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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002 / 11 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Barone

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A special moral responsibility |
You often hear it said, by politicians and by voters, that the United States should not take military action against our allies unless it is supported by our allies or by the United Nations or other international organizations.

One is tempted to ask a one-word question: Why?

Militarily, we can do what we need to do alone. As the historian Paul Kennedy, who in the 1980s thought America was about to suffer from imperial overstretch, has now handsomely acknowledged, this country has the greatest preponderance of military might any country has ever had at any time in history. The only other country that can provide substantial military support is Great Britain; and it will (check out Tony Blair's Tuesday press conference in his constituency of Sedgefield). It would probably be minorly helpful to have military support from Canada, France, Italy, Spain, and a few others; and that support will probably be forthcoming. We need the use of bases in countries like Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar; and we will get that.

So militarily, we need no support from allies, which we will get anyway.

Morally, we don't need any support either. The always brilliant Charles Krauthammer, in a speech to the Center for Security Policy, argued that the central tenet of liberal foreign policy over the last quarter-century has been multilateralism-the doctrine that we should take no action abroad on our own but only in combination with allies or, better yet, under the auspices of a multinational organization. (Krauthammer's speech will be posted on Read it.) The assumption is that it is somehow more moral to do things that way.

But why? Why is it morally preferable to get authorization for military action from the United Nations Security Council than to do it on our own? Getting approval of the Security Council means getting the approval of Britain, France, Russia, and China. This country has done more than any other country in history to extend liberty and democracy to millions of people. The United States does not need the moral imprimatur of the cynics of the Quai d'Orsay, of the former apparatchiks of the Soviet Union, of the blood-stained tyrants of Beijing.

The multilateralists' view that the United States needs the approval of foreign governments or multinational organizations to be morally justified is often based on the idea that a nation-state holds the same place in the world as an individual holds in a nation-state. That every nation-state is entitled to a presumption of moral equality and that when nation-states act on their own they can be presumed to act out of a selfishness that is morally suspect.

But nation-states are not morally equal. They have histories, and they stand in different moral shoes. Today's Germans understand that their nation has a moral history that it must acknowledge, even though the large majority of Germans today were born after 1945. Today's Americans should also understand that the United States has a history that gives us a uniquely high moral standing in the world. It is not prideful boasting to acknowledge that, for that standing was acquired by the efforts mostly of those who came before us; but it is just ducking reality not to take it for what it is.

The more sophisticated argument for multilateralism is that it is in our interest to strengthen and use international organizations and alliances, and even to be constrained by them on occasion, so that we can use them when we really need them. True, up to a point. There is a fascinating passage in Charles de Gaulle's memoirs when he discusses his meeting with Franklin Roosevelt in Washington in July 1944, a month after D-Day and a month before the liberation of Paris. De Gaulle distrusted Roosevelt, and Roosevelt loathed de Gaulle; there is a story that Roosevelt spoke in his fluent French and that de Gaulle asked for a translation.

Recounting the meeting, de Gaulle says that the picture Roosevelt sketched of the United Nations organization he was proposing was one of an organization the United States would dominate through the Security Council, by its close cooperation with Britain, continuation of its wartime partnership with the Soviet Union, and dominance of Chiang Kai-shek's weak China (France not being then set for a permanent seat on the Security Council). Far from subordinating the United States to a world government, de Gaulle suggested, such an organization was a mechanism intended to produce American hegemony over the world.

This may well have been right. We know from documents not then public that Roosevelt did not trust Stalin and the Soviets as much as some of his public actions suggested and that he regarded China as a lightweight; we do not know whether Roosevelt would have rapidly withdrawn most American troops from Europe and Asia, as Harry Truman did in September 1945. The point is that we should regard international organizations, as de Gaulle thought Roosevelt regarded the United Nations, as useful tools for the United States, not as constraints on our power.

"If you want a true multilateralism, you have to lead," Krauthammer said. "People will join you after you make it clear that you really intend to do it." Announce that you will act only if others approve, and they will dither; this is what Secretary of State Warren Christopher found when he went to Europe in 1993 and asked our allies what they thought should be done about Bosnia. Announce that you will act whether others approve or not, and they will follow; this is what George H.W. Bush found out after he said that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait "will not stand" and then proceeded to amass a multilateral coalition.

Our unique moral standing and our unique military power confer on this country a special moral responsibility to act against tyrants who threaten great harm to ourselves and others. No other nation has the power to act against the Axis of Evil. No other nation can seriously think about doing so. We should not be asking permission to take military action against Iraq or announce that we will not take action unless our allies or the Security Council approve. We should announce we will take action. They will approve soon enough.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone