The Multilateral Mess
It is easy to see why Europeans would argue that the United States has defected from its original multilateralism strategy. After World War II, the US helped create many organizations to promote cooperation across national borders. Now the US ignores the very council it receives from those organizations and often acts unilaterally in serious foreign affairs. My position will be to support the Europeans’ views however, I will argue that the American policies have only evolved in the world’s best interest for the twenty-first century.
In one of our readings, Markovits states, “the Bush administration, with its aggressive unilateralism and irresponsible policies, scared away the Europeans” (Markovits 2007: 128). Americans don’t understand the European mindset, which has made it difficult to work multilaterally with them. The US would prefer to act quickly to resolve the problem, whereas Europeans tend to move more slowly to action because of their war-filled history. I believe the Europeans are scared of another world war, rightfully so, their past experiences with war have not been pleasant. After World War I and II, Europeans were left in economic depression and despair. Along with this angst, the European political structure is generally slower than American have patience for. In Germany, for example, the citizens would prefer the Bundesrat to be controlled by a different party than that of the Chancellor’s. This is a way of checks and balances, which ultimately makes decision making a slow process. The United States would therefore rather act alone, than wait months for support. So it does seem a little hypocritical now, that the US would help set up the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and World Trade Organization, if the US doesn’t intend to wait for their support.
The United Nations is a prime example of how the United States has changed and upset Europe. President Roosevelt lead the way in forming the UN from 1942-1945, and gathered 50 countries in San Francisco to sign the United Nations Charter. In the Preamble of this charter it reads, “that armed forces shall not be used, save in the common interest” (The United Nations 1945) but this is no longer the US policy. The US National Security Strategy was updated in 2002 such that section IX now reads, “we will be prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require” (The White House 2002). This obviously contradicts what the US pushed and supported in 1945 in the UN. In 2003, The United States invaded Iraq despite great opposition from the UN. This may have been necessary, but the US has to lead the UN by example and follow the signed charter like everyone else. Most of Europe and other UN members were initially against the invasion idea and they will only be less inclined to support the war if the US continues to act unilaterally.
Another example of the United States not supporting multilateralism is its constant defiance against other international institutions. In another class reading, Kupchan says:
The Bush Administration, like the Clinton Administration before it, has been none too pleased about Europe’s growing assertiveness, but Washington’s dismissive attitude toward the EU up to now has only strengthened Europe’s resolve. Bush’s penchant for unilateralism, in particular, has provoked European pique. As Bush backs away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and distances the United States from a host of multilateral institutions, Europe grows ever more convinced that it must both challenge America and chart its own course. (Kupchan 2002: 44)
Europe is right. If they cannot count on the most powerful nation to support these international ideas, which are for the benefit to the global community, than they will have to collaborate without America in the EU. Individually, the European nations are, in their minds, at the mercy of a hegemonic power they cannot trust. Together, however, they can challenge America’s controversial foreign policy and economic power. In addition to the institutions mentioned by Kupchan, the US also doesn’t recognize the International Criminal Court, which is fully supported by 106 countries. Europe is “…quicker to appeal to international law…[and] emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance” (Kagan 2002). The US would seemingly rather act alone than be apart of the ICC and other world organizations, which is very frustrating to Europe. Europe would prefer diplomacy and views the US as forceful mediator, who can only use Machtpolitik in resolving global issues.
The United States is, however, often misunderstood by Europeans who don’t want to get their hands dirty to solve problems. The US has less patience for terrorism and violators of human rights. America acts quickly to prevent the spread and magnification of these problems. The twenty-first century is full of complicated problems and threats that the UN will not be able to fix if it continues to be slow to support action. The forerunner of the UN was The League of Nations, which was built upon similar principles but failed with the outburst of World War II. This organization was also slow to respond to threats. Japan marched into China without any resistance or action from the rest of the world. Hitler observed how weak the international community was and did the same by marching over France and other countries with little resistance. The US is only trying to prevent other such global catastrophes by stepping up early. Kupchan also seems skeptical about the UN. He states, “the international institutions that have helped to promote peace and prosperity since World War II will inevitably falter” (Kupchan 2002: 44). If these institutions are not working, than the US is making the right decision in solving these issues without UN approval. America would prefer the support of the UN, NATO and the WTO and does try to get other countries involved. America has worked with the UN, NATO and others in Afghanistan, Rwanda and during the Cold War but when the US doesn’t get support, it cannot stand by and watch people die. Americans act and will continue to do so to promote world peace.
The twenty-first century is not as simple as times were after World War II and the United States is having to step up to its new responsibility. Like the saying goes “where much is given, much is required” the US has more obligations to the world’s prosperity. America has by far the strongest economy and strongest military in the world and cannot expect the rest of the world to step in with every conflict. Other countries simply cannot afford to be involved on every continent. Kagan says it best, “Europeans like to say Americans are obsessed with fixing problems, but it is generally true that those with greater capacity to fix problems are more likely to try to fix them than those who have no such capacity” (Kagan 2002). Invading Iraq was not a huge problem to fix for Americans but Europeans couldn’t imagine trying to accomplish such a task. Until the EU becomes larger and more financially stable, the US will likely have to continue to fight for world peace alone while everyone else talks about it. The United States is regardless still a nation that prefers multilateralism but currently the rest of Europe is very selective where they choose to help.
If Europe had a serious problem with America trying to unilaterally solve some of the world’s problems, America would have been voted out of the UN and NATO years ago. The fact that the US is still a part of these institutions shows that Europe silently appreciates the fight against terror and inhumanity but vocally discredits the US because they don’t have the means or don’t want the blame if something goes wrong. In Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America, it says, “all of us are happy when the big guy – regardless of the context – gets hit on the head” (Markovits 2007: 132). Europe and the rest of the world will continue to complain about America despite the results, only because the US is the world leader and everyone will resent that power because America has the means to fix world issues. So it is my conclusion, that despite the inconsistencies in America’s foreign policy, the United States is still thinking multilaterally when it decides to solve world problems unilaterally. They helped create useful multilateral organizations, but it is not possible for all global problems to be supported by all countries. Sometimes the one with the most resources has to step up and do what’s right.
Kagan, Robert. Power and Weakness, Policy Review 113. 2002.
Kupchan, Charles. The End of the West, The Atlantic. November 2002.
Markovits, Andrei. Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America, Princeton: Princeton
University Press. 2007.
The United Nations. Charter of the United Nations. 1945. Available online:
The White House. The National Security Strategy. 2002. Available online: