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The Meaning of Modern Multilateralism

The United States has historically relied on bilateral relationships and unilateral action. The United States has historically used its own military and economic might. The United States has—cultivated the multilateral tools to achieve foreign policy objectives?

“We have to use them,” said Sheba Crocker, the U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, in conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter at a recent event at New America. “The Obama administration came into office, as I think everyone is aware, with a strong commitment to reengaging and to reassuming leadership across the multilateral system, and that commitment was rooted in both a core understanding and reflected two central objectives. The understanding was an acknowledgement that the international system is not a threat to our international interests,” Crocker explained. In the final months of the Obama administration, it is perhaps worth asking how multilateralism worked.

The Obama administration’s commitment to multilateralism, especially in engaging in international conflicts such as Syria and Ukraine, is evident. During the escalation of violence in Syria from anti-President Bashar al-Assad protests to a full-scale war between the Assad regime and anti-government rebel groups, pressure was put on the United States to prevent the impending humanitarian crisis. The U.S. refused to act alone militarily.

As Syria devolved into chaos, allowing terrorist groups like the Islamic State to seize territory across the country, the U.S. was again pressed to take action. Remembering lessons from Iraq (a decidedly not multilateral chapter in American history), the U.S. resisted acting unilaterally, and instead, initiated a campaign to unite the global community against ISIS. By late 2014, 62 nations had reportedly joined the coalition spearheaded by the United States to fight the militant group in Syria.

However, despite the slew of U.N. resolutions that have been passed on the Syrian conflict, legitimate progress in Syria remains elusive., And unilateral action in Syria by other nations (namely Russia), in addition to the strength of non-state actors like Kurdish forces and militant groups in shaping the conflict, has destabilized Syria so much so that partitioning the country has emerged as a viable ‘Plan B.’ Furthermore, institutions like the United Nations that are designed to encourage multilateralism can easily be manipulated to serve the interests of one nation. One would be forgiven for wondering whether multilateralism works.

On the shortcomings of the United Nations, Crocker admitted, “It’s an entrenched bureaucracy and an entrenched system, and at the end of the day also, some member states [of the United Nations Security Council] benefit greatly— including us by the way— from the way the system is set up. Not always, but we do when it comes to things like being able to drive decisions around leadership positions and different things.” Indeed, some would say one of the largest failures of the multilateral body has been the decades-long failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part because of America’s refusal to address human rights violations by Israel. And while China has long supported the stronger representation of developing nations on the Security Council, permanent members, including the United States, each hold the right to veto resolutions, and have therefore been reluctant to reform the system that clearly favors the global north.

But that does not mean all is lost for or by multilateralism. “A few areas where we’ve been able effectively to advance U.S. interests…one is in the multilateral human rights system,” said Crocker, referring to the United States’ efforts to revitalize the U.N.’s peacekeeping and human rights architecture. And when pressed by Slaughter to explain the importance of working through multilateral institutions, Crocker offered, “The answer is that we can’t do it all ourselves. We never lived in a world where we could, and we certainly don’t live in a world where we can now.”

This is certainly not for lack of trying. Emerging technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles have enabled nations and opposition groups alike to strike their adversaries—and in some cases their own citizens—unilaterally and without trial. For example, thus far, only the United States has the capacity to carry out lethal drone strikes almost anywhere in the world, unilaterally engaging in ‘drone wars’ in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya. However, China’s swift rise as a power in drone technology and indiscriminate exports to nations like Iraq and Nigeria, which are now using drones in combat, removes the need to form coalitions and act multilaterally in international conflicts. China's “no-questions-asked” drone exportation policy has made it easier for nations to acquire lethal technologies through bilateral relationships and carry out unilateral foreign policy objectives. Even more unsettling, non-state actors such as Hezbollah, who have no responsibility to adhere to international regulations, treaties, and Geneva Conventions, now have armed drones at their disposal as well.

Ultimately, multilateral institutions do serve a purpose and have been indispensable in driving key outcomes, whether it’s agreeing on new peacekeeping missions, as in Mali and the Central African Republic, as Crocker pointed out, or the continued strong support among all council members for the 16 peacekeeping missions that are on-going in the world right now. The nature of warfare and growth of regional powers will certainly change. Every country’s understanding of what it means to act multilaterally and effectively will need to change. Even, whatever its history, the United States.


Alyssa Sims is a policy analyst with the International Security program at New America.