies—"hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."

To defeat terror, and to defend democracy and freedom, humanity and its leaders must prevail against those eternal enemies. This can only be done by working together through the multilateral system that, I repeat, was built under the impulse of the United States.

I submit that it is time to stop bashing the multilateral institutions. They are no better or worse than what the major powers put into them in terms of leadership, skillful bilateral diplomacy, and resources. The right way to proceed is not to undermine these institutions but, where needed, to reform them so that they can better serve the good causes of human rights, security, peace, and prosperity.

Going forward, this enterprise will require the enlightened, not the aggressive, leadership of the United States. It will require the leadership and constructive power that was used in Doha in November 2001 to launch the new round of trade liberalization; in Monterrey, Mexico, in March 2002 to commit a significant increase in aid to fight poverty and injustice in the world; in Washington a few days ago to triple the U.S. support to fight AIDS in the poorest countries in the world; and in Aqaba, Jordan, yesterday to champion the roadmap for peace in the Middle East.

Going forward, the reform of the international system must certainly accommodate the new geopolitical realities and be fit to confront the new challenges of the twenty-first century.

But the pursuit of this endeavor should assuredly be guided by the same vision that President Roosevelt outlined in 1941: the vision of a world order founded upon "a cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society." Above all, by the vision of a world order founded upon the essential human freedoms.


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