WASHINGTON -- In their total war for the right to be dubbed the peace candidate, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama propose a greater reliance on international institutions as an alternative to unilateralism and ad hoc "coalitions of the willing." Clinton talks of a "preference for multilateralism." Obama urges "more determined U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations." Even Republican John McCain reflects a pale version of this critique, calling for greater attentiveness to the "collective will of our democratic allies."
Multilateralism has become a political safe haven for politicians fleeing from the exertions of the Bush years. Their promise is implicit: Next time the use of force becomes unavoidable, the sacrifices will be broadly shared.
But a vague commitment to multilateralism obscures one of the most difficult challenges the next president will face: While international institutions have never been more needed, they have seldom been less effective. The U.N. Security Council -- where China and Russia have emerged as reliable protectors of the oppressive and irresponsible -- has done little to distinguish itself on Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur or Burma. And global nonproliferation efforts are about to shatter like a glass hammer on Iranian nuclear ambitions.
It is easy to blame the current administration -- or past administrations -- for lacking diplomatic magic that would somehow transform China or Iran into good global citizens. But many of the policies of the next administration are likely to be remarkably similar. On genocide or proliferation, the United States generally urges the international community to be more forceful and responsible. The international community generally engages in solemn discussions while avoiding sanctions or even the threat of force. Proliferators and genocidal regimes generally get the joke.
What could the next president do to make international responses to crimes and threats more credible?
One approach is to improve the United Nations. The U.S. could try to dilute Chinese and Russian influence by embracing an expansion of the Security Council to include Japan, India, Germany and Brazil as permanent members. The current composition, after all, is a faded snapshot of global influence from the 1940s.
Opening the membership question, however, would lead nearly every nation with a flag and a national anthem to ask "Why not me?" An expanded Security Council might be more cumbersome instead of more responsible. And a parallel effort to update the U.N. Human Rights Council has been a mess, with the "reformed" membership passing more than a dozen resolutions against Israel and refusing to confront the oppression practiced by Cuba or Belarus.