In Defense of Unilateralism

In The Right

In our times, “unilateralist” has become a dirty word, an insult on par with “belligerent aggressor” and a refrain of choice for critics of the present administration. We hear, from European politicians and American intellectuals, a ceaseless jeremiad about the dangers of unilateral U.S. action. Consider, for example, the lament of Peter Kilfoyle, a member of the British parliament, in his recent op-ed in The Crimson. After deciding that Islamic terrorism is the result of globalization and the polarization of the “haves” and the “have-nots” (itself a curious conclusion, given that the hijackers of Sept. 11 were educated, middle-class residents of first-world countries, and that the vast majority of the “have-nots,” like those in non-Arab Africa, East and South Asia, and South America, have no special desire to blow us up), Kilfoyle declares that Europeans “look for a multilateralist approach to these dire challenges, whilst [the American] administration appears set on a unilateral approach...” He doesn’t go on to say exactly why this is a problem, but one guesses he doesn’t mean it as a compliment.

Kilfoyle’s unwavering faith in the virtues of multilateralism is hardly surprising. His view has many sympathizers, and their sympathy follows naturally from the kind of moral education we receive as children. Share, we are told. Cooperate. Don’t hurt other people’s feelings. In the vaunted vanity of academia, these lessons are recast in subtler terms. Sharing becomes “social justice.” Cooperation becomes “discourse.” Not hurting other people’s feelings becomes “tolerance.” Who could possibly object to such lovely, “nuanced” values?

So it is quite natural that we bristle at perceived unilateral American policies, whose very premise is that the United States has the right to disregard the opinions of foreign nations, and to override them altogether when doing so is necessary to achieving a stated end. The enlarged sphere or autonomy that America claims for itself in turn suggests that the United States occupies a privileged position in the international pecking order, and here we arrive at the most fundamental irritant: Unilateral policies, by reserving to oneself the right to act over the objections of one’s neighbors, presuppose one’s own moral superiority. This is the idea of American “exceptionalism;” it holds that the United States is different from other nations, that its democratic values and its military and political strength give it a special responsibility to safeguard the freedom and security of people everywhere. And if America must act alone, so be it. Few things sound less egalitarian, and that is why unilateralism rubs us so.

Of course, the principal response available to defenders of unilateral policies is: Get over it. This statement is admittedly not nuanced, and therefore frowned upon by members of the Harvard Faculty. But, for all its simplicity, it also has the virtue of being correct. The truth is that there are many situations in which we grant individuals greater autonomy due to their superior judgment. Indeed, the structure of the professional world is based on just such a hierarchical ordering, and those who lead organizations pursue the organizational equivalents of unilateral policies. This may gall the insecure and the immature, but after all, growing out of childhood includes acquiring the ability to defer to those more able than ourselves.

Surely the same is true in international affairs. One of the great follies of multilateralism is its supposition that a consensus of the international community is binding simply because it is a consensus. This could well be the thought behind Kilfoyle’s claim that “it is the UN that should decide on military action, not President Bush”—but, again, he neglects to offer reasons for his beliefs. I do not mean to demean the importance of consensus within a democratic community committed to a common set of values. But the world is not a democracy; its nations are not, as a whole, committed to democratic values; and it is precisely for these reasons that consensus often becomes morally impotent in international contexts. Consider, for example, the international community’s fine consensus to remove the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission while retaining such luminaries as Sudan and Libya (the latter of which will chair the commission next year). The fact that this outcome was agreed to in no way made it right, although the fact that it was agreed to by dictators, tyrants, and thugs did make it predictable.


The ultimate test of American foreign policy is a question of its rightness, not of the process by which it was formed. Communities can make mistakes and individuals act rightly. The decision to appease Hitler by abandoning Czechoslovakia in 1938 was arrived at by international consensus; it was as multilateral—and as wrongheaded—as one could hope. On the other hand it is hardly likely that, if the United States had decided to halt genocide in Rwanda through police-keeping action, that policy would have been spat upon as “unilateral.” It would have been the right thing to do, and our unwillingness to do it when the international community failed to act is something we should all regret.

Now, with debate about Iraq at a boiling point, we face another such test. One need not rehearse here the case against Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime. It should be noted, however, that he has decided to play a shell game by offering the return of weapons inspectors while conveniently ignoring substantive demands (such as disarmament and the repatriation of prisoners of war). Every indication suggests that this tactic will accomplish the purpose for which Saddam deployed it: to split the UN Security Council and prevent decisive action against the Iraqi regime. The French and the Russians, stained by Iraqi oil, have taken the bait and declared that a new resolution against Saddam is unnecessary. Germany will follow. Tony Blair has so far been stalwart, but there is no predicting how far he will bend to accommodate certain leftist members of his party.

Which leaves the United States. Whether the specter of nuclear-armed terrorists is sufficiently horrifying to justify military strikes against Hussein’s dictatorship is something we can debate. But once we have the answer, let’s not lose courage to do the right thing simply because no one else is willing.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.