Multilateralism — Quo Vadis?

How do Americans define and practice multilateralism? We compiled the most compelling quotes.

June 11, 2004

How do Americans define and practice multilateralism? We compiled the most compelling quotes.

Both the United States and the European Union claim to pursue a multilateral approach to policymaking. But that seems to be where the similarities end. Many in the United States complain that Europeans view the concept as a ploy to stall the U.S. government. Our Read My Lips feature offers a selection of quotes about how Americans envision multilateralism in all its uses.

How does the United States look at multilateralism?

“When Americans speak of “multilateralism”, they mean a policy that actively solicits and tries to gain the support of its allies. It is a means to the end of gaining allies support — but not an end in itself.”
(Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2004)

Why are many in the United States not in favor of multilateral approaches?

“‘Multilateralism’ — the code word for going to the United Nations — doesn’t solve problems. It just buries them.”
(George Melloan, Wall Street Journal columnist, March 2004)

Is U.S. unilateralism a recent development?

“An imperialist element in American foreign policy has always co-existed with other elements including isolationism, internationalism and idealism — nowadays called multilateralism.”
(Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, September 2003)

What explains the U.S. attraction to unilateral action?

“Why bother maintaining a multilateral order — of free trade, open markets and common defense — if your allies only use it to tie Gulliver down with leading strings?”
(Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, September 2003)

And yet, does U.S. foreign policy have a multilateral tradition?

“Poor, maligned, unsexy multilateralism has — for all its faults — historically been the default position of American foreign policy.”
(Bill Keller, New York Times executive editor, June 2003)

Do others beg to differ?

“Going it alone? I guess so, America has been “going it alone” since about 1776 — or maybe it was 1492.”
(Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal columnist, March 2003)

Will that remain a feasible policy?

“The dominance of America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world — the world we share — is impure. We are not shut off from each other. More and more, we leak into each other.”
(Susan Sontag, recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, October 2003)

Why does unilateralism seem so much more attractive to many in the United States?

“Unilateralism is so much easier to sell — and conceptually so much cleaner than multilateralism.”
(Michael Hirsh, former foreign editor of Newsweek, September 2002)

Mr. Powell, what do you think of European complaints about U.S. unilateralism?

“No one accuses France of being unilateral — if it disagrees with other countries in Europe on particular issues.”
(U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, September 2002)

Is cooperation with the UN a sign of U.S. weakness?

“Leading the world’s most advanced democracies isn’t mushy multilateralism — it extends our reach.”
(U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), March 2003)

And yet, why do some in the United States believe the UN is being abused by other nations?

“For the past ten years, France and Russia have turned the United Nations into a stage from which to pursue naked self-interest. They have used multilateralism as a way to further unilateral projects.”
(Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek columnist, September 2002)

What are the fundamental differences between the U.S. and European mentalities?

“The European way of doing business — through talk, patience, compromise and pooled sovereignty — is exactly opposite to the new American unilateralist thirst for action, quick results, no compromise with enemies, a suspicion of multilateral organizations.”
(Richard Longworth, Chicago Tribune senior correspondent, July 2002)

Why does the United States need to buy into multilateralism?

“Pax Americana must be multilateral, as Franklin Roosevelt realized — or it will not survive.”
(Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy, September 2003)

On what will most agree?

"Multilateralism cannot become an excuse for inaction."
(U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, January 2003)

Finally, why are different ideas about multilateralism across the Atlantic not so bad after all?

“An essentially multilateralist Europe and a somewhat unilateralist United States make for a perfect global marriage of convenience.”
(Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor, February 2004)