Why the U.S. needs the U.N. et al.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Feb. 14 2002 6:15 PM

Friends as Flak Jackets

Hugo Young of England's Guardian has a criticism of George W. Bush's go-it-alone foreign policy: "World power surely carries the responsibility to look wider, towards a benign shaping of decisions that are collective, not unilateral." Young worries that, increasingly, America will pursue a foreign policy of purely "American national interest."

Brits are so high-minded! Here in the States, of course, building a foreign policy on anything other than national self-interest is an idea so alien and suspicious as to invite John Ashcroft's scrutiny. Fortunately, there is a crass, selfish reason for America to wage its war on terrorism via NATO, the United Nations, and other multilateral media.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

And I mean crass. I'm not talking about the fact that, down the road, we're going to need help from other nations (in spying, policing, and so on) to keep terrorists at bay. This point has already been well made by Slate's Anne Applebaum and, to some extent, by Young himself. I'm talking about needing other nations to intercept shrapnel that would otherwise hit us.

Fighting a war on terrorism tends to antagonize terrorists. Why should we alone absorb their lethal wrath? If we must have videotape of men from rich countries acknowledging that they've accidentally bombed poor Muslim civilians, wouldn't it be nice for some of these men to be French instead of American? And how about a nice shot of Britain's U.N. ambassador voting to authorize the bombing of Iraq? Maybe there's no way, in the short run, for America to avoid being Terrorists' Enemy No. 1—but must we also occupy Slots 2, 3, and 4?

Wanting our allies to suffer, however callous it may sound, is part of the logic of alliance. Alliance is a non-zero-sum game; by cooperating, all players can come out ahead, compared to how they would do if they didn't cooperate (e.g., all can enjoy the fruits of the global economy that terrorism, if not contained, could disrupt). But there is a natural temptation for players to slack off, to enjoy the benefits without paying their share of the costs—to become what game theorists call "free-riders." So it is important, and only fair, to insist that your allies do pay their share of the costs. And the costs of a war on terrorism emphatically include casualties from terrorist retaliation.

What's funny about the Bush administration's increasingly voluminous self-esteem is how much of it rests on the myth of its own rationality. When Donald Rumsfeld speaks, you can almost feel his contempt for us fuzz-brained multilateralists, with our indifference to naked national interest, our deep sensitivity to the needs of allies. But my deep sensitivity is to the need for our allies to take a bullet for us. It's the Bushies, the supposed cool rationalists, who are the inept game theorists. They want to let the whole world be free-riders on American heroism: We sacrifice a few more embassies, and maybe even another skyscraper, to make the world safe from terrorism, while the French take advantage of the ensuing world order to smoke Gitanes in Parisian cafes. Hugo Young complains that "in George Bush's America," there's "little room for a sense of noblesse oblige." Au contraire!

The Bushies, when accused of unilateralism, insist that the war on terrorism has been a deeply cooperative endeavor. Why, look at the role allied troops are playing in policing postwar Afghanistan! Oh, great: America becomes famous in the Muslim world for bombing villages, while England becomes famous for handing out free food. With cooperators like that, who needs free-riders?

So, if we're generously shouldering the civilized world's burden, why are all the free-riders complaining? Partly out of wounded pride, maybe, but also because they think we're on the wrong track. Though a largely unilateral war on terrorism may steer the blowback disproportionately toward us, the ham-handed way we're fighting it could so increase total blowback that everybody loses. Indeed, if you go around casually defining axes of evil, and targeting axis members for ill-considered attack, things could spin entirely out of control. This, at least, is the European view.

This sort of backtalk from the Europeans, of course, is one reason President Bush hates multilateralism: Cooperation implies consultation, which can bring dissent. And dissent is so annoying when you have infallible judgment. (Take it from me.)

Unfortunately, the Europeans seem to be at least as close to the truth as Bush is. His unilateralism strongly suggests obliviousness to something so fundamental that I've mentioned it, oh, about a dozen times in this space since 9/11: Technological evolution will make highly lethal terrorism ever more feasible as the years roll by. So, the non-zero-sum game that we and our allies are playing is a long game, with possibly growing stakes—the distinct possibility of unprecedented civilian casualties down the road. If Bush realized this, and was thinking rationally, he would be less eager to make America the world's designated flak catcher.

And, even leaving aside the need for flak diffusion, he would be more mindful of the need to nourish ties to our allies, precisely to capture the long-term benefits that Applebaum emphasizes. He might even go so far as to nurture international bodies—under the auspices of, for example, the United Nations—that could take over the thankless job of tracking down stray weapons of mass destruction. Or would Bush prefer that America eternally assume the job of invading any country that shows signs of possessing these weapons? The Bush people talk as if the war on terrorism will be a long one, but they don't play the game that way.

During my recent dialogue with Robert Kaplan (to which this is my last postscript—I swear!), Kaplan at times seemed to paint me as a one-worlder of the Wilsonian-idealist sort. I admire idealism, and I'm all for pursuing international understanding on moral or spiritual grounds. But my boilerplate argument for encouraging the evolution of world governance is one of simple national interest. The argument (as made in my most recent book) is that various developments, including ever-more-terrifying terrorism, will make relations among nations more and more non-zero-sum. So simple national interest, if pursued wisely, should lead the United States, along with other nations, into the sort of institutionalized cooperation that Hugo Young favors. If America ever does follow this logic, and Young then wants to call Americans magnanimous and credit us with noblesse oblige, that's OK with me. In the post-9/11 world, especially, the more highly people think of us, the better.

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