If a U.S. administration were to dictate war policy to its allies in a situation in which the allies' troops were in danger; were to wield its veto at the United Nations in defiance of all other Security Council members; were to wage a war without U.N. approval to avoid a veto by another permanent Security Council member -- what, then, would that administration be called?
Unilateralist? Cowboyish? Dangerously prone to "going it alone"? Perhaps all those things, but the best label would simply be "the Clinton administration." President Clinton did all the above in the 1990s. Liberals now demanding near international unanimity before Bush moves on Iraq should recall the stark lessons of the limits of "multilateralism" from an administration whose foreign policy they supported.
Clinton inherited a nasty ethnic war in Bosnia, with the British and French incapable of addressing the Serb aggression, partly because their peacekeepers on the ground became quasi-hostages. Clinton's instinct was that "if the United States doesn't act in situations like this, nothing will happen."
Exactly right. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was dispatched to Europe to sell a policy of lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and threatening the Serbs with airstrikes. But he took, in his words, a "conciliatory approach." He wouldn't tell the Europeans the United States was going ahead like it or not, but asked them whether they might possibly, maybe find it in themselves to support "life and strike."
A predictable disaster ensued. Christopher was rebuffed. "Lift and strike" was shelved. The result of this frankly multilateral approach? The murder of thousands more Muslims. Ain't "the international community" grand?
Christopher's visit failed because conciliation on the international stage is often taken as a sign of a lack of resolve, so it doesn't inspire many followers. Also, making international decisions by committee creates openings for bad faith. The Europeans assumed Clinton might have wanted them to kill his policy so he wouldn't actually have to follow through on it.
Meanwhile, that greatest multilateral institution, the United Nations, was proving its moral nullity. U.N. peacekeepers watched Muslims get slaughtered, and when peacekeepers were taken hostage by Serbs, the United Nations cut a deal to protect Serb interests. When the West first tentatively decided to bomb the Serbs, it settled on an exquisitely multilateral "dual key" system requiring the approval of both NATO and the United Nations before any strikes.
The result was few strikes, because the United Nations is infected with a low-grade pacifism, in which watching innocents die and its mandates being defied is superior to war. The Clinton administration became so frustrated with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that when he later came up for a second term, it vetoed his renewal, negating the votes of all 14 other Security Council members. There were howls of protest, but eventually everyone else went along -- thus, Kofi Annan.
As for Bosnia, the administration in 1995 finally decided to insist on a muscular version of "lift and strike," telling the Europeans to cooperate or, in the words of one official, "the United States was going to do all those crazy things like bomb the Serbs." The administration bombed the Serbs and forced a peace on Bosnia, with the Europeans dutifully in tow.
There is simply no substitute for forceful American leadership. Sometimes the best way to get allies is to be willing to forge ahead alone. And sometimes it's not possible to get them. When Clinton confronted the Serbs over Kosovo in 1999, it seemed impossible to get Russian approval, so the administration waged war without a Security Council vote.
That might be the model for the Bush administration in dealing with France in the current crisis over Iraq. One veto-bearing Security Council member, with interests opposed to those of the United States, can't stand in the way of a necessary military action. If you don't believe it, just look to Clinton. Even his administration failed the test of multilateralism insisted on by liberals today.