Friday, May 4, 2007; A23
After the Iraq debacle, nearly everyone seems to agree that "unilateralism" in foreign policy is a bad thing. Leading the march of born-again multilateralists is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been meeting with representatives of Syria, Iran and several dozen other nations in the hope that they can apply a collective tourniquet to Iraq, where America's go-it-alone approach is failing.
The "neighbors" meeting is an example of the kind of cooperative problem solving that everyone favors in theory. The difficulty is that nobody today has any real experience with how a genuinely multilateral system might work. And the more you think about it, the more potential obstacles you begin to see in the passage from unilateral hell to multilateral heaven.
The nuclear strategist Herman Kahn pondered this problem in a 1983 essay on "multipolarity and stability." Kahn made his name by "thinking about the unthinkable" -- namely, the consequences of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But he recognized that the bipolar world of the Cold War had an inherent stability. The two superpowers understood the rules of the game, and because the dangers of conflict were so great, they learned to discipline themselves and their respective allies.
A multipolar world eventually would be stable, too, Kahn argued. He hypothesized that by 2000, there would be seven economic giants -- the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, China, Germany, France and Brazil -- and that they would gradually work out orderly rules. The problem was the transition. The moment of maximum danger, Kahn warned, would be in moving from a bipolar to a multipolar world.
We are now in that process of transition, and it's proving just as volatile as Kahn predicted. American power alone is demonstrably unable to achieve world order; we can't even maintain the peace in Baghdad. But no multilateral coalition has emerged as an alternative. The United Nations, the nominal instrument of collective security, allowed itself to be run out of Iraq by a terrorist bomb in the early months of the war.
The multilateral world is disorganized on several levels. First, it's not clear what the "poles" of the emerging order are or how they will align. Is the Muslim world a pole? If so, who will lead it -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan? Can the Muslim nations of the Middle East put aside their traditional rivalries and act responsibly in resolving a crisis? That's what the meeting of Iraq's neighbors this week is testing. An exhausted America finally seems ready for a multilateral exit strategy from Iraq, but are the neighbors able to deliver it?
Does Russia intend to organize a new pole of its own? President Vladimir Putin certainly sounds like he wants to regain a share of Moscow's old influence. But listening to an acrimonious debate last weekend at the Brussels Forum among diplomats from nations that once made up the Soviet bloc, it's obvious that this pole would be anything but stable. While a Putin ally was enthusing about the new Russia, someone in the back of the room -- a Georgian? an Estonian? a Pole? -- shouted out: "Liar," and you wondered for a moment if punches would be thrown.
The disorder goes deeper. Most of the major nations are on the cusp of political change. The United States is the most obvious example: George Bush will leave the White House in less than two years, but to whom? Public rage over Iraq is buffeting the two politicians who, just a few months ago, were their party's front-runners, Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The only certainty about the next president is that he or she will represent an America that is angry and unpredictable.
Big changes are coming in France and Britain, too. Gaullist foreign policy will outlive President Jacques Chirac, just as the Atlantic alliance will survive the departure of Prime Minister Tony Blair. But both moorings will probably be looser -- adding additional drift. And what should we expect from a post-Putin Russia -- assuming he follows through on his promise to retire next year?
I listened to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say during a news conference in Tehran last year that the post-1945 world order was ending. All of its institutions, starting with the United Nations, were becoming irrelevant, he argued. A new world would be shaped by rising powers that would create new rules of the international game.
At the time, I thought it was more of Ahmadinejad's crazy rhetoric. But I suspect that this vision of a world in transition may be correct: We're all multilateralists now, but we inhabit a world that makes the Cold War seem like the good old days.
The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.