Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Multilateral multilateralism

Norm Geras remarks on a speech by Hillary Benn.

Benn says:

“What do we do when states or those within states commit crimes against humanity?
“As we look to the future, I think we have to answer that question by making a renewed commitment to multilateralism in our foreign policy. A multilateralism that commits to work with the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, NATO and the widest range of partners, whenever we can.
“A multilateralism that pushes for reform in these international institutions to make them work more effectively… and make the responsibility to protect work in practice, with all the authority and legitimacy that only the UN can command.
“Because the more we can demonstrate that multilateralism can answer that uncomfortable question, the stronger we can make the argument with those who would act unilaterally that there is another way.”

Norm responds:

“But now suppose that, in a particular, terrible case - of Rwanda-type proportions - this answer is not effective; no multilateral action to halt an ongoing slaughter or genocide occurs, no other way is shown in fact.”

I agree with Benn that multilateral action is almost always preferable to unilateral action: more supporters means more likelihood of success. And the smoothness of functioning of the UN is a good thing for international relations in the long term, other things being equal. But Norm’s concern is spot on.

You see, the thing about making a commitment to multilateral solutions is that that very commitment has to be made multilaterally in order to be effective. If a large number of governments agree to pursue some worthy cause through the UN, but one of the permanent five demurs, the plan is scuppered.

For all but the ideologues on both sides, it’s an open, case-by-case question whether any given proposal for action would be better dropped for the sake of international harmony or pursued anyway for the sake of averting an emergency.

(The 1999 military action over Kosovo was, to my mind, a bigger breach of international law than the 2003 Iraq war: both lacked Security Council authorisation, but the former involved far more lawbreakers than the latter. The fact that Kosovo is widely regarded as having had far better humanitarian justification, and the fact that Iraq has caused far more difficulty for the UN, show that SC resolutions are more about alignments of power interests than about moral authority. International law in this context largely boils down to intergovernmental popularity.)

What’s better for stopping a Rwanda-type genocide: a unanimous UN denunciation or a few powerful states ‘roguishly’ sending in the troops?

So what’s the more important issue: how to make the effective action that’s necessary as multilateral as possible, or how to make the multilateral action that’s necessary as effective as possible? The two have very different starting-points, and – to the extent that we live in an imperfect world – different ending-points as well.


Liam Murray said...

"So what’s the more important issue: how to make the effective action that’s necessary as multilateral as possible, or how to make the multilateral action that’s necessary as effective as possible?"

Without detracting from the complexities you highlight the answer to your final question is unquestionably the former. The latter effectively puts process before outcome, the standard folly of ideologues everywhere.

Although too 'hawkish' for many Robert Kagan's 'Paradise & Power' was a great exploration of similar ideas. The multilateral question is just one facet of the whole Kant v's Hobbes debate around the exercise of power and the fundamentally differing approaches taken by the US and Europe.

Tom Freeman said...

In really dire cases - a Rwanda or a Kosovo - where getting tough could stop a catastrophe, I'd give the same answer: sod the procedure.

But in dealing with lesser problems, I think you'd have to be an ideologue (of a different stripe) to insist that we should always bypass the institutions. (I say "we" - but this could refer to any government that wanted somehting doing.) Because the continued functioning of the UN, and the maintenance of good diplomatic relations, are themselves factors in the outcome.

Sometimes they'll be marginal factors but at other times they might be decisive.

I didn't read Kagan's book but the essay it was based on was good. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you have an air force, everything looks like a bomb target; if you have a committee, everything looks like a discussion.