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.
Another approach is to supplement the U.N. with a more capable and cohesive international organization such as NATO. But while NATO has helped with logistics on peacekeeping operations in Darfur, it is very unlikely to seek or accept greater global responsibilities.
At the White House, I watched President Bush ask NATO leaders to come to Darfur's rescue only to find his request roundly ignored. NATO seems fully occupied and completely exhausted by its limited exertions in Afghanistan. European militaries are dramatically underfunded for far-flung missions. And many Europeans seem fully prepared to accept the free ride of American security protection while contributing little to the security of others.
Another option is to bypass the United Nations. "We can have a league of democracies," argues McCain, "to impose sanctions and to cut off many of the things and benefits that the Iranians are now getting from other democracies. I think it's clear that the United Nations Security Council will not act effectively, with Russia and China behaving as they are." McCain is proposing, in essence, to create a new NATO that actually works.
But a new global alliance of 100 democratic nations (McCain's goal) that excludes Russia and China would naturally be viewed with open hostility by both. And it is hard to imagine timid nations such as Germany, or many Pacific nations living in China's immense shadow, offending Russia and China by joining up. Besides, democracies can also be craven and irresponsible. Japan and India, while seeking Burmese natural gas, have done little about Burmese oppression. South Africa has hardly been heroic on Zimbabwe.
So what realistic option will the next president have when the next genocide commences or the next proliferation threat arrives? Probably a coalition of the willing, led by America. It is the paradox of American influence: In a crisis, our power is irreplaceable -- and we want nothing more than to replace it.