Do Conservatives Know The Meaning Of "multilateralism"?

by The New Republic Staff | January 7, 2007

I'm a little confused by Rich Lowry's critique of this Time column by my colleague Peter Beinart. Over at the Corner, Lowry writes:
I thought a few months ago I read and reviewed a book by Peter Beinart complaining that the Bush administration is too unilateralist and too committed to trying to solve international problems alone. Now, in this Time essay, Beinart complains that the Bush administration is deferring too much to allies! I'm sure Beinart has some way to try to square this circle, but the principle here looks an awful lot like whatever the Bush administration does is wrong.
But Peter's complaint isn't that the Bush administration is deferring too much to our allies. It's that the Bush administration has completely outsourced particular foreign policy problems to particular allies, to disastrous effect. Lowry says Peter favors multilateralism when the Bushies reject it, and opposes multilateralism when they embrace it. But what the White House is practicing these days has little in common with multilateralism, at least as it's commonly understood. With respect to North Korean nukes, for example, multilateralism would entail getting China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea all on the same page, then presenting the North Koreans with a united front. Peter's complaint is that instead we've almost entirely outsourced the problem to the Chinese. The outsourcing Peter describes is often just a crappy, low-rent form of unilaterlism. At least under traditional unilateralism we get to call the shots in these situations. Under the Bush administration's bastardized form, whichever country we dump the problem onto gets to call the shots. Problem is, their interests may be at odds with ours, and with what's necessary to solve the ostensible problem. As Lowry's a bright guy, and Peter's prose is pretty lucid, I'm at a loss to explain how he could so misunderstand the column. Can conservatives really not see that multilateralism implies more than just having someone other than the United States involved? --Noam Scheiber

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