By guest blogger Arthur Stein

This post explores the relationship between domestic politics and a multilateral or unilateral foreign policy (and the pursuit of multilateral or unilateral solutions to problems).

One way to cut into this question is to ask whether political leaders are punished or rewarded for flouting the norms of the international community, or even for ignoring the outside world. Alternatively, we can ask whether leaders find it important to obtain international support for their foreign policy positions.

Arguments have been made for two diametrically opposed logics characterizing the relationship between the outside world and internal politics. On the one hand, the outside world is a source of legitimacy for both domestic and foreign policy. States want the recognition of others. Individual leaders go to summits with others as a way of establishing their political legitimacy. The acceptance of a government as an interlocuter by the outside world enhances internal legitimacy.
Unilateral policies are ones that either run the risk, or assure, the hostility of the outside world and thus run the risk losing domestic support and legitimacy for a regime. Multilateralism is thus preferred by governments not only as a way to reduce costs but as a way to bolster the internal acceptability and legitimacy of foreign policy (and even of domestic policy, as Etel Solingen and Jack Snyder have argued in different settings).

On the other hand, the exact opposite argument has also been made, that pressures from the outside world can also reinforce domestic political legitimacy, and political elites can heighten domestic support and generate nationalistic fervor in conflicts with the outside world. Besides a rally-round-the-flag effect of external hostility, outside pressure delegitimates the internal domestic opposition and makes possible the expansion of state power. Nincic argues this to be the major consequence of sanctions. Collective sanctions have rarely generated foreign policy shifts and have in many cases strengthened the sanctioned regime. Pushed to the extreme, this view suggests not only that unilateral policies go down well domestically, but that regimes can purposely instigate conflict with the outside world as a way of bolstering the regime’s position at home.

Ironically, one can see both arguments at work in US policy towards Iraq across the two Bush administrations. In 1990, the first Bush administration was readily able to mobilize world support to oppose Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. It had a more difficult time mobilizing domestic support and indeed required a UN resolution in order to obtain a Congressional resolution (and that just barely). In contrast, in 2002 and 2003, in the wake of 9/11, the administration of Bush 43 easily garnered domestic support for war in Iraq even in the face of the opposition of key allies.

This discussion implies (its theoretical incompleteness notwithstanding) that multilateralism can result from either a strong confidant government or from a weak one in need of external legitimation. Conversely, unilateralism can also result either from a strong regime unconcerned with external affirmation or from a weak one needing external conflict to generate defensive patriotism.

This suggests that an important component of unilateralism is not merely the international strength of the regime (having the capability that unilateralism requires) but also the internal strength/weakness of the regime.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.