Can the US pursue unilateral foreign policy - going at it alone without the consultation and cooperation of allies and other states - in a world so well integrated in every respect, in a global economy so interdependent, a world of international organizations utterly dependent on their member nations, and an ecosystem that belongs to the entire world and not a single nation? Can problems requiring multilateral approach be solved unilaterally?
Is there a contradiction between the persistence of ideological unilateralism and the realities of America's declining power in the world, as some argue, or is the abandonment of unilateralism a reflection of weakness and lack of resolve on the part of US leadership? Can the US as a superpower that experienced its zenith of power in the mid-20th century and has been declining slowly thereafter afford to pursue unilateralism when it can get away with it, while reverting to a multilateral approach when there is no choice?
It is one thing to go at it alone when every other nation in the world is weak, as was the case in 1945, and entirely another matter when the global power structure is so dispersed in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet, the recent comment of Victoria Nuland, State Department official, "F..k the EU" indicates the persistence of ideological unilateralism against the realities of American waning global influence. The optimists about high tech and science might ask if unilateralism makes sense in the age of cyber wars and information sharing, stealing, and hacking?
Finally, if unilateralism entails strength and multilateralism weakness, and if unilateralism is equated with or at least leaning toward military solutions, then is this the best course to serve the interests of the people in a democratic society? Hardliners would argue that unilateralism is best suited to serve national security interests, as they define them. Unilateralism advocates would argue that just as it is justified to spy electronically on US citizens in violation of the Constitution, it is justified to spy on friends and foes, of US law firms and foreign-based multinational corporations. While intelligence gathering is legitimate, only a desperate foreign policy pursues "blanketing" approach to spying globally, a policy concealing unilateralism. In this case, the next question is how effective is such a course when the entire world will become even more closely integrated and the fate of nations intertwined, thus unilateralism backfires and achieves the opposite of the desired goal?
2. Who benefits from Unilateralism?
The foreign policy of a country reflects its broader institutional structure, political economy, ideological and cultural heritage. Just as Nazi Germany pursued a foreign policy rooted in its domestic agenda, or the USSR during the early Cold War, similarly US foreign policy reflects its domestic agenda as well. Naturally, there is the issue of whether unilateralism best serves the broader interests of the majority of the American people, or it simply furthers narrow interests linked to the military industrial complex and the right wing ideologues who prefer isolationism and military solutions to diplomacy as a way of peaceful co-existence in the world. While there is a good argument to be made that multilateral foreign policy when practiced has best served broader interests, while unilateralism much narrower, in either case, US foreign policy will in the end promote the capitalist system and the consumerist values embodied therein.
3. The framework of US foreign policy
America's foreign policy framework is rooted in a European-based model, despite the doctrine of "American Exceptionalism" developed in the course of the 19th century and holding steady to this day. It is indeed within the broader confines of "American Exceptionalism" (= the US is different from other nations, the exception, so it can pursue a double standard of reserving pluralism at home but military solutions abroad to impose its will). That the US continues to pursue "Exceptionalism" in its foreign affairs even in the early 21st century is an indication of adherence to an ideology linked to how the American elites perceive power. To understand how US policy has tried to balance itself owing to domestic and external pressures, one can examine the struggle between unilateralism the US pursued until the Wilson administration and a multilateral course pursued out of necessity during WWI, then abandoned in the interwar era, to be picked up again during WWII, sidelined during the early Cold War and occasionally revisited as the occasion required from the end of the Vietnam War to the present.
In the age when trading and/or currency blocs prevail, and countries try to strengthen bilateral relations as a means of strengthening their national position the US is in the unique position of using its superpower status to buttress its position in the world, something that no other nation is able to do at this point. Given that the US has a foreign policy framework that is much broader than any other country because it is the sole superpower, does unilateralism reflect strength or weakness, does it reflect forward-looking thinking or anachronism?
4. From Unilateralism to Multiletaralism in the 20th century
As unique as they appear, the foundations of US foreign policy are European-rooted in terms of ideology and ideals based on Liberalism and bourgeois democracy as expressed by the Founding Fathers who were profoundly influenced by the Age of Reason. In practical terms, US policy has emulated the imperial mother country, Great Britain, and supported Europe diplomatically and strategically owing to the reality that the US was created as an extension of Europe. The eminent diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams correctly argued that the US was an imperial power throughout its history based on its behavior in the Western Hemisphere and beyond, and there is no indication in the 21st century has changed the mindset of policymakers, despite the enormous changes in the world power structure, especially Asia’s rapidly rising economic, strategic and political importance.
Once the Cold War ended, the US needed to create a new framework to justify a global strategic presence and imperial policy that would perpetuate its economic and political influence. The answer came with the strategic decision to declare war on "terrorism", which of course is Islamic militancy and takes direct aim at the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa. The new missionary diplomacy of the US, reminiscent of Wilsonian style foreign policy, cloaked under the war on terrorism holds the promise of delivering "freedom and democracy", albeit at gunpoint with overt and covert military operations, with or without the support of allies and other cooperating nations, in other words, unilateral or multilateral policy.
Considering that the US was the main force behind multilateral organizations, including the United Nations and its various sub-agencies, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, NATO, Organization of American States, to name just a few, it is ironic that Washington would strongly defend them when it serves its narrow interests and try its best to bypass if not undermine them when it sees them as obstacles to its policy. In short, the creator of multilateral organizations rebuffs them because the world has changed to the degree that other countries exercise influence in multilateral organizations the US cannot use as its sole foreign policy instruments as it did during the early Cold War. This refusal to accept rapid change in the world power structure reflects the gap between the reality of US real role in the world, vs. the imaginary role in the minds of unilateralist ideologues that range from advocates of drone warfare to spying on the European Parliament because of "terrorism concerns".
5. Unilateralism in Inter-American Affairs
"Unilateralism " (deciding alone without consultation of the allies, but expecting the allies to assist) in US foreign policy is a characteristic that can be traced to isolationism and in particular confined to inter-American affairs that goes back to the Monroe Doctrine. However, even the Western Hemisphere has changed drastically from the CIA-staged coup of Chilean president Salvador Allende to the present when Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia among other republics are defiant of US unilateralism and have forged new alliances and bilateral ties within the Hemisphere as well as with EU, Asia and Middle East to counterpoise the US role. One merely has to look at the trade direction both ways - imports-exports - to realize that the US patron-client integration model is not plausible in the early 21st century.
6. Unilateralism in the Middle East
Unilateralism is dangerous because the US is extraordinarily interdependent in today's world and no matter what foreign policy decision it takes, there are predictable and unpredictable consequences. Unilateral decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan and drone warfare have proved very costly in every respect. In my view they have only helped strengthen China, and to a lesser degree Russia and Iran. I defy anyone in the State Department or any apologist of US militarist adventures to explain how the US has benefited by the militarist adventures (Iraq, Afghanistan, direct and indirect intervention in Arab Spring countries from Libya to Syria) in any manner other than symbolically demonstrating its superpower status. Moreover, I defy anyone to prove that the US as a whole (not just a few defense contractors) is better off or worse off because it adopted military solutions in the last dozen years, instead of opting for "political solutions".
The US started the second decade of the 21st century with a publicly-stated multilateral foreign policy that on the surface aimed to replace the unilateralism and military-solution approach of the Bush administration in the first decade of the century. However, US foreign policy at the level of public diplomacy only is indeed multilateral and only when absolutely necessary because there is no better option has the US pursued a multilateral policy of working with other nations to solve conflicts instead of going at it alone. Based on the foreign policy record, the US under Obama has been pursuing a going at it alone policy when it can do it and get away with it, and multilateral policy when it needs to do so.
The US was not pleased with the EU that refused to go along with US plans to become deeper involved in Syria in the summer of 2013, a situation that forced the Obama administration to accept a diplomatic solution with Syria by opening a dialogue with Moscow, while making parallel efforts to end the Cold War imposed on Iran. The futility of US military solution was obvious even to the most hawkish Americans, but they were still hoping that counterinsurgency operations among the heterogeneous Syrian rebels would work out in the end as they have across North Africa after the Spring Revolts in that region. In short, many advocates of American unilateralism, including those inside the government, were hoping Syria would be no different than Libya or Egypt, as though either of those countries has been a resounding success story by any one’s definition and by anyone’s standards.
7. Unilateralism in US-EU-Russia Relations
When Victoria Nuland, US top diplomat for EU affairs, said to the US Ambassador in Ukraine "F...k the EU", she was merely reflecting at attitude within the US government. One could argue that it was just a meaningless expression amid a heated conversation, while others maintain that she stated that obvious US continuation of unilateral policy that the Obama administration is continuing where Bush left off. The issue here transcends the colorful language that Nuland used, just as it transcends the current US-Russia and US-EU relations that seem strained because of a number of divisive matters.
There are published reports that the US as well as Western Europe have been involved in the so-called "spontaneous revolt" for democracy and desire for a pro-West regime in Kiev. There are unconfirmed reports of millions of US dollars as well as US covert operations behind the Ukraine rebel movement, something that we have seen glimpses from the telephone conversation of Nuland the US ambassador in Kiev. There is no proof, other than the phone conversation and that the pro-West movement has enjoyed the backing of some of the most right wing elements including very wealthy Ukrainians.
However, even in the Ukrainian rebel movement where the US is basically following a pattern not much different than its involvement in "pro-freedom and democracy" movements in Islamic countries, what we discover is that the struggle for power, mainly economic penetration of Ukraine, is best preferred to be fought at the unilateral level first, and as Nuland said: "F..k the EU." Here we have a clear picture of the US cooperating formally with allies seeking the same goal as the US, namely to undermine Russia and its role in the Ukraine, but at a deeper covert level, the US is clearly out to undermine its own allies whose cooperation it has been seeking.
This situation is not very different that the broader pattern the US has been following in the Middle East, and it is just one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia has been so enraged over the matter of US diplomatic solution with both Syria and Iran, given they are intertwined in many respects. What are the EU allies to make of this, other than protest strongly behind the scenes and publicly about the hypocrisy of US foreign policy? Well, the EU would actually have a stronger case, if it paid a greater share for its own defense and if it did not to cut deals from behind the scenes on a bilateral basis, bypassing their partners including the US. In short, the EU countries are confronting American unilateralism accordingly.
Is the future of US policy toward greater unilateralism that many equate with strength and the glory of Pax American, or is the future with a multilateral approach that reflects the new realities with the global power structure as it has evolved? Clearly, the US is unable to stop the clock that is ticking increasingly louder in Asia and it will be centered there by the middle of the century. How it manages its foreign policy is crucial. Continuing with counterinsurgency operations that destabilize countries where the US wishes to exert influence at the economic, political and strategic level does not work in the early 21st century as it did in the middle of the 20th.
Nevertheless, there is a vast network of active foreign policy staff and consultants trying to make a dollar by offering cheap advice that the State Department wants to hear, but with a nuance or two. This is anachronistic and because history militates against it the only outcome is failure. There is no substitute for honest assessment and a realistic approach to foreign policy, an approach free of the heavy baggage of left-over Cold War ideologues. In a world with problems ranging from climate change owing to pollution, from extreme imbalances in monetary policies that creates disequilibrium in the terms of trade globally, from regional conflicts where there are multiple players involved directly and indirectly, unilateralism is an obstacle and not a solution to complex problems.