Libya is a crucial test for Obama the multilateralist
It is hard to argue with the White House’s reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not. Obama’s multilateralism is both ideological and ...
It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
It is hard to argue with the White House’s reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama’s multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach — if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests — whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people — and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
History has shown that there are some real obstacles to making multilateralism work. First, the larger the group of nations involved in any initiative the more difficult it is to achieve consensus on a plan, get approval for that plan and ultimately manage and maintain the effort. Next, some of our most important allies, like those in the EU have a fractured, ineffective foreign policy formation mechanism, long-established reluctance to get involved and their own financial problems to involvement. Other potential allies present their own challenges in terms of getting them engaged — whether those are Japanese restrictions on international use of force, China’s current inclination to be a free-rider (or worse) in terms of global security issues, or the reluctance of neighbors to a problem such as that in Libya to get involved for fear of exacerbating or inciting their own internal problems. Finally, our mechanisms for international collective action fall into two categories: those that are designed to be slow, weak and ineffective in almost all matters (the United Nations) and those that are likely to be slow, weak and ineffective on most matters outside their core mission (NATO).
Past impulses to defer to the international system — Rwanda comes to mind — have for all these reasons, plus the special circumstances associated with individual crises, foundered and ultimately provided fodder for unilateralists who point to them as evidence that the United States cannot both fulfill the ideal of being an international team player and be strong at the same time.
For these reasons, Libya is an important test. It’s hard to argue with the theory or values behind their policy approach. We must take White House and State Department spokespeople at their word that they are working furiously behind the scenes to generate an effective international response to the calls for help of the Libyan opposition. But if that response is not forthcoming or it is too late or too limited, the Obama administration cannot merely chalk it up to global apathy or institutional inefficiencies.
Multilateralism is just a tool in any country’s foreign policy toolbox. It will only be turned to regularly if it works. And for it to work the U.S. must see it not as a way of merely ceding responsibility or encouraging burden-sharing but rather as a new way to lead. President Obama has demonstrated that we have the head and the heart for this approach … and indeed, we can ill-afford any of the alternatives, but the jury is still out as to whether or not we can not just talk the multilateralist talk but whether we can actually achieve our goals by walking the multilateralist walk.
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