Don't get me wrong. I'm all for multilateralism if it leads to a solution. But the rush to international solidarity rests on the assumption that working as a group is morally superior to acting alone. The belief that everything can be talked through is part of a tapestry of thought that esteems communal efforts as more legitimate than individual ones. If we can all agree on what to do, it must be right.
Initially, John Kerry's chief complaint against the Iraq war was that Bush didn't build a giant multinational coalition like his dad did, as if the argument for war depended on whether Belize and Burkina Faso agreed with us. If it was right to topple Saddam Hussein, it was right even if no one else agreed. And if it was wrong, then it was wrong even if the world was on our side. Lynch mobs aren't right because they have numbers on their side, and men who stand up to them aren't wrong because they stand alone. Multilateralism is good only to the extent that it allows us to achieve good things. To think otherwise is to confuse power-worship with principle.
There is great momentum behind calls to build a coalition through the United Nations to defang North Korea one way or another. I hope that works. But it would be folly to think that getting North Korea to disarm is only a good thing if it's won by the international community or the United Nations. President Clinton and most liberals understood this point when it came to ending genocide in Yugoslavia, and he persuaded NATO to ignore the United Nations. A great many liberals also understand it when they argue for military intervention in Darfur - with or without the U.N.'s blessing.
The U.N. gambit may well succeed (though I doubt it) because it is in the interests of just about everybody - except Iran - that North Korea's nuclear program be rolled back. But we should not take away the lesson that this hard case proves it's always better to hitch our wagon to the interests of the international community, because there are a lot more hard cases coming down the pike.
Some of them will be nonnegotiable.
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