The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Unilateralism Does Have Costs, But…

June 10, 2005

It looks like the Duck of Minerva’s going to start quacking “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” if I don’t post something on international relations soon. So, in the interests of all non-baseball fans everywhere…

On America Abroad, Ivo Daalder reflects on the The High Cost of Unilateralism:

In the early days of the Bush administration, us foreign policy wonks would sit around and bemoan Bush’s unilateralism — his decision to walk out of the ABM Treaty, declare Kyoto “dead,” abandon efforts to strengthen the ban on biological weapons, unsign the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, withdraw the nuclear test ban from Senate consideration, and other such steps. What we couldn’t really agree on in those early days was what the costs of this unilateralism were going to be.

This is an important point. As I discussed some days ago, the evidence for the short-term costs of Bush foreign policy is decidedly mixed – despite the fact that we have good reason to believe the medium-term and long-term costs may be very high indeed.

Nevertheless, Daalder really needs to choose better examples to make his case. Let’s take them in turn.

First, Daalder focuses on Iraq. Now, Iraq should be a pretty good case for the costs of unilateralism. I think we can all agree that Bush’s insistence on publicly repudiating treaties that he could have simply ignored, such as Kyoto, created an atmosphere of distrust among foreign audiences; the administration missed a major opportunity by not letting NATO provide more concrete operational assistance in Afghanistan. Taken together, all of this probably made getting “buy in” from important allies on the Iraq invasion, most notably Turkey, more difficult. It would be interesting to explore whether earlier American unilateralism, not to mention the generally ham-handed way the Bush administration tried to build foreign support for the war, thus made the invasion and occupation of Iraq more difficult.

On the other hand, one could certainly make the case that France, Germany, and Turkey would have adopted the same policies even if their relations with the US had been better. In sum, I think Daalder – even if he is blogging – has to do much more than assert that:

The high cost of unilateralism is most evident in the fact that America accounts for 85 percent of the foreign troops, 90 percent of the foreign casualties, and 95 percent of the aid dollars coming into Iraq. But it is also apparent in the difficulties we have confronted ever since Saddam Hussein was toppled, since the lack of legitimacy rendered international support — and success — that much less likely.

Second, Daalder writes about two articles that, he claims, show how “the costs of unilateralism are evident in other ways, including, crucially, a growing reluctance by our friends and allies to support us in our diplomacy.”

One reported on failure of the John Bolton-led effort to deny Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, another term. Ever since the run-up to the Iraq war, when ElBaradei refused to endorse the administration’s view that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, the Egyptian diplomat has been a thorn in Washington’s eye. So Bolton led the charge to get our friends to oppose his nomination for a third term (as he had earlier done successfully in the case of the Brazilian head of the chemical weapons agency). Problem is, no one agreed with us — and no one worried about standing up to us. So rather than getting our way, Condoleezza Rice had to sheepishly conceed yesterday that ElBaradei would remain for another four years.

This example is just weird. Daalder’s essentially saying that the cost of American unilateralism was not being able to get rid of a guy who was only a problem because of US unilateralism in the first place. If the administration hadn’t rejected ElBaradei’s assessment of the state of Iraq’s nuclear program – an assessment that was basically accurate – then the US would not have had any incentive to remove him from his position.

Moreover, consider a counterfactual: let’s say that the US had behaved unilaterally, but had turned out to be right about Iraq. ElBaradei would almost definitely not have his job now.

What it comes down to is this: arguing that ‘ElBaradei’s a pain and we can’t get rid of him’ just doesn’t amount to much of an indictment of the unilateralist position.

Next, Daalder turns to the OAS:

The other story that caught my attention was one reporting on the U.S. failure to secure backing for setting up a democracy monitoring mechanism as part of the Organization of American States. (Earlier, the administration had to give in on the appointment of José Miguel Insulza as the new secretary general, even though it had supported two alternative candidates.) And why did the administration fail? Because our Latin friends believed we were pushing this initiative only to go after Venezuela and not to strengthen democracy in the hemisphere. And so the sided with Caracas rather than with us.

This one just seems like a case of the simplest explanation being right: the administration failed because Latin American countries thought the US was out to get Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. I can’t possibly imagine why they would have such an idea. Put differently, this might very well be a case of a dispute rooted in different state interests and policy goals, rather than one likely to be greatly impacted by America’s past unilateralist actions. I suppose that, technically, one could claim that a multilateral approach towards Venezuela from the beginning might have been more productive for the US, but I’m not convinced that there’s an obvious connection between what happened at the OAS and Kyoto, the ABM Treaty, and Iraq.

I have great respect for Daalder, and I agree with him on the larger issue. In some respects, I’m also not being entirely fair. After all, Daalder’s trying to illustrate that anti-American sentiment, sentiment spurred by Bush’s foreign policies, is starting to erode American statecraft.

Still, these two examples only show, at best, that adopting unilateralist policies is undermining American influence in multilateral institutions – and on issues that don’t seem particularly consequential for US interests, at that. Since the whole argument for unilateralism is that the US shouldn’t pay so much attention to these institutions in the first place, I think Daalder needs to do a bit more work if he wants to move beyond preaching to the converted.

Daalder does, of course, do this in his and James Lindsay’s book, but the wonderful thing about public intellectuals, such as the great minds over at America Abroad, taking up blogging is that they can reach audiences who would never bother to slog through long works of policy analysis.

UPDATE: Daniel Starr does exactly the kind of “work” I’m talking about on the question of whether Bush’s fondness for unilateral swagger cost the US Turkish support for the invasion.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.