06/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Multilateralism is Essential for Peace in the 21st Century

Unilateralism is the wrong approach for American Diplomacy. There is nothing to suggest its efficacy since 9/11. There is nothing to suggest its usefulness for future conflict. In allowing the US to go it alone, America's partners and allies risk the havoc and catastrophic consequences that will accompany "Imperial Overstretch." The residue of overstretch will include loss of US leadership in the world, an economy whose decline affects billions of dollars in international markets, and certainly emboldens rogue states. The whole world will pay the price if we let unilateralism pervade this century.

As the bloodiest 100 years in recorded history, the 20th Century is replete with examples of how policy and practice intersect to foment war. The proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the constantly mutating dynamic of terrorism inform our current, dangerous reality.

Amidst this backdrop of destruction, there are lessons for those who are looking for them. Seeds of peacemaking and conflict resolution were planted which we must germinate in order to halt and then reverse the trend toward violence and chaos. Perhaps the 21st Century could be the first 100 years in which nations invest more in building peace than in making war.

In the 20th Century, local conflicts ignited global tensions and genocide on an unprecedented scale, costing incalculable life and treasure. The two world wars and other explosive conflicts erupted over such issues as ethnic disputes, the securing of natural resources, corporate interests, ideology and religion. The international business of war produced economies of scale prompted by the industrial, technological, and communications revolutions.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo by anarchist Gavrilo Princip was the spark that ignited WWI. In time, some 15 million people would be killed. The sheer brutality of that war led Woodrow Wilson to issue his "Fourteen Points" in 1918, which included the establishment of a League of Nations "for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." Just like our present-day difficulties in pursuing compromise, the US Congress politicized the concept, bucked the President, and did not support that initiative. The subsequent failure of the League of Nations to prevent WWII may have galvanized our culture's distrust of multilateralism.

Throughout the 20th Century and until today, nations and other entities have invested precious financial, intellectual, social, institutional and political capital into arming themselves with weaponry, instead of building their capacity for peace. Technologies change and improve with increasing rapidity, but those advances have included improvements in how to kill more people more efficiently and with smaller devices.

WWII was the shining example of multilateralism and its power. Vietnam and Korea were examples of its limitations. South Africa and India demonstrated that the support of the international community could enable countries to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. All these contribute and form the basis of the state of nations today.

The 20th Century left us at a crossroads: will we perpetuate the machinery and culture of war or surpass our greatest dreams by encouraging and enforcing peace policies and practices worldwide?

The 21st Century began ominously with the attacks of September 11, 2001, which ushered in a new era of US foreign policy and global response to war, conflict and terrorism. Rather than engage a sympathetic world in developing multilateral and inclusive strategies similar to the precursors to the 2003 Iraq War and as was done before the Persian Gulf War, the US squandered its global capital to pursue "pre-emptive" unilateral military action. The equal and increasingly matching reaction is a global culture of military aggression and war.

The resulting disintegration of the international community contributed to the most serious economic disaster since the Great Depression. Already struggling to survive amidst broken economies, the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and global terrorism strains multilateralism when it should embolden it. If it is true that every weapon invented is eventually used, we have much to fear if we do not reverse this lethal trend.

Since national conflicts frequently spill over into regional and world-wide conflict, multilateral organizations have been very strong supporters of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Even the US found a way to first investigate and then come to terms with its terrible policy of putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII and apologized and paid reparations to survivors and their children. There were important Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, supported by the international community. Victims and perpetrators of Apartheid who participated in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions demonstrated in compelling ways the healing and restorative power of those gatherings. Perhaps more importantly, they showed the world that a nonviolent response to unthinkable oppression and injustice can foster the peaceful development of a society intent upon making amends for the past and embarking upon a brighter, shared future. Since conflict-resolution and peacemaking at the local or national level work, why not apply it multilaterally?

Concerned about the resurgence of unilateralism in the US's current Marjeh and Kandahar operations in Afghanistan, former Assistant Secretary of State Gene Dewey recently noted that "it's been very lonely being a leading multilateralist in Washington over the last nine years. Too few policy-makers have sensed where our unilateralism has led, and is leading."

Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian Islamic countries generated the seeds that not only birthed the terrorists who carried out 9/11, but also attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Chechnya. No matter where terrorists are determined to attempt to disrupt the lives of others, it's time for countries to realize that the only way to confront contemporary terrorism is through multilateralism. This must be a multilateralism that is thoroughly infused with peacemaking and conflict-resolution, instead of only "joint forces."

At this crossroads, we can use the knowledge economy, social network and the international community to turn the rhetoric of hope into reality. We sit upon an historical precipice of policies and practices of sustainable, culturally responsive peace-building and violence prevention within and beyond our borders.

Despite their faults, the institutions set up after in response to WWII (UN) and the Cold War (NATO) can be the 21st Century's vehicles for peace. We can use those instruments of multilateralism to build the peacekeeping, disaster relief, and conflict resolution forces that bring countries together.

"Actually, I believe we have strategically shifted from that of a global war on terror (GWOT) to containing violent extremism (CVE). That said, the reason extremists do what they do is because they recruit from amongst the most desperate people on the earth. And, the reasons for desperation are strategic---but not necessarily military in nature. In fact, we have the capability to wage peace that is just as sophisticated as our capability to make war. Water, AIDS, mass migration of people, desertification, poverty, hunger, and disease---What would happen if our National Security Strategy became a multilateral one of economic engagement, and used the brain power and resources available to mitigate these issues?" -- Lt. Col. Matthew Canfield, U.S. Army (Currently on his second tour in Iraq)

Concerns over economic stability, limited resources and security have divided us. Now is the time to create rather than divide common ground.