How America benefited from multilateralism--and the cost we bear by going it alone in a risky new century

At the end of World War II, the United States found itself in a situation of unprecedented power. The economy of the former hegemonic state, Britain, was decimated by the war. So were those of the rest of Western Europe, including Britain's foremost challenger, Germany. Although the Soviet Union presented a growing military threat, in economic terms this nation was unchallenged.

Washington responded to its new hegemony by adopting multilateralist policies. Rather than turning inward as after World War I, leaders in the United States drew lessons from the economic catastrophes of the interwar years and determined that the only way to safeguard American interests was to remain deeply engaged with the rest of the world. They implemented this policy by creating multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions (for international economic issues), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and others.

In the new millennium, following a period of apparent decline after Vietnam and slow economic growth in the 1980s, the United States finds itself unexpectedly in a position of unipolarity: we have no serious military challengers, and economic rivals all face their own serious problems. But U.S. policy no longer reflects the multilateralism of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rather than creating and strengthening multilateral institutions, the United States has turned to unilateral policies, denigrated the entire notion of multilateralism as a principle, and refused to participate in numerous new ventures such as the International Criminal Court. This abrupt change carries with it real risks—heavy political, military, and economic costs—for America.


What's in it for me?

What does entering into multilateral agreements and organizations entail for a hegemonic power—and why would any such power do so? Put simply, political scientists use the term "multilateralism" for arrangements that coordinate relations among three or more states, where general principles of behavior may be expected to govern their interactions. (This expectation contrasts sharply, for example, with bilateralism as an organizing principle. In bilateralism, special deals are struck for each participant, and the terms of their reciprocal relationship are specific, rather than based on the assump-tion that the costs and benefits of their interaction roughly balance out over time.)

Consider the distinctive traits of the multilateral organizations created by the United States after World War II. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), for example, was premised on the norm of nondiscrimination: negotiations took place among the major suppliers of certain goods, but the deals they struck were then extended via the most-favored-nation principle to all other members of the regime. NATO illustrates how indivisibility might work in practice, with an attack on one member of the alliance considered an attack on all. In both cases, costs and benefits were calculated in the aggregate, not on a bilateral basis.

The UN Security Council might seem an important exception to the norms of multilateralism, because the five permanent members have special status: they can veto resolutions. But even here, at least the five permanent members are treated as equals, rather than giving the United States a privileged position, so this represents a scaled-down version of multilateralism. Similarly, the Bretton Woods monetary regime gave a privileged place to the United States, with the dollar accepted as a common currency equivalent to gold. Nevertheless, even institutions like these that diverged from multilateralism to some extent reflected multilateral principles in their other aspects.

American support for multilateralism even extended to the creation of organizations in which the United States would not be a major player. One condition of European states' receiving Marshall Plan aid, for example, was that they create multilateral systems of cooperation among themselves. To take the most notable result, American support for formation of the European Coal and Steel Community was premised on the belief that multilateral principles would address many of the problems that had led to war in Europe in the preceding centuries. That special-purpose entity evolved into the modern European Union (EU). Far from seeing a cooperative European economic entity as a threat, this country actively supported such efforts as in the interests of peace and stability.

In acting multilaterally, the United States did not seek to maximize its short-term benefits. It could have imposed institutions that inhibited the economic and military advancement of others, attempting to assure that it would face no serious competitors to its preeminence in the foreseeable future. Instead, it put in place institutions designed to facilitate the economic recovery and political stability of its allies and former enemies—without insisting that it occupy the privileged position of the hegemon. As noted, multilateral principles were not respected fully. Yet it is striking that this immensely powerful state championed principles and norms that served to bind itself; it created institutions premised on the notion that even the United States would play by the rules it asked others to accept.

Why would a powerful state choose to create institutions that could bind it? Some scholars trace U.S. behavior after World War II to the power of ideas—notably, those expressed earlier in the creation of the domestic New Deal. Hegemony fostered multilateralism in this period because it was American hegemony, rooted in specific American experiences, such as the adoption of economic regulations in response to the Depression. Beyond America's borders, the first steps toward new ways of managing international trade, based on the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of the 1930s, also proved influential.

Other analysts focus less on beliefs, ideas, and the lessons of history, and instead emphasize the strategic situation confronting the United States at the end of the war. Because the country was relatively free from immediate threats (the Soviet Union did not become a serious threat until the 1950s), American policymakers were able to take a long-term perspective. They realized that the situation of preeminence was temporary: history taught that hegemons declined relative to other powers; challengers were sure to arise. Equally important, decision-makers did not believe that a situation of American unipolarity was desirable, as it would lead to constant threats and instability. Better to encourage the growth of allies who could in the future undertake cooperative endeavors against emerging threats than to attempt to keep them down indefinitely.

Thus America's embrace of multilateralism was designed with an eye to the future. It put into place structures that were in the long-term interest of the United States as well as of others, rather than attempting to maximize short-term gains at their expense—and these structures contained the essential provisions for monitoring and enforcement required to make the arrangements work. The remaining, difficult step—for a hegemon credibly to bind itself—required this country to demonstrate that it too would play by the rules that bound others. It did so by its commitment to multilateralism throughout the economic and security realms, by investing significant resources in the creation of multilateral institutions and organizations, and (most of the time) by living up to its commitments within those institutions.

This "self-binding" strategy worked as planned. The multilateral institutions the U.S. helped build proved stable and reliable even in the face of rapid economic recovery in Europe and Japan.

The benefits are clear. On the security side, the goal of preventing the major-power wars that had devastated Europe for centuries has been achieved. And although wars, both international and civil, have plagued other regions of the world, NATO also succeeded in preventing war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the EU has both deepened and widened, to use its own terminology, so that it now covers nearly all issues in which governments make policy, and has just expanded to 25 members.

Economically, the multilateral trade regime has been highly successful, in spite of recurrent challenges and complaints of backsliding. Tariffs within the developed world are at negligible levels, and in the rest of the world they have steadily declined. Levels of trade have correspondingly risen. Some dispute whether the GATT and now the World Trade Organization have been directly responsible for this trend, but there is little doubt that the norms embodied in these organizations have contributed to the growth of trade. Although the Bretton Woods monetary regime did not survive the 1970s, the organizations associated with Bretton Woods—its progeny, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank—have persisted and taken on new functions in the globalized economy. Whatever discontents globalization has brought, whatever mistakes the IMF and World Bank have made, prosperity has generally increased—and increased most quickly among those states most deeply integrated into the multilateral institutions. Regions that have stagnated or declined, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa, are those that have not participated fully in multilateralism; governments in these regions increasingly look to partake of the benefits of globalization for themselves.

Finally, the United States has prospered under multilateralism. The calculated risk of investing in multilateral organizations in the hope of achieving long-term stability and progress has paid off handsomely. Self-binding has proven to enhance American economic and military power, not to diminish it. Self-binding means that at times a powerful state will have to make concessions, engage in protracted and frustrating negotiations, or comply with inconvenient restrictions on its freedom of maneuver. But these restrictions have not in any demonstrable way harmed U.S. economic growth or security. And the greatest challenge to security today—global terrorism—can only be addressed with global cooperation, as even the multilateralism-averse Bush administration has acknowledged in its calls for international efforts on this issue.


Going it alone

The contrast between U.S. behavior after World War II and at the turn of the twenty-first century is stark. One might have expected the United States, having defeated its Cold War nemesis and facing no challengers on the immediate horizon, to reinvigorate postwar organizations or invest in building new ones. Instead, the country has distinctively turned away from the self-binding strategy at the heart of multilateralism. Senior Bush administration officials, including the National Security Advisor, have explicitly rejected the principle of investing in new multilateral organizations. The United States has refused to sign accords seen as important by the rest of the world, such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the agreement setting up the International Criminal Court (ICC). The latter case is especially notable, because the United States specifically demands special treatment in a series of bilateral deals, insisting on exemption from the ICC's procedures—a direct repudiation of the essence of multilateralism through the assertion of a privileged position for Americans.

The rejection of multilateral constraints was of course most apparent, and perhaps most damaging, in the case of the Iraq war. Under intense pressure from its allies, the United States did go through the motions of attempting to gain support from the UN Security Council for its planned invasion. But throughout these efforts the administration made clear that it would act unilaterally if necessary, and in the end it failed to gain UN authority for its invasion. (The United States did not end up acting purely alone: it gained firm and valuable support from Britain and backing from others in a 30-nation "coalition of the willing" that offered rhetorical, if not always practical, aid for the war.)

Now that the Iraq effort has shifted from full-scale hostilities to reconstruction and a drawn-out battle with determined resistors, the United States is returning to multilateral settings. Peacekeeping and reconstruction will be serious challenges, perhaps even greater than anticipated, and a major drain on U.S. resources for years to come, so the administration is calling on others to provide assistance. We see greater reliance today on the UN: for example in the cooperative relationship between the United States and the UN in establishing an interim government in Iraq. On the other hand, the United States has given up on attempts to increase troop contributions from other countries. Whether this increased attention to the UN reflects a genuine change of heart regarding multilateralism more generally remains to be seen.

Some analysts have seen the occasional attempts to work within the UN as evidence that the administration remains committed, perhaps against its instincts, to multilateralism. But it would be more apt to characterize its approach as "opportunistic" or "ad hoc" multilateralism. When the situation absolutely demands it, the administration is somewhat willing to attempt to operate within the constraints and rules of multilateral organizations—but only as a last resort and on a purely opportunistic basis. Otherwise, the administration exhibits a strong preference for ad hoc coalitions of the willing that allow the United States to operate largely without constraints. In no sense does this pattern of behavior reflect the multilateral principles that animated post-World War II policy.

History and logic suggest that opportunistic multilateralism—with a powerful nation exempting itself from rules that apply to others—is a shortsighted strategy. Operating without the inconveniences of multilateral constraints is always a tremendous temptation for the powerful. But the long-term costs can be immense. After World War II, the United States developed a reputation for forgoing the temptation to act unilaterally, in the interest of achieving enduring stability and prosperity. Now, this reputation has been squandered, so other states expect the United States to renege on agreements or to operate outside the constraints of multilateral organizations at its convenience. That expectation hollows out the core of such organizations. They become marginalized, and cannot produce the international agreements and plans of action that provided stability and prosperity for most of the late twentieth century.

Absent self-binding behavior by the U.S. hegemon, what is the future of multilateral organizations such as the UN? The short- to medium-term outlook is bleak. And that should be of real concern, because the functions that such organizations can perform remain vital. They provide forums for negotiation and coordination of policies. They share information and generate expectations about appropriate behavior, sometimes setting in motion enforcement activities. Concretely, it is difficult to imagine an effective and efficient battle against global terrorism without a framework of multilateral cooperation. And in economic terms, the momentum in global trade talks has stalled, threatening some of the gains achieved during the last 60 years and the access of the poorest countries to these gains.

Is there is any likelihood of a reversal in U.S. policy, a renewed willingness to invest resources in rebuilding a reputation for self-binding? Examining the factors that differentiate 2004 from 1950 may help to explain why U.S. leaders pursued such disparate policies. In strategic terms, the post-World War II era was bipolar: the Soviet Union was a growing military threat, and became a serious threat in the early 1950s. Today, even though security threats are everywhere, they are nebulous and hard to target, unlike the straightforward military competition of the Cold War. The distribution of military power is unipolar: the United States is unchallenged.

This shift from bipolarity to unipolarity at least to some extent explains the U.S. movement away from multilateralism. The anticipated, and then real, Soviet challenge focused U.S. efforts after 1945. It led to a desire to gain allies that were strong economically and stable politically and had adequate military resources. With no other single state representing a major military threat today, the United States may discount the value of allies: Why invest in an organization such as NATO, designed in the past to counter a specific threat, if the threat itself is constantly shifting shape and hard to pin down? Just which allies do we need, and what capabilities should they have? Given these complex questions, a strategy of maintaining a preponderance of power, instead of encouraging the strengthening of allies, may seem a reasonable choice. In a word, U.S. policymakers may think it is more realistic to aspire to long-term unipolarity, shedding the unwelcome constraints of multilateralism.


It's still a multilateral world

In fact, the inference that the United States can go it alone is mistaken; multilateralism is as valuable today as it was earlier—perhaps even more so. Unipolarity, as this country is rapidly learning in Iraq, is immensely expensive. Talk has quickly shifted from using Iraq's own oil revenues for rebuilding to "burden-sharing" and generating contributions from others for rebuilding and peacekeeping.

And while Iraq is the most pressing and immediate example, the high costs of unilateralism are likely to become apparent elsewhere as well. America's long, successful experience with multilateralism may have led decision-makers to expect stable cooperation from other states to continue, without appreciating that such cooperation was contingent on the United States itself playing by the rules. When cooperation fails to materialize on various issues—trade, finance, peacekeeping, sharing of intelligence—this country may find that the expected short-term payoff of unilateralism was vastly inflated. In fact, the costs of multilateralism, annoying as they may often be, are likely to pale in comparison to the vast resources needed to sustain unipolarity or, even more grandly, empire.

It will take time and resources to rebuild the U.S. reputation for multilateralism. It will require making concessions and accepting compromises on a wide range of issues on which this nation might prefer to go it alone or to impose America's most-favored solution. But a growing appreciation of the costs of empire can lead to a recalculation of the long-term costs and benefits of multilateralism. If such a recalculation occurs, either by this administration or by the public as elections approach, the future of multilateral organizations will significantly brighten, and none too soon.


Lisa L. Martin, Dillon professor of international affairs, is editor-in-chief of the journal International Organization. She also serves as a director of Harvard Magazine Inc.


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