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Domestic Political Concerns

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Domestic political concerns in part explain, but scarcely excuse, the frequent hostility to multilateral undertakings, institutions, and ideology expressed by and through policymaking and diplomatic elites. Especially since the end of the Cold War, consensus among elected officials on foreign policy matters has substantially collapsed, with the major political parties taking up adversarial views on the merits of international involvements. This new political culture has latched on to the tense relationship between the US and UN that accompanied the growth of the non-aligned movement during the 1970s and its control of the General Assembly. The lunatic fringe now worries not about the Communist International, but the UN’s black helicopters seeking to subjugate America to world government; the Republican electoral success in 1994 hinged on their “Contract with America” platform, one plank of which called for legislation to ensure that “No US troops [operate] under UN command..” The decade-long refusal of the US to pay its full mandatory dues to the UN emerged from the same sort of politics, joined with legitimate custodial concerns about fiscal and administrative management in the organization. American presidential politics, long the electorate’s focus for foreign-policy concerns, have of late put the issue of the authority of international organizations in the forefront of the public agenda.

Whatever the merits of unilateral undertakings, there is no value at all in the world’s most powerful state issuing gratuitous insults to multilateral fora. Yet some in the US persist in doing just this, through policy behavior and the anti-internationalist rhetoric of distinguished commentators. Thus Charles Krauthammer: the United General Assembly is “a playground for the most powerless nations on earth to rant and vent their rage at the powerful.” One Permanent Representative, the Spanish Ambassador, lamented the hostility American tactics engender:

The United States is, by its actions, setting a devastating example. The wealthiest nation in the world has chosen not to honor its dues to the organization that it helped create, and of which it is the most important member.. The leader of the free world went over a year without appointing an ambassador to the body entrusted with the task of securing and upholding international peace.. The United States does not even sign or ratify treaties whose propriety is acknow­ledged unanimously by the international community.. All these actions harm the United Nations beyond description, not only because the United States is one of the world’s foremost democratic states, but also because of the US standing as the sole superpower. The immediate effect thereof is both contagious and harmful.

There is a good reason debate and process are of value to states lacking the wherewithal to act outside of sanctioned institutions, and even officials animated by Realpolitik and committed to preserving unilateral options should by word and deed allow multilateral institutions to fill whatever space they may competently and effectively occupy. American victory in the Cold War destabilized the balance that had earlier provided many smaller states with some measure of security, if only the thin assurance of predictable antagonisms; when that balance was lost, those states turned even more urgently to the international order just as some in the US felt liberated to conduct policy without substantial multilateral consultation. Lingering distaste for the

General Assembly among some US policy elites appears at times to emerge as a concern that even engagement with the Security Council might subordinate American action to dominance of the poorer, southern nations in the membership as a whole. This is a serious mistake; both the General Assembly and Security Council can serve or impair US interests, but they do so in profoundly different ways, and the general ineffectiveness of the General Assembly-which was, in a sense, designed to be in- effective-reflects little on the potential effectiveness of the Security Council when sitting in its role as guarantor of security.


Cognitive dissonance regarding the nature of the international order can produce destructive reverberations throughout international politics. As some states become comparatively incapable of executing major diplomatic enterprises outside of multilateral bodies, their own resentments at this fact may surface in the form of excessive faith in the competence of the body to succeed in whatever it undertakes. Failures by the multilateral organ will then only reinforce a dominant actor’s tendency to see the organ as an unnecessary, even silly, sideline to the real business of in­ternational politics, further alienating the two. Neither strategy is stable, and for all the reasons that the present international institutions were built following the World War II: Without a means for dissipating political costs throughout the states favoring a costly undertaking, norms will be under-enforced and miscreants allowed to thrive. Without a reliable way to involve the wealthiest states in the affairs of the poorer, the former will grow inattentive and the latter unstable.

Just as unilateralists may now overlook these instrumental values, so too have multilateralists come to adopt an excessively Kantian view of unilateral pursuits, supposing that the admixture of a single nation’s interest irrevocably taints an otherwise worthwhile undertaking. But nation-states are not mere atavisms, national interest not synonymous with hegemony, and political elites cannot be expected to move about the international plane with disregard for the demands of or possible benefits to domestic constituencies. At the same time, though marginal states may hope to expand their own political resources through the legitimacy of multilateral regimes, opposition to the affairs of a dominant actor is hardly the reason such states find international procedures so attractive. The interdependency of the multilateral and the unilateral, the decision-making powers of the group and the executive efficiency of the strong, are likely more than transient phenomena. Scarce political capital ought not be wasted disparaging a potentially worthwhile arrangement.



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