By guest blogger Arthur Stein

Multilateralism and unilateralism constitute attitudes towards the external world.  It is interesting to see how these fit with other characterizations.  Jeff Legro presented a paper at UCLA’s international relations workshop and he distinguished three types of states: trustees, hermits, and rebels.  Rebels are states interested in upending the established order (a revolutionary Soviet Union was one example).  Hermits are isolationists interested in separating themselves from the world (Tokugawa Japan, for example).   Trustees are states who are neither hermit nor rebels, but are integrated into the international community and upholders of the existing order.

How does Legro’s typology map onto the multilateralism/unilateralism dichotomy?  Hermits are certainly not multilateralists, but isolationism would not qualify as unilateralist if the latter presumes some degree of involvement in outside world.  Rebels have activist foreign policies, and although one can imagine a group of rebel countries acting in tandem, it would certainly be the case that they would constitute a distinct minority of the states in the system and acting in opposition to others, and historically rebels have been individual states acting on heir own.

But even if all rebels are unilateralists, not all unilateralists are rebels.  Indeed, not all unilateralists are merely pursuing particularistic national interests.  One of the striking aspects of American unilateralism has been the assertion of American administrations that they have been vouchsafing universal interests and values.  Indeed, arguments such as hegemonic stability theory portray a unilateralist great power providing collective goods without much support.

Trying to overlay these alternative typologies of state behavior makes it clear, I believe, that unilateralism captures a wide range of policies, from those intended to upset the international order to those that constitute go-it-alone efforts to sustain the order.  To make the point clearer, imagine a community of states bound by most-favored-nation free trade agreements.  And imagine a group of countries creating, in tandem, a regional customs union that violates their larger obligations and constitutes defection from the liberal regime.  Finally, there is one great power that continues to maintain open markets in keeping with the established order.  We would hardly characterize the actions of the power maintaining its commitments, but now being the only one to do so, as unilateralist.  I am less certain, but I believe we also wouldn’t call a group defection, multilateralism.      I am certain that there are those who would argue that US intervention in Iraq was a great power’s unilateral maintenance of an established order in the face of others’ defection from their obligations.  Imagine, for example, if the US were prepared to intervene in Darfur, and was the only one willing to do so, would we describe such an intervention as unilateralist?

What I am getting at is that when we characterize state behavior as unilateral we mean more than a state acting on its own, we have in mind a state acting on its own without the approval or acquiescence of other countries.  In the case above, the states which defect from liberal commitments still approve of (actually desire) the great power’s maintenance of open markets.  I would assume the same to be true of the hypothetical  Darfur intervention, that it would be approved by others who would be happy to sit on the sidelines.

All this suggests, that the multilateral/unilateral disjuncture is more about the approval of others than about how many states act jointly and how much each contributes.  More pointedly, multilateralism is about the absence of others’ disapproval, and unilateralism is behavior in the face of others’ disapproval.  Thus, what distinguishes the 1991 Gulf War from 2003, is the absence of disapproval in the former case and not how many countries joined in and how much they contributed.  It is also why a Security Council abstention, that is, acquiescence rather than approval, still sustains multilateralism.  It is the presence or absence of disapproval that is key.  This is also why there can be regimes which have mechanisms for excused cheating, in which the fact of being excused keeps the departures from being seen as unilateralist and as cheating.

All this raises the question of whose disapproval matters.  Clearly the disapproval of immediate target states does not.  Iraqi objections in 1991 and 2003 do not count in this sense.  Sudanese objections to intervention in Darfur would surely not matter.  The objection must come from states that are not immediate parties.  More on this later.

All this relates to earlier posts of mine on multilateralism, what it requires and what it means.

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