Policy Debate: You Decide

Multilateralism versus Unilateralism

After the sudden end of the Cold War, everyone knew international relations would never be the same, but no one could guess how they would be different. The first intimation came on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied a substantial amount of Kuwaiti territory. President George H. W. Bush used diplomatic means to create a multinational alliance of 29 nations against Iraq.

Ten years later, President George W. Bush’s foreign policy behavior was quickly defined as that of a classic go-it-alone, cowboy president. Disregarding 10 presidential predecessors over 52 years, Bush mostly acted unilaterally. He denounced arms control, rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and opposed treaties or international agreements in principle. He and his advisers saw multilateralism not as a beneficial alliance but as a “straitjacket.”

But a revolution in American foreign policy came about immediately after September 11, 2001. Pakistan, Russia, and other nations cooperated when it was clear that the United States was ready to go to war against world terrorism. Although President Bush sounded quite unilateral when he warned that those nations who weren’t with us were against us, most of his actions were multilateral. The Russian president Vladimir Putin dropped all objections to the deployment of American and NATO counterterrorism forces in the former Soviet republic key states on the long border between Russia and the Middle East. The possibility was even emerging that Russia would seek and might gain admission to NATO. President Bush also reversed other facets of his earlier unilateralism, including paying all back dues to the United Nations and making then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who earlier had been losing out to the go-it-alone phalanx of the administration, a prominent player in building this alliance.

But there’s a price for multilateralism. One lesson to be learned from the 1991 Gulf War alliance is that a genuine alliance can be a restraint on the United States. In 1991, the influence of many of the 29-nation Desert Storm members shaped the decision to interrupt the advance to Baghdad and the eradication of the entire Saddam Hussein regime. The termination of the war at that point was regarded as a grievous error even by a number of high-ranking American military officers. And it was a lesson taken seriously by the advisers around President George W. Bush 10 years later.

In October 2002, Bush went to the United Nations with a different attitude from his unilateral position and agreed to abide by a stern UN Security Council resolution that Iraq disarm and subject itself to unconditional weapons inspections, with serious consequences if it did not cooperate within one month’s time. But Bush balked at the provision for a second UN Security Council resolution if Iraq did not cooperate and asserted his conviction that the United States would proceed if it was not satisfied that complete disarmament was taking place. Although the UN resolution had put the United States on course to form another multilateral alliance, the Bush administration reserved the option of going it alone if necessary. Officially, the war was conducted by a “coalition of the willing,” but in reality that was a euphemism for a unilateral American offensive. The British contribution was fairly substantial but not enough to characterize the war as a “bilateral” effort. The Iraq war of 2003 was American, and the war went quickly. But the occupation, the reconstruction of the economy, the development of a government, and the achievement of democracy all took vastly more time and lives than the American strategic planners had anticipated.

1. Given American experience in Iraq, is it necessary to conclude that unilateralism is always the worst choice and multilateralism always the best? Is a multilateral alliance genuine only when supported by a UN resolution?
2. Is bilateralism a genuine midpoint between the two extremes of unilateralism and multilateralism? When and under what conditions would bilateralism be the best choice?
3. Has foreign policy under President Barack Obama emphasized unilateralism or multilateralism? In what ways has Obama’s foreign policy been similar to George W. Bush’s? In what ways has it been different?
What do you think are the biggest foreign policy challenges currently facing the United States? Why? What role, if any, should other countries have in working with the United States on these issues?

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