I write today in defense of unilateralism. I know there are many who will want to pillory any country that refuses to sign the Kyoto Protocol, that breaks fundamental economic accords and that sends its troops to fight Muslims abroad without United Nations authorization. To them I say: Give the Europeans a break. They have good reasons for doing what they’re doing.
Europeans? No, that’s not a misprint. The Bush administration gets all the grief for its supposed unilateralism, but the actions in question have all been taken by European governments.
Russia signaled last week that it might not ratify the Kyoto accord on global warming. The week before, France and Germany abrogated the Stability and Growth Pact, which requires all euro-zone members to keep their budget deficits under 3% of gross domestic product. And French troops in Ivory Coast are still struggling to impose some stability in that country, where they arrived in September 2002 without benefit of a U.N. resolution. Last week riots broke out around France’s main military base in the port city of Abidjan.
As these events transpired, I couldn’t help remembering how many times I’ve been lectured by self-righteous Europeans in the last year. Europe, they claim, is governed by the rule of law, whereas the United States lives by the law of the jungle. Europe is multilateral, the United States unilateral. Europe good, United States bad. A nice conceit, that. Too bad European governments are so keen to disprove it.
It would be easy to make fun of these pious hypocrites who preach the rule of reason but practice raison d’etat. And frankly it’s a temptation that I find impossible to pass up. But the European actions also raise a serious point that knee-jerk multilateralists of whatever nationality would do well to ponder: Not everything sanctified by the “international community” is good, and not everything done by a lone nation or an ad hoc coalition is bad.
Take the Kyoto Protocol. Is Russia considering bailing out simply because it hates all treaties? That was the charge made against the Bush administration after it renounced Kyoto, but in fact the Russian objections, as laid out last week by President Vladimir V. Putin’s top economic advisor, are remarkably similar to the American ones.
Moscow, like Washington, fears that draconian emissions restrictions will stunt economic growth while doing little for the environment because mega-polluters, such as India and China, are exempt from the limits. Though other European states have ratified Kyoto, most of them are not meeting its targets.
Then there’s Europe’s much-ballyhooed Stability and Growth Pact, originally created at the instigation of France and Germany, which wanted to impose fiscal discipline on countries adopting the euro. It called for keeping budget deficits below 3% of GDP -- a figure that both France and Germany have exceeded for three years running.
The U.S. was caught in a similar violation of economic rules recently when the World Trade Organization ruled that its steel tariffs were illegal. President Bush, the supposed foe of international law, is meekly complying with the WTO decision by lifting the tariffs rather than face retaliation. France and Germany, by contrast, are not bringing their budget deficits below the red line. Instead, they have brazenly forced the European Union to suspend the substantial sanctions that should have been imposed on them for breaking the stability pact.
That’s not such a bad thing, however. Artificial deficit caps can impede economic growth by forcing a country to cut spending or raise taxes during an economic downturn. Allowing an occasional surge in the deficit can lead to much-needed Keynesian stimulation of the economy, as both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have shown.
Finally, we come to the Ivory Coast, where a rebellion broke out in September 2002 against the dictatorial government of Laurent Gbagbo. The subsequent fighting killed thousands and split the country in two, with Muslim rebels holding the north. To prevent even worse violence and to protect French expatriates, France sent troops and then negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the government and rebels. Only five months after its troops arrived did France seek and get U.N. ratification -- exactly the strategy the U.S. has pursued in Iraq.
Now 4,000 French and 1,200 West African soldiers are enforcing the cease-fire agreement. In other words, the force is 80% French. Roughly the same percentage of foreign troops in Iraq are American, which must mean that the Ivory Coast intervention is just as “unilateral” as the one in Iraq. But so what? The French are performing a valuable service, just as the Americans are in Iraq. They should be thanked for stepping forward, not criticized for not getting more nations to sign up.
The point isn’t that unilateralism is always good. Often, as in the case of Bush’s steel tariffs, which hurt U.S. consumers, it’s stupid.
Nor is multilateralism always the answer. It depends on the circumstances. These questions should be examined on a case-by-case basis. Sounds logical, right? Unfortunately that sensible approach is derided by most Europeans -- except, of course, when their own governments are doing it.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.