Foreign Policy Blogs

The Next President's Options for Multilateralism

Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's former speechwriter, spent his twice-weekly Washington Post column this Friday offering advice to the next US President on the virtues of unilateralism.

Gerson begins by tuning his argument to the conservative ear: “In their total war for the right to be dubbed the peace candidate Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama propose a greater reliance on international institutions as an alternative to unilateralism and ad hoc “coalitions of the willing.””

I am not sure if I have noticed this “total war” Gerson mentions. There are many battles currently underway between Senators Clinton and Obama; the one for bragging rights to become labeled a pacifist doesn't ring a bell. But it is a helluva way to draw the reader in to your argument, so mission accomplished.

Moving on to Gerson's main point. He assuages criticism for his former boss’ aversion to multilateralism by predicting that the next US President will choose to do the exact same thing once he or she is in the Oval office:

“It is easy to criticize the current administration — or past administrations — for lacking diplomatic magic that would somehow transform China or Iran into good global citizens. But many of the policies of the next administration are likely to be remarkably similar to what's in place now.”

Gerson argues this is because and poses “one of the most difficult challenges the next president will face: While international institutions have never been more needed, they have seldom been less effective. The U.N. Security Council — where China and Russia have emerged as reliable protectors of the oppressive and irresponsible — has done little to distinguish itself on Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur or Burma. And global nonproliferation efforts are about to shatter like a glass hammer on Iranian nuclear ambitions.”

Touché. Gerson lays out the options for multilateral approaches for the three Presidential candidates. First option: improve the UN. Second option, supplement the UN with a “more capable and cohesive international organization such as NATO.” Third option: bypass (read: abandon) the UN and invest our efforts in an entirely new multilateral organization, such as the idea of forming a league of democracies, espoused by McCain.”

Not surprisingly Gerson doesn't find any of these options appealing: “So what realistic option will the next president have when the next genocide commences or the next proliferation threat arrives? Probably a coalition of the willing, led by America. It is the paradox of American influence: In a crisis, our power is irreplaceable — and we want nothing more than to replace it.”

Is Gerson just making excuses for the woeful performance of his boss’ latest Ameican-led “exertion,” as he calls it, in Iraq? Or does he really believe that a unilateral, American-lead approach to international problem solving (let's face it the coalition of the willing doesn't factor much into this equation) is the only viable tool in the chest? Luckily, none of the three candidates, at least at this point, have publically endorsed unilateralism. But “you just wait,” says Gerson

On a side note: While Gerson's focus as senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations is foreign policy, his regular Washington Post columns can't seem to stay out of Presidential campaign politics. In this piece, Gerson argues that McCain can learn something about “compassionate conservativism” from the British conservative party, the Tories. And in this piece he claims Obama's famed race speech “fell short” because it “did little to address his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor.”

Based on his commentary in the Post Gerson doesn't appear to be enamored with Senator McCain. Perhaps McCain is the kind of Republican Gerson argued in his October 2007 book Heroic Conservativism deserves to fail for not embracing “America's ideals?” He certainly puts more effort into critiquing Senator Obama than Senator Clinton‚ which is actually more of a backhanded compliment for Obama than a respite from Republican attacks for Clinton.

One thing is for sure: a former Presidential speechwriter with a twice-weekly column in one of the most widely-read and respected papers in America holds a huge amount of power in shaping the debate about the Presidential campaign. It might be worth keeping an eye on what Gerson has to say as the so-called “total war” between the presidential candidates to define a foreign policy platform marches on.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.