The next president will face unprecedented opportunities—but also unprecedented difficulties—in promoting the national interests of the United States through multilateral diplomacy and international organizations. How the new administration seizes the opportunities and copes with the difficulties will go far to determine whether we face a favorable or hostile world environment as we approach the 21st century.

The opportunities are there if we have the skill and imagination to seize them. Almost everywhere we find a strong objective case for promoting the national interests of the United States and the general welfare of nations through cooperative action in international agencies—from the resolution or containment of regional conflicts through U.N. peacemaking and peacekeeping, to the negotiation of more open markets and the management of financial imbalances through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Bretton Woods organizations, to global action on nuclear safety, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), drug abuse, overpopulation, environmental destruction and under-development through the United Nations’ specialized agencies and special programs. The case for multilateralism will be particularly compelling as we face a new era in which our relative power has declined and we will need to share economic burdens and political responsibility, not just with Europe and Japan, but with emerging power centers in the developing world.

The "creeping moderation" that is now evident in many Third World countries is another reason for cautious optimism about prospects for constructive multilateral cooperation. In a growing number of developing countries, the crucible of hard experience has produced a new interest in free markets, human rights and respect for international obligations. Even in the U.N. General Assembly, after years of unreasoning attacks on the United States and Israel and pursuit of the chimera of a statist New International Economic Order, the tide is beginning to turn, as evidenced by the declining number of votes to deny Israel’s U.N. credentials, the growing support for U.S.-backed resolutions on Afghanistan and Cambodia and the moderation of the 1986 Assembly session on Africa.

The possibilities for constructive multilateral action are also enhanced by changes in the policies of the two great communist nations who posed the major challenges to the effectiveness of the United Nations and other international agencies throughout most of the postwar period. The People’s Republic of China has played an increasingly constructive role in the United Nations and in the Bretton Woods organizations since taking its U.N. seat in the early 1970s. And Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, in his extraordinary Pravda article of September 17, 1987, has proclaimed a new Soviet interest in strengthening the United Nations, indicating that cooperative action among interdependent nations should now take precedence in Soviet foreign policy over international class warfare. Gorbachev’s article offered a dozen proposals for strengthening international cooperation, including enhancement of the U.N. secretary-general’s role in preventive diplomacy, wider use of peacekeeping forces in regional trouble spots, acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (the World Court), creation of a new International Space Organization, a global strategy for environmental protection, and even international negotiations to bring national laws into conformity with international human rights standards. To give credibility to this new rhetoric, the Soviet Union has announced its intention to pay most of its financial arrears to the United Nations, and has even made a substantial down payment.

Americans would be foolish not to recognize in Gorbachev’s new approach a shrewd propaganda stroke at a time of diminished U.S. support for the United Nations. But we would be equally foolish not to test Gorbachev’s proposals to see whether some of them can be developed to the mutual advantage of both our countries and the entire world.


The next president will also find his administration’s in-box filled with some exceptionally difficult problems. As of this writing, U.S. financial arrears to the U.N. system are well over $300 million, and could reach more than $400 million by the next president’s inauguration. This withholding of legally owing payments undermines U.S. leadership, compromises international programs that serve our national interests, and sabotages budgetary and organizational reforms that were set in motion on the promise that we would meet our financial obligations.

Our inability to deal sensibly with the large U.S. domestic budget deficit, except through the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings process, has led to disproportionate reductions in the two percent of the federal budget (about $20 billion) that normally goes for foreign affairs, and the five percent of that subtotal (about one billion dollars) that represents our annual contributions, assessed and voluntary, to international agencies. Some combination of revenue increases and reform of entitlement programs will be essential, not merely to get our economic house in order but also to restore the diminished financial base of American international leadership.

The second and even more ominous cause of our financial delinquency is the shattered domestic political support for U.S. participation in the international organizations. For this "twilight of American multilateralism" the behavior of other nations must bear some part of the blame. It would be hard to overemphasize how the souring of America’s worldview, particularly toward the United Nations, was provoked by Soviet intransigence within international agencies and Soviet aggression outside them, and by the anti-business, anti-freedom, anti-Israeli and anti-American behavior of Third World radicals in the 1970s and early 1980s, too often acquiesced in if not supported by the "nonaligned" U.N. majority. It was almost as if a coalition of communist and Third World countries had set out to knock down every key pillar of support for internationalism in the American body politic: "Let’s say Zionism is racism and turn off the Jewish community; let’s launch a statist New International Economic Order to turn off American business; let’s sour American labor by politicizing the International Labor Organization; and let’s enrage the media by threatening to limit press freedom in UNESCO." Of course, that was not the plan, but the result was the same.

Still, the collapse of political support for America’s multilateral leadership is not explained entirely by the unreasonable behavior of foreigners, nor will it be resolved even if the hopeful auguries of more responsible behavior by other countries are realized in practice. We can see this from the decline in congressional and public support for the Bretton Woods institutions and GATT, which have hardly been forums for the harassment of American values and interests. Some profound changes have been taking place in our domestic political and social structure—the decline in the influence of the Eastern internationalist establishment in both political parties, the rise in power of single-issue interest groups, and the collapse of central leadership and party discipline in a Congress increasingly inclined to micromanage foreign policy. These changes make it harder for any president today to support international agencies in the same way as did Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. To paraphrase something recently said to this writer by a friendly European observer, the question now is whether constituency politics as presently practiced in America can be reconciled with American leadership in a cooperative, rule-based international system.

A satisfactory answer to this question, if it is to be found, must be bipartisan and must be built on the understanding that neither dogmatic unilateralism nor utopian multilateralism is an appropriate policy for a superpower in a complex and dangerous world. The next president will need to blend power politics and world-order politics, unilateralism and multilateralism—acting alone where multilateral solutions are unavailable, developing multilateral options where they represent a better means of achieving our national objectives. He will also need to blend bilateral, regional, "plurilateral" and global approaches—as we have done in trade policy, where we make some agreements with all GATT members, some agreements with those GATT members willing to undertake a higher level of obligation in new GATT codes, and still other agreements in the form of free trade agreements with countries like Canada and Israel.

Multilateralism need not mean the tyranny of the United Nations’ small-country majority or the limiting of cooperation to the lowest common denominator of recalcitrant members. It can and must mean some "power steering" in multilateral agencies, through more sophisticated decision-making devices as well as what Harlan Cleveland has aptly called "coalitions of the willing"—groups of like-minded countries acting responsibly under a larger multilateral umbrella. But most of all, such a flexible approach to international cooperation will require a clear sense of American priorities in the international system of agencies, a realistic sense of what those agencies can and cannot do, and a coherent strategy for promoting American priorities in cooperation with allies, with nonaligned nations and sometimes with adversaries.

In an age addicted to catchy phrases and convenient labels, we might call this middle way between the twin perils of dogmatic unilateralism and utopian multilateralism a strategy for "practical internationalism." Of course, such verbal formulas are meaningless unless they are applied in concrete cases. Let us see what such a strategy might look like in three areas: functional cooperation on priority global issues, the peace and security work of the United Nations, and our approach to international law and the World Court.


A strategy of practical internationalism would begin with certain crucial global problems that can only be dealt with effectively through multilateral agencies. Restoring balance and order in world finance and trade is clearly one of the highest priorities, but since an adequate examination of these subjects would require an article by itself, we will focus instead on other functions that are performed by the U.N. system, whose importance is less widely understood. We start with five challenges to the welfare of Americans where the right kind of presidential leadership could rally public and congressional support.

The nuclear challenge. Our country shares with other nations a growing concern to prevent nuclear-weapons proliferation, to improve the safety of nuclear reactors, to organize early warning of and international assistance for nuclear disasters and to guard against nuclear terrorism as increasing amounts of separated plutonium transit the globe. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a well-managed organization where the United States and the Soviet Union share the same priorities and work well together, is already moving effectively on this agenda.

The drug challenge. The United States is the principal target for drug traffickers the world over, and virtually all Americans accord a high priority to stopping drug abuse. The United Nation’s 1987 Vienna conference on this subject has given new impetus to global efforts in preventive education, treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, and new measures of law enforcement to apprehend and extradite drug traffickers. The U.N. Fund for Drug Abuse Control, with greatly increased resources, is now a major instrument for strengthening drug enforcement machinery in developing countries, providing incentives for crop substitution and helping overcome powerful interests in illicit cultivation, manufacture and export of drugs.

The AIDS challenge. The World Health Organization’s system of global health cooperation led years ago to the elimination of smallpox and dramatic progress toward eradicating malaria. This system is now being mobilized to deal with the spread of AIDS, described by WHO as "a health disaster of pandemic proportions," particularly in Africa. There should be a national constituency in the United States to support WHO, a well-run U.N. specialized agency, as it helps member countries to establish national AIDS programs and sponsors research and exchange of information on prevention, control, immunology, international travel, safety of blood supplies and other urgent AIDS issues.

The environmental challenge. Americans are rapidly becoming more aware of their interest in joining with other nations to deal with global environmental problems. The scientific and political leadership of the U.N. Environment Program helped produce the first international agreement to limit the use of chlorofluorocarbons that are damaging the ozone layer, our global atmospheric shield against ultraviolet radiation that causes cancer and other threats to human health. Working with other international agencies, UNEP is also seeking to develop an international consensus on remedies for "global greenhouse warming," caused by the burning of fossil fuels and tropical deforestation, a phenomenon that could cause catastrophic changes in the world’s climate and sea level. Other major priorities for U.N. environmental cooperation are the global monitoring of environmental trends, efforts to clean up the Mediterranean and other regional seas, and measures to fight desertification and deforestation. Enlightened political leadership in the United States could mobilize support for such efforts, echoing the conclusion of the recent report of the World Commission on Environment and Development that "there is a growing need for effective cooperation to manage ecological and economic interdependence."

The population challenge. World population, which has already passed five billion, will reach eight to 12 billion in the 21st century before it finally levels off. Where within that range it finally stabilizes will profoundly affect the habitability of our planet and the lives of the children and grandchildren of Americans living today. Even in the near term, population growth in many countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia, which is causing explosive increases in the population of already overcrowded cities, poses grave threats to economic development, environmental balance and political stability. South of our own border, rapid population growth in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, with its attendant mass poverty and unemployment, has triggered a huge flow of illegal immigration into our country. Multilateral support for national efforts of voluntary family planning in developing countries provides a politically important supplement to legitimize purely bilateral aid by rich donor countries. A major challenge to the next president will be to restore U.S. support for the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, which we have cut off over charges that China’s population program uses coercive abortion, something both China and UNFPA deny.

Any effective strategy to deal with these priority challenges to American interests will succeed only if supported by successful efforts to educate and train people (particularly in developing countries), to eradicate mass poverty and to restore momentum to global growth. Human resource development in developing countries argues for the restoration of our nation’s traditional support for the U.N.’s main institution for technical assistance funding, the U.N. Development Program, our contributions to which have declined by one-third in real terms during recent years. And if the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), under its new leadership, can rebuild confidence in the management of its programs, particularly in Third World educational development, the United States should be willing to resume its membership.

But most of all, the world needs to enlarge the flows of private and official capital to developing countries in order to stimulate an adequate level of global growth. A near-doubling of World Bank capital and International Monetary Fund quotas should be a high priority for American leadership, coupled with securing special additional contributions of concessional aid from Japan. Multilateral development institutions are now essential mechanisms for recycling the huge Japanese surplus into developing nations, restarting private capital flows, managing the debt crisis and rebuilding lost export markets for the United States. And, quite obviously, their conditionality requirements and structural adjustment lending are the best hope we have to wean developing nations from statist to market-oriented growth policies.

We cannot expect multilateral institutions to reflect only our priorities. The question is whether coalitions can be built around trade-offs between different countries’ priorities in ways that yield net benefits to all, including ourselves. In the international financial institutions, where weighted voting applies and where senior management enjoys our confidence, the answer is clearly yes. But even in the nonfinancial institutions of the U.N. system, the benefits to us of our participation have usually outweighed the disadvantages.

The major problem in ensuring that this continues to be so is the gross disproportion in U.N. agencies (other than the financial institutions) between budgetary contributions and influence in determining how the money is spent. The United States, which pays 25 percent of the United Nations’ regular budget, has only one vote out of 159 in the General Assembly. The eight largest contributors to the U.N. regular budget (the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and Canada) supply over 70 percent of the funds but have only five percent of the votes. At the same time, the vast majority—over 100 members, mostly developing countries—contributes in total less than two percent of the budget. Similar patterns exist in the major specialized agencies.

The answer to this problem will not be found in weighted voting, since no formula that would substantially assist the United States and other major contributors can be negotiated in the foreseeable future. The answer will be found instead in more timely and effective interventions by the large contributors with senior U.N. officials at an early stage of the budget process—and also by new procedural devices for "power steering." The strengthened Committee on Program and Coordination (CPC) that emerged from the 1986 reforms adopted by the General Assembly is a first step in the right direction, and similar committees need to be created in specialized agencies where they do not exist.

It is doubtful, however, if the practice of consensus decision-making that exists in the CPC will provide as useful a way of setting budget priorities as it will of establishing budget ceilings, since it enables small as well as large members of the committee to use their veto for bargaining purposes. In the central United Nations, and in the specialized agencies as well, we need to work toward a new system of structured decision-making that has three main elements: small program and budget committees in which the large and middle-sized contributors have a majority of places, a requirement for the approving vote of two-thirds of the members of these small committees, and a rule of procedure that prohibits the adoption of any budget by the General Assembly and other plenary bodies that is not first approved in the small committees.

The other major reform to which the United States and the major contributors should be turning their efforts more effectively is the reduction in size and the upgrading of quality of U.N. staff. This means more attention to the choice of the heads of major specialized agencies, to avoid the problems that have been encountered at UNESCO and the Food and Agriculture Organization. It means taking more seriously the quality of U.S. appointees to senior posts in the U.N. system, where our influence has declined alarmingly—particularly on the 38th floor at U.N. headquarters. It means urging the secretary-general to devote more attention to management and to ensuring the independence and the competence of Secretariat employees. And it means consolidating duplicative intergovernmental bodies and secretariats like the Economic and Social Council, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. These budgetary and administrative questions are not glamorous, headline-grabbing issues, but unless the United States and its allies are more serious about them in the future than they have been in the past, the potential for realizing our common interests through functional multilateralism will be severely limited.


A strategy of practical internationalism will need to look carefully at the risks as well as the opportunities involved in the political activities of the United Nations and at the evolving attitudes of the Soviet Union and other key countries.

The risks are evident enough. On the two central issues of Israel and South Africa, the United States has been at odds with the overwhelming majority of U.N. members. The new administration will need to take initiatives on both of these problems. Yet it is far from sure that any proposal that seems reasonable to us will satisfy the demands of the General Assembly majority. No matter how many General Assembly votes we may win on Afghanistan and Cambodia, it will be in our interest to mount any new initiatives on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the South African dilemma in the Security Council or outside the United Nations entirely.

Nevertheless, as an annual gathering place for heads of state and foreign ministers, the General Assembly has its uses. It provides us with opportunities for dialogue and influence that would not be readily available elsewhere. Its resolutions in economic and legal areas can sometimes be useful. But the main point is that, since General Assembly action is constitutionally required for U.N. budgetary and administrative decisions on many programs we like that are run by subsidiary bodies of the Assembly, we have to be resilient enough to recognize that Assembly political resolutions we disagree with are the price we have to pay for the carrying forward of these programs. Those political resolutions, it should be emphasized, have no binding force and, given the nature of the majorities behind them, usually receive very little political legitimacy. To be sure, as former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations (now Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and others have emphasized, such resolutions can influence ways of thinking and acting around the world; we should vote against them if they cannot be made acceptable to us by vigorous diplomacy in the United Nations and foreign capitals.

The political role of the Security Council and the secretary-general, on the other hand, offers considerable opportunities for the advancement of our national interests. Thirteen times since the United Nations was founded, men in blue helmets have been dispatched with the support of the United States to verify cease-fires and interpose themselves between hostile forces. Without U.N. peacekeeping, the disengagement agreements in 1973 between Israel and Syria and Israel and Egypt (and therefore the Camp David agreements) would not have been possible, the former Belgian Congo would have been dismembered, and Greece and Turkey might have gone to total war. The three main U.N. peacekeeping operations still in existence today—in southern Lebanon, on the Golan Heights, in Cyprus—remain the most politically useful means anyone can think of to contain violence in those areas.

Historical experience suggests that in some situations in some parts of the world, U.N. peacekeeping can serve American interests better than the intervention of American forces. In the summer of 1982, the Reagan Administration had two opportunities to propose sending U.N. forces to Beirut, but it chose to send American forces instead. That fateful mistake resulted in the loss of 253 marines and a humiliating American withdrawal. It should have been clear from the outset that a U.N. force composed of soldiers from disinterested countries would have been a more effective peacekeeping instrument than an American contingent perceived in Lebanon as the ally of one side in a bitter communal conflict.

On the other hand, the recent proposal for a U.N. naval force to protect nonbelligerent shipping in the Persian Gulf probably asks too much of U.N. peacekeeping, which only works if the adversary parties agree to it. In the absence of a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran would not agree to U.N. protection limited to nonbelligerents like Kuwait, and Iraq would object to giving U.N. protection to Iranian vessels while Iran continued to threaten a military breakthrough in the land war. It is doubtful if a consensus could be found in the Security Council to send a naval peacekeeping force to the Gulf over the objections of Iran or Iraq, and it is equally doubtful that nonaligned members would be willing to supply naval units for a force that would draw the fire of one or the other of the belligerents. Unless we want to invite the Soviet fleet into the Gulf, a risky proposition at best, the naval presence of the United States and its allies remains the best means of protecting nonbelligerent shipping against Iranian attack until a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war is achieved.

The peacemaking efforts of the secretary-general, like the use of peacekeeping forces, can also offer a useful alternative to direct American action, though not in all situations. Ralph Bunche was able to achieve an armistice agreement between Arab countries and Israel in 1949 that no U.S. government negotiator would have achieved. In a different instance, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in 1973-74 produced the disengagement agreements that no U.N. intermediary could have managed (though U.N. peacekeeping forces were required to carry them out). President Carter’s personal commitment was needed to make the Camp David accords possible, but if a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is finally arranged, the efforts of a U.N. mediator, Diego Cordovez, will have been an important element. In many situations, U.N. and U.S. diplomacy may prove to be mutually reinforcing. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s recent revelation that President Kennedy had authorized him, as a last resort, to have U Thant propose a swap of American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba as a way of resolving the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is a reminder that the secretary-general may be a useful last resort to find a face-saving way out when superpower confrontations threaten to explode into nuclear war.

Gorbachev’s new approach to the United Nations offers the hope, though obviously not the certainty, that the U.N. peacekeeping and peacemaking role can be even more important in the future. His Pravda article, calling for a "comprehensive system of international security," endorsed, as we have noted, the use of U.N. peacekeeping forces in regional trouble spots and the secretary-general’s role in preventive diplomacy. Until now, Gorbachev’s generalities have not been followed up with concrete proposals, and the Soviet item on international security submitted to the last General Assembly failed to impress the U.N. membership. One place to test the seriousness of Gorbachev’s new interest in the United Nations is in Afghanistan, where U.N. diplomacy and a U.N. peacekeeping force may play a critical role in securing the withdrawal of Soviet troops, assuring the end of military aid to the Afghan rebels and facilitating a broadly based and nonaligned Afghan government. If the United Nations can succeed in Afghanistan, a similar effort in Cambodia might have a better chance of success.

Beyond these specific trouble spots, the United States can ask the Soviet Union to give its full support to the new early-warning system for political crises that the secretary-general has created—the Office for Research and the Collection of Information—and both countries can agree to let him engage in good offices, mediation and fact-finding, free of Security Council veto. We can also urge the secretary-general to improve the quality of his military advice and to broaden the number of countries earmarking and training units for U.N. peacekeeping service.

A genuine policy of noninterference in the affairs of other nations, which Gorbachev now asserts as a Soviet goal, would represent a dramatic departure from the policies the Soviet Union has followed since 1917. Such a policy would mean that the Soviet Union would never use its power to prevent a people from choosing a government it wants, even if that were a non-communist government. It would also mean the United States would never use its power to prevent a people from choosing a government it wants, even if that were a communist government. If Soviet-American relations are really entering a new era of "live and let live"—and this remains yet to be demonstrated—the United Nations will have a crucial role to play in sustaining it. For in specific questions of self-determination there will be factual disputes about what the people of a nation really want and whether there is intervention by outside forces. There is really no satisfactory way to resolve such disputes except through an international agency that can patrol borders, supervise elections, and verify compliance with nonintervention norms.


An additional word is necessary on the other key area in U.N. political activity—human rights. Here again, we need not choose between the bilateral and the multilateral approach; we are going to require both. The main instrument of bringing American pressure to bear on behalf of the victims of oppression will be bilateral diplomacy. We will also employ regional machinery like the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe reviews of the Helsinki accords and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But the resources of the United Nations should be part of our strategy as well. This means not only the debates in the Human Rights Commission or the General Assembly, but also the many new U.N. investigative bodies that have now been established, and the advisory services that the U.N. Secretariat makes available to member countries.

Thanks to the United Nations, we now have in place a comprehensive body of international human rights principles whose salient elements are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the two Human Rights Covenants and treaties on specific issues, such as the Genocide Convention and the Convention on Racial Discrimination. These have influenced the national laws of member states and provided agreed standards to measure national behavior when complaints are brought before international bodies.

The main weakness of the United Nations, as everybody knows, is implementation. Until recently, U.N. human rights attention was focused mainly on three countries—Israel, South Africa and Chile—while communist, Islamic and African regimes were exempt from scrutiny. The General Assembly majority has so far declined to create a U.N. high commissioner for human rights who could examine the human rights practices of all members objectively and bring gross violations to the attention of U.N. bodies.

Yet in the last few years the United Nations’ "double standard" in dealing with human rights has been gradually eroding. U.N. human rights bodies have begun to look at Poland, Afghanistan, Kampuchea and Iran. A Human Rights Committee composed of distinguished experts is now reviewing the human rights compliance reports of individual countries under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And the functions envisaged for the high commissioner are being performed piece-by-piece—by special rapporteurs and working groups in problem areas like involuntary disappearances, torture, summary or arbitrary executions and religious intolerance. These rapporteurs and groups do not stop with the consideration of general issues; they seek information on individual cases, call public attention to human rights violations, and often intercede on behalf of the victims.

The next administration will therefore enjoy new opportunities to employ U.N. instrumentalities to promote American values, provided the U.N. human rights work is not dismantled under the impact of U.S. budgetary withholdings, and provided also that we send our best advocates to U.N. human rights bodies and make full use of private human rights groups as sources of information. We can also help our position by ratifying the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, as well as the Convention on Racial Discrimination. The practical effect of our failure to ratify the first of these U.N. covenants is that we cannot sit at the table and participate in the interpretation of political rights when cases under the covenant come before its Human Rights Committee. Our participation would give us a practical opportunity to test Gorbachev’s surprising proposal that national laws should be reviewed before international bodies to see that they conform with international human rights standards.


What would practical internationalism mean for American policy in the realm of international law? The Founding Fathers of the American Republic believed that respect for the "law of nations" should be a guiding principle in our relations with the outside world. American statesmen like Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes continued this tradition in the early days of this century, as did postwar presidents like Truman and Eisenhower. Yet in recent years, neither the executive branch nor the Congress has seemed much interested in the requirements of international law.

In this unprecedented situation for our country, there are many who now declare that international law does not exist while, at the other extreme, there are some who decry any unilateral use of force and would subject our country to the international "rule of law" on all matters as determined by the World Court or other U.N. bodies. Neither of these extreme positions makes good sense. Neither serves our national interests.

It is time for us to go back to first principles. International law is nothing more or less than a system of mutual restraints and reciprocal concessions that nations accept because it serves their interests to do so. These restraints and concessions are mainly found in treaties that nations enter into voluntarily. To a lesser and diminishing extent, they are also found in "customary international law," the repeated practice of nations, including our own, that is accompanied by a sense of legal obligation. On a wide range of subject matter—freedom of the seas, the protection of diplomats, the rights of foreign investors—almost all nations observe these rules almost all of the time. The observance and further development of international law is very much in the national interests of the United States, a democratic nation that believes in the rule of law at home, and a status quo power that seeks stability and order abroad. Those who say that "there is no such thing as international law" are really asserting a profoundly un-American idea—that we should not honor our international commitments.

The crisis of confidence that presently afflicts the subject of international law in the United States is mainly related to the question of international rules on the use of armed force. One of the core principles of international law is the prohibition of the use of armed force by one nation against the territorial integrity or political independence of another nation except in the exercise of individual or collective self-defense. This principle is found in the U.N. Charter, in the Charter of the Organization of American States, and in other sources of modern international law. Until the Reagan Administration, the United States insisted that this core principle of law prohibited the organizing of armed insurgencies against recognized governments, whether by the United States, the Soviet Union or anyone else.

When the Administration began aiding the Nicaraguan contras in 1981, it argued that such aid was justified as a legitimate exercise of collective self-defense because of Nicaragua’s aid to the insurgents in El Salvador. But in his 1985 State of the Union address, President Reagan employed a very different rationale for our Central American policy, claiming that "support for freedom fighters is self-defense." Since then, Administration spokesmen and some of their supporters outside of government have asserted a moral and legal right to give military aid to "freedom fighters" seeking to overthrow communist regimes, not just in Nicaragua but anywhere in the world.

This "Reagan Doctrine," as it has come to be called, is regarded as inconsistent with international law by all of our allies in NATO and the Organization of American States and by virtually all legal scholars in the United States and overseas. The rationale, insofar as it has been thought through, rests on the twin theses that considerations of freedom must override traditional restraints on the use of armed force and that, on some new theory of "reciprocity," the United States should no longer feel bound by rules of international law violated by others.

These arguments are both fundamentally flawed. The doctrine of collective self-defense can reasonably be interpreted to justify American aid to Afghan freedom fighters resisting the invasion of their country by a Soviet army, as well as aid to the Nicaraguan contras for the limited purpose of forcing Nicaragua to stop the subversion of its neighbors. But in a world of diverse political systems and divergent views on the meaning of freedom, the attempt to legitimate "wars of liberation" against established and recognized governments that are not "democratic" by our or someone else’s standard is a formula for world civil war. It could provide a legal cover for forcible intervention by outsiders against countries like South Korea, South Africa, Chile and even Israel—interventions that would serve the cause of neither peace nor freedom. How a government treats its people is a legitimate matter of international concern, which may be manifested through strong diplomatic action and even economic sanctions. But as long as a government is not threatening its neighbors, it is wrong to subject it to armed attack. To hold otherwise is to destroy not merely centuries of established legal principle but the very basis of coexistence among diverse political systems.

But if the next president should reject the "unilateralist" view that international law is meaningless or that we should declare open season on all undemocratic regimes, he should also reject the equally simplistic view that international law permits no unilateral use of force except in the face of an armed attack on a nation’s own territory.

The U.N. Charter restraints on the use of force were drafted on the assumption that an effective collective security system would be established by the United Nations to maintain order and justice. The collapse of that assumption does not mean that the use of force provisions have become inoperative, but it does require that concepts like "self-defense" and the prohibition on the use of force against the "territorial integrity and political independence" of states be reasonably construed to enable the law-abiding states to defend the civilized order. This would mean, for example, a reading of the Charter to permit the United States to launch an air strike on a country like Libya that engages in a series of terrorist attacks on American citizens. It would also justify a reading of the Charter to permit the rescue of one’s citizens in another country that is unwilling or unable to protect them. And it should certainly permit a limited and temporary use of force to defend a country from an indirect aggression in the form of an externally organized insurgency or coup d’état, as may have been the case in Grenada.

This brings us to the question of the International Court of Justice. In the present state of international relations it is simply not realistic to expect nations to accept the World Court’s compulsory jurisdiction in all disputes to which they may be a party. It is particularly unrealistic to expect them to accept compulsory jurisdiction in controversies arising out of the use of armed force, where the national security interests are too great, the facts usually too difficult to establish, and the international rules on the subject still insufficiently developed, particularly where civil wars are involved.

But this does not mean that we should turn our back on the World Court entirely. The Court is composed for the most part of able and impartial jurists whose views of international law will be acceptable to us on most matters that do not touch on questions of armed force. We can therefore take specific controversies to chambers of the Court on a voluntary basis, as we did with Canada to define the maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Maine, and as we are now doing with Italy in a case involving the requisitioning of the property of an American multinational. In both of these cases, where negotiations failed to yield a resolution of the controversy, friendly countries saw adjudication before the Court as a useful solution. Moreover, we should continue to observe the more than 60 bilateral and multilateral agreements to which we are a party providing for World Court resolution of disputes over their interpretation.

Finally, we can fashion a new U.S. acceptance of the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction that properly balances our interest in the development of the international legal order with our desire to avoid risks to U.S. security interests. The way to do this would be to exempt from our acceptance of compulsory jurisdiction all matters relating to the use of armed force, and further to provide that cases reaching the Court under this revised acceptance of compulsory jurisdiction would be heard before a chamber of five judges chosen in accordance with the Court’s rules after consultation with ourselves and the other party to the dispute.


The next president will need to convince the American people that strengthening international institutions is in the U.S. interest and will serve a more stable and cooperative world order. His key cabinet appointments will be one concrete expression of his new direction. Top new talent for developing a coherent U.S. multilateral strategy will be required in the National Security Council staff, in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs and in our missions to international agencies. The new administration will also need to deal with the decline in the quality of Americans in senior posts at U.N. headquarters and in many U.N. agencies. And it will need to find ways of creating what we began to lose some years ago—a cadre of foreign service officers skilled in multilateral diplomacy.

To carry out a policy of practical internationalism, the next administration will have to do a better job of harmonizing our policies in international institutions with key allied and non-aligned nations. A special effort will need to be made to develop common approaches with the European countries and Japan, from whom we have become increasingly isolated in multilateral forums. We will also need to work harder to heal the breaches that have opened up on multilateral issues between ourselves and our allies in this hemisphere. And in Soviet-American summits, as well as in our meetings with the Chinese, the search for more effective multilateral cooperation in pursuit of common interests should become a regular agenda item.

The next president will also need to use his "bully pulpit" to talk sense to the American people about the changed international realities that face them as they approach the third millennium. Through his words and his actions, he will need to hammer home the essential message, now only dimly understood, that multilateral action can often serve America’s enlightened self-interest by sharing economic burdens and political responsibility and by accomplishing tasks that the United States cannot perform as well by acting alone.

Unilateral military action will still be necessary in exceptional cases, as well as bilateral diplomacy and special arrangements. But if multilateral institutions can start delivering tangible benefits that Americans feel in their daily lives, it will not be incredible for a future president to say out loud what the leaders of other industrialized democracies have already been prepared to tell their people: "I am an internationalist because I love my country."

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  • Richard N. Gardner holds the Henry L. Moses Chair of Law and International Organization at Columbia University. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from 1961 to 1965 and as U.S. Ambassador to Italy from 1977 to 1981.
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