The End of Unilateralism?

The neoconservative movement was thrilled by what it called the "unipolar moment." After the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union followed suit, the United States was the last superpower standing. America faced a choice: It could use the unprecedented opportunity to help build a new international system out of the rubble of the Cold War, or it could try to maintain that unipolar moment as long as possible. The neocons preferred the king-of-the-hill approach.

The Clinton administration flirted with multilateralism. It came into office promising to support a range of international treaties and institutions. It offered to play well with others. But this more robust multilateral approach ran up against the three gorgons of the immediate post-Cold War period: Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Whatever the Clinton administration's commitment to multilateralism had been, these gorgons turned it to stone. The administration fell back on what it called "à la carte multilateralism." That is, the United States would pursue multilateralism when it could, but act unilaterally when it must.

History is on the verge of repeating itself. After eight years of neoconservatives trying desperately to extend the unipolar moment, a new group is in the White House promising to change America's relationship with the world. Yet, plenty of gorgons beckon: Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Will Obama's multilateral resolve turn to stone or will his administration truly remap U.S. global relations?

"The new president is off to a good start," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Ehsan Ahrari in The Making of a New Global Strategy. "He already has spoken to the world of Islam, stating that America will deal with it respectfully and on the basis of pragmatism; he has invited Iran to unclench its fist and initiate an era of negotiations on the basis of mutual respect; and he has appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys for Middle East and South Asia, respectively. He has sent Vice President Joe Biden to talk to the Europeans and to the Russians."

The vice president was indeed in Europe the other week, but he spoke out of both sides of his mouth on the issue of multilateralism. He promised our European allies a "new era of cooperation." But he also warned that the United States would "work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must," which sounded an awful lot like the Clinton administration's eventual default position.

But times have changed, argues FPIF contributor Hannes Artens. "These aren't the golden 1990s, when U.S. power was at its zenith. In this first decade of the 21st century, the capitalist West is facing defeat in Afghanistan and is on the verge of 'the worst recession in a hundred years,' as British minister Ed Balls put it in perhaps only slight exaggeration," he writes in Multilateralism in Munich. "This combination will force the Obama administration to stop cherry-picking issues on which it wants to cooperate and forging ahead on those issues it believes it can still handle alone. Necessity will dictate a more pragmatic multilateralism, in which all sides humbly accept what is realistically possible."

Are we thus witnessing the final end of the unipolar moment? China is coming up fast. The European Union's expansion has been accompanied by relatively few growing pains. Several powerful countries in the South (particularly India, Brazil, and South Africa) are quietly acquiring more geopolitical heft. Global problems like climate change and financial collapse require global solutions, so we either evolve multilateral responses or we do a dinosaur dive into extinction.

Over here, meanwhile, the Pentagon is still maintaining the world's largest military force -- but we have failed to defeat al-Qaeda, we are quagmired in Afghanistan, and all of our nuclear weapons have done little to prevent North Korea from entering the nuclear club. The global recession is hammering the U.S. economy, and we might finally see the end of the dollar's reign as global currency. With the bank bailout, the stimulus package, the bill for two wars plus the Pentagon's already gargantuan budget, the red ink is mounting.

Debt has been the gravedigger of many an empire. I can hear the adding machine totting up the numbers.

Or is that the sound of dirt hitting a coffin lid?

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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