The Multilateralist

Conservatives and global governance (part 2)

Last week, I started to examine American conservatism’s view of multilateral institutions and global governance more broadly. Conservative hostility to the United Nations is by far the loudest theme, and I attempted last week to categorize several of the common conservative charges leveled against the UN. I think they have a common thread: the UN–at ...

Last week, I started to examine American conservatism's view of multilateral institutions and global governance more broadly. Conservative hostility to the United Nations is by far the loudest theme, and I attempted last week to categorize several of the common conservative charges leveled against the UN.

I think they have a common thread: the UN--at least its General Assembly--is a forum in which the United States is routinely outvoted and in which its special place in the international system receives no formal recognition. What's more, many of the states that vote against the U.S. are themselves corrupt and unrepresentative.  The UN General Assembly is quite unique in this respect--it's the one multilateral forum where the U.S. can be humiliated--if losing a public vote should be thought of as humiliating--on a regular basis. Most other institutions, including the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and NATO, either operate by consensus or accord the United States special voting powers. 

When the focus shifts to that broader constellation of international organizations, the picture becomes more complicated. American conservatives are not uniformly opposed to a prominent role for institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, or the WTO. (They have little fondness for the European Union, it's true, and none of the candidates is eager to see U.S. funds save the Euro. But that does not distinguish them significantly from the Obama administration.) Indeed, in last week's Republican debate, Mitt Romney advocated using the WTO's dispute resolution mechanism to challenge China without a peep from the other candidates:

Last week, I started to examine American conservatism’s view of multilateral institutions and global governance more broadly. Conservative hostility to the United Nations is by far the loudest theme, and I attempted last week to categorize several of the common conservative charges leveled against the UN.

I think they have a common thread: the UN–at least its General Assembly–is a forum in which the United States is routinely outvoted and in which its special place in the international system receives no formal recognition. What’s more, many of the states that vote against the U.S. are themselves corrupt and unrepresentative.  The UN General Assembly is quite unique in this respect–it’s the one multilateral forum where the U.S. can be humiliated–if losing a public vote should be thought of as humiliating–on a regular basis. Most other institutions, including the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and NATO, either operate by consensus or accord the United States special voting powers. 

When the focus shifts to that broader constellation of international organizations, the picture becomes more complicated. American conservatives are not uniformly opposed to a prominent role for institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, or the WTO. (They have little fondness for the European Union, it’s true, and none of the candidates is eager to see U.S. funds save the Euro. But that does not distinguish them significantly from the Obama administration.) Indeed, in last week’s Republican debate, Mitt Romney advocated using the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism to challenge China without a peep from the other candidates:

And on that basis, we also go before the W.T.O. and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply, selectively, tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, "Well, you’ll start a trade war." There’s one goin’ on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.

Note here that Romney wants to stand up to China not with unilateral sanctions or military moves but through the established processes of a multilateral institution. I’ve argued before that the WTO is a particularly interesting case for American conservatives. In many respects, it features the most developed adjudication system of any international organization. A panel of WTO trade experts–the appellate body–regularly makes binding rulings on critical matters such as domestic subsidies and tariff barriers. There are huge political and economic implications–and the United States loses cases on a regular basis. Yet conservatives almost never complain about this remarkable transfer of sovereignty to international bureaucrats (though many on the political left do).

Anyone tempted to sum up the conservative take on multilateral institutions as a simple-minded defense of sovereignty has to grapple with this complexity. The more convincing explanation is that conservatives are not averse to limitations on national sovereignty when those limitations are perceived as accomplishing conservative objectives, in this case liberalizing trade.

There’s obviously more to the story than that, and I plan to explore some other dimensions in subsequent posts. 

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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