Friday, October 13, 2006

Multilateralism Is Not a Moral Principle

Jonah Goldberg has an excellent column up in which he examines North Korea's nuclear diplomacy and writes that multilateralism isn't a moral principle:

Americans tend to think — and Europeans consider it gospel — that all differences can be negotiated. The truth is that only negotiable problems can be negotiated. Just ask Hamas if everything can be bargained for around a table. Their one non-negotiable principle is that Israel must cease to exist. Beyond that, they’re open to all sorts of creative proposals.

What’s worrisome about the hard case of North Korea is that so many people see Pyongyang’s intransigence as proof that the whole international community has to work together.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for multilateralism if it leads to a solution. But the rush to international solidarity rests on the assumption that working as a group is morally superior to acting alone. The belief that everything can be talked through is part of a tapestry of thought that esteems communal efforts as more legitimate than individual ones. If we can all agree on what to do, it must be right.
[rather postmodern, eh? -- ed.]

Initially, John Kerry’s chief complaint against the Iraq war was that Bush didn’t build a giant multinational coalition like his dad did, as if the argument for war depended on whether Belize and Burkina Faso agreed with us. If it was right to topple Saddam Hussein, it was right even if no one else agreed. And if it was wrong, then it was wrong even if the world was on our side. Lynch mobs aren’t right because they have numbers on their side, and men who stand up to them aren’t wrong because they stand alone. Multilateralism is good only to the extent that it allows us to achieve good things. To think otherwise is to confuse power-worship with principle.

There is great momentum behind calls to build a coalition through the United Nations to defang North Korea one way or another. I hope that works. But it would be folly to think that getting North Korea to disarm is only a good thing if it’s won by the international community or the United Nations. President Clinton and most liberals understood this point when it came to ending genocide in Yugoslavia, and he persuaded NATO to ignore the United Nations. A great many liberals also understand it when they argue for military intervention in Darfur — with or without the U.N.’s blessing.

Emphasis added. I've never understood how multilateral talks were somehow a necessary precondition for dealing with North Korea -- or anything else.


Andy B. said...

"Just ask Hamas if everything can be bargained for around a table."
Why does Hamas set the standard? This seems to be a prime example of the ethics of the lowest common denominator.

John said...

If universal consent (i.e. "multilateralism") is a necessary precondition before taking action, then yes, Hamas gets to set the standard.

bob said...

John, What an interesting argument against coalition building. My argument would be for a limited attempt at building a coalition. Say maybe a month in order to convince other nations of the merits of our position. There is strength in numbers and it would be nice if it wasn't always left to the stand alone in the fight for right.

John said...

I don't think that Goldberg is making a case against coalition building. What he's making is an argument that a coalition is absolutely necessary for taking any international action. He bases this argument on the premise that things are moral or immoral intrinsically, not by popularity.

Richard said...

I think the assumption most of the people in power take is that their decisions are morally sound, therefore multilateralism is necessary.

John said...

Richard, please explain how morality necessitates multilateralism.