2002 October 02 Wednesday
Unilateralism can create Illusions about Multilateralism

Here's a mental exercise: Suppose the US was not willing to attack Iraq if the UN Security Council refused to approve the attack. Well, that would give Russia, China, and France veto power over the attack. Would the leaders of those nations use the veto power? Certainly. Why? They each want to get paid the money that Saddam Hussein owes them. Plus, they want to make more arms sales to Iraq and other sales using their special relationships with Saddam. Plus, they all to varying degrees want to thwart the US and prevent any extension of US power and influence.

However, it is quite possible that the Bush Administration may succeed in striking deals with Russia, France, and Iraq to get them to withhold their UN Security Council vetoes. Why? Its very simple: The Bush Administration has made it clear that the US will invade Iraq with or without UN Security Council approval. Once the leaders of Russia, China, and France became convinced that Bush had sufficient resolve and power to carry out the attack on Iraq even without UN support these leaders realized they were faced with the question of whether it was really worth it to each of them to veto the Bush Administration's Iraq UN Security Council resolutions for largely symbolic reasons.

The alternative open to the leaders of these three nations is to shift gear and negotiate for concessions from the US in exchange for withholding their vetoes. Whether they can win any concessions from the Bush Administration depends on what the Bush Administration believes it gains from winning UN Security Council approval. In order words, what is UN approval worth to the Bush Administration? Lets look at the pluses and minuses of UN approval. Well, first of all, if Bush can achieve UN approval he makes life easier on Tony Blair for his symbolic and military support for the attack. Blair is in a tough position with a public a substantial portion of which believes all the cowboy cliches about Bush as the reckless American hawk. Much of this same public has more trust of the UN the US (a view I regard as wholly irrational but there it is). Granted, the US can go on without the UK's help. But Blair has stuck his neck out for Bush and I suspect Bush feels some loyalty toward Blair as a result. That's probably the biggest single reason to bargain with the Chinese, Russian, and French leaders.

The other advantage Bush gains from favorable UN Security Council votes is domestic. There are Americans who'd be more comfortable with a US invasion of Iraq if the UN Security Council approved it (again, this seems more like romantic delusion than an accurate rational appraisal of the nature of the UN and its most powerful Security Council members). My guess is that since Bush already can win Congressional support for the invasion the US domestic considerations are not crucial in his thinking. In fact, there is even an argument for going ahead without UN approval: doing so makes it easier to go ahead and conduct other preemptive strikes (eg against Iran or Libya) later. Plus, the precedent of acting without UN approval makes any demands and threats (public or private) he wants to make to such regimes as Iran, Libya, and North Korea far more credible. That credibility, in turn, could be very useful in convincing those regimes to give up their WMD programs.

To sum this up: It is Bush's willingness to use unilateral force that has created the conditions that will most likely lead to "multilateral" approval from the UN Security Council. If and when that approval is forthcoming then to some superficial observers it will seem that the US has bowed to the need for approval from a transnational institution before acting. But even if some come to the erroneous conclusion that the UN (really just China, Russia, and France) ultimately made the decision to attack Iraq it is clear that the motives of the UN powers have nothing to do with the best interests of the world at large or with the safety and security of the West. So an unfortunate side effect of a UN approval may be to paint the UN with a gloss of legitimacy that it does not deserve. But at the same time the UN approval will help Bush's ally Blair in domestic British politics.

My guess is that the Bush Administration will win the UN approval it seeks and in large part because it really doesn't need the approval in the first place. My further guess is that most of Bush's top advisors have ambiguous feeling about the desireability of this likely outcome.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 October 02 10:01 PM 


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