Unilateral multilateralism

George Will has lately been a little more restrained, holding back his usual parade of straw men in favor of directionless overly written meditations on baseball or the lack of human progress.  Today he throws himself back into the thick of things with an analysis of what the very complicated situation in the Caucusus means for the US election.  What does it mean?  Well, it means that Obama is a sissy, and McCain is Mr.Tough guy. To be fair it doesn't seem that Will endorses McCain's attitude (it's unclear what Will's view is), but it is obvious that he ridicules Obama's.  He can, of course, ridicule Obama's position all he wants, but he should try to be more effective.  He writes:

On ABC's "This Week," Richardson, auditioning to be Barack Obama's running mate, disqualified himself. Clinging to the Obama campaign's talking points like a drunk to a lamppost, Richardson said that this crisis proves the wisdom of Obama's zest for diplomacy and that America should get the U.N. Security Council "to pass a strong resolution getting the Russians to show some restraint." Apparently Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations for 19 months without noticing that Russia has a Security Council veto.

This crisis illustrates, redundantly, the paralysis of the United Nations regarding major powers, hence regarding major events, and the fictitiousness of the European Union regarding foreign policy. Does this disturb Obama's serenity about the efficacy of diplomacy? Obama's second statement about the crisis, in which he tardily acknowledged Russia's invasion, underscored the folly of his first, which echoed the Bush administration's initial evenhandedness. "Now," said Obama, "is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint."

I think anyone can tell that Richardon's initial point (whatever may be its merits) is primarily a historical one (one about how things should have gone before this point).  Now that the US has exhausted itself on belligerent unilateralism, Russia is free to act as it wants–belligerently, as it turns out, and unilaterally.  What can the US do about it?  Not a lot (at least, not belligerently or unilaterally).  Now contrast this with McCain's rather different answer to a different question:    

John McCain, the "life is real, life is earnest" candidate, says he has looked into Putin's eyes and seen "a K, a G and a B." But McCain owes the thug thanks, as does America's electorate. Putin has abruptly pulled the presidential campaign up from preoccupation with plumbing the shallows of John Edwards and wondering what "catharsis" is "owed" to disappointed Clintonites.

McCain, who has called upon Russia "to immediately and unconditionally . . . withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," favors expelling Russia from the Group of Eight, and organizing a league of democracies to act where the United Nations is impotent, which is whenever the subject is important. But Georgia, whose desire for NATO membership had U.S. support, is not in NATO because some prospective members of McCain's league of democracies, e.g., Germany, thought that starting membership talks with Georgia would complicate the project of propitiating Russia. NATO is scheduled to review the question of Georgia's membership in December. Where now do Obama and McCain stand?

If Georgia were in NATO, would NATO now be at war with Russia? More likely, Russia would not be in Georgia. Only once in NATO's 59 years has the territory of a member been invaded — the British Falklands, by Argentina, in 1982.

Will is oblivious the obvious contradiction: what means will McCain use to achieve these ends?  What will convince NATO and the other members of the G-8 (as well as the non-yet-existent "league of democracies") to embrace his objectives?  Will it be diplomacy? 

It turns out, or so it seems to me, that for all the tough talk, McCain and Obama really agree on the fundamental importance of negotiation and diplomacy, they just may disagree on the means.

6 thoughts on “Unilateral multilateralism”

  1. Right. Obviously, neither McCain nor Obama would recommend military action against Russia. Nobody wants that. However, they both would like Russia to stop invading a sovereign nation. Obama recommends utilizing the United Nations, and McCain the G-8. Whatever. It seems that any appeal to the UN draws a derisive snort from conservative writers like Will. The UN is for pu**ies. But the use of other international unions is sensible, or “tough”.

  2. “It turns out, or so it seems to me, that for all the tough talk, McCain and Obama really agree on the fundamental importance of negotiation and diplomacy, they just may disagree on the means.”
    I think you are exactly right. But maybe it’s exactly the means that George Will is attacking here. I think George should explain to us what does he mean by diplomacy.
    “The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.” (Soft Power)
    I get the feeling that every time Will talks about Obama’s diplomacy he presumes that Obama’s diplomacy is 3rd kind: soft power. And when talking about McCain’s diplomacy he talks more about the 1st and 2nd kind.
    So, I think it all comes down to the means.

  3. I’m curious what McCain’s “League of Democracies” plan amounts to. If the UN is so ineffective, why should we believe that an alternative international union would be more effective in dealing with this issue?

    Will is so quick to dismiss the authority of the UN without ever explaining why the UN is impotent. Here’s a thought: Get rid of Vetoes. Since 1972, the USA has accounted for over 90% of all vetoes in the Security Council, effectively taking the teeth out of most international democratic resolution. The majority of those vetoes, of course, have to do with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but there are quite a few that deal with other issues (like nuclear non-proliferation, the rights of women, economic protections for developing nations, etc.) (http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/membship/veto/vetosubj.htm)

    My point is this: writers so quick to condemn the UN for being impotent fail to note that this is the case because of US. A “League of Democracies” marshaled as an alternative to the UN would lack international legitimacy because non-aligned nations would see this league for the farce that is – a coalition of the willing American lapdogs.

    Its time to retire the trope that the UN is an idealist pipe dream that has no international authority. This may be true, but the REASON that the UN lacks authority can easily be attributed to US opposition.

  4. jem, let’s not kid ourselves. I think you give US too much “credit”. UN is impotent for one reason alone: they’re all looking just for themselves, not just US; all the countries care about one thing and one thing only, namely their own skin.  Rwanda and Iraq are 2 great examples of that.
    So we can take the high moral ground and all agree with the Dude from The big Lebowski: ” This aggression will not stand, man.” But the fact remains that soft power diplomacy is not really productive in the real world. 
    Here’s a related article about Obama and the use of soft power:Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?

  5. I’m not kidding… I had a longer response, but it got deleted by accident, so here are some highlights:

    National interest coupled with veto power is death to the UN.
    Soft Power just means diplomacy (the silly metaphor of “carrot”, “stick”, and “other” not withstanding). Attacking Obama’s character says nothing about the effectiveness of soft power as such, nor do I care to debate the merits of an Obama presidency, especially based on an article about him written almost one year ago.

    “All countries care about one thing and one thing only” – seriously? I hope you realize that countries are made up of people, and people on the whole tend to care about other people, even those that do not live in their own country.

    Rwanda was a critical failure…Africa is a critical failure. Why this is the case can easily be attributed to colonialism and its after-effects.
    Realpolitik is a critical failure and a dangerous and immoral way to approach the world.

  6. jem , I wish I shared your humanistic view of people, but I don’t.
    In my opinion, people “tend to care about other people” as long as it does not cost them. So, you are right. If you start with the assumption that you can appeal to some common values and this will be enough to convince people(countries) to do the right thing, then yes …. soft power is the way to go;however, in my view, history has proven that appealing to common sense or reason is not producing peace.
    I remember an old cartoon that showed a crossroad: one road was leading to freedom and the other was leading to sausages. And you can see that the road leading to sausages was the one most walked.
    I wish our world would be one of high moral standards, but it’s not. Practicing justice with empty stomachs it’s tough.
    I think we need Batman as president: “But that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”

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