Has Obama Learned the Folly of 'Multilateralism'?

The Obama administration is caught in a pickle: it revels in its multilateralist rhetoric and perpetual self-flagellation, but in practice its national security policy works best when it sticks to American unilateralism.


Obama returned from an overseas trip during which he bowed both literally and figuratively before world leaders. He apologized for nearly everything he could think of. He pleaded guilty on America’s behalf for causing the worldwide recession. He agreed with our European friends that we’ve been arrogant and bossy, that we bear some sort of special burden for having dropped the atomic bomb on Japan (left unmentioned were the hundreds of thousands spared on both sides from the land invasion which we avoided), and that we really need to be more forthcoming with Islamic nations (forgetting the wars we have fought to free Muslims and the constant overtures to Muslims by his predecessor).

But that didn’t get him very far. He got virtually no troops for Afghanistan, the French took only a single detainee from Guantanamo, and the UN has struggled to come up with a wrist-slapping resolution that will promise to get cracking on that sanctions list against North Korea. Multilateralism sounds nice and certainly impresses the liberal intelligentsia. But in practice it doesn’t work very well when neither your allies nor your foes face consequences when they say “buzz off.”

Michael Goodwin gets to the nub of the problem with Obama’s consensus style of foreign policy:

There is an undeniable appeal to burden sharing with broad coalitions, yet one early result of Obama’s Kumbaya approach remains the nagging question about his bottom line. Will he act in what he believes is America’s interest, even if no one follows? Or will he subject every action in every crisis to the litmus test of whether there is a consensus?


That’s what all the really hard calls in national security boil down to — enduring some measure of criticism when the U.S. must act decisively and contrary to the wishes of those self-appointed guardians of the “international community.”

And it is not as if the president has not seen that first hand. What are the two highlights so far in his brief national security record? Iraq and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips.

In Iraq, because of  the application of American military might, we are nearing a stunning victory despite the objections of  then-candidate Barack Obama and much of the “world community.” Our troops will likely soon depart victorious, and a free and pro-American Iraq will remain a powerful example to its neighbors that al-Qaeda can be defeated and democracy can take hold in the Middle East. The president recognized as much, essentially implementing  George W. Bush’s drawdown plan and properly lauding the accomplishments of our troops during his surprise visit to Iraq last week.

As for the daring Navy SEAL rescue of Captain Phillips, once again we demonstrated that nothing quite matches the brutal efficiency of the American military. As David Ignatius aptly put it: “Just as the policy mavens were beginning to debate elaborate political-military strategies for dealing with the Somali pirates, we were reminded that the best solution is sometimes the simplest and most direct — in this case the sniper’s rifle.” And, he might have added, one which requires no meeting of the UN Security Council or consultation with our allies.


The greater lesson, one which must be relearned from America’s infancy, is that great powers which fail to assert the freedom of the seas find themselves in continual peril. Even the New York Times could find the message after recollecting the story of the Barbary pirates:

But Somali piracy is not an isolated problem. It’s the latest symptom of what afflicts an utterly failed state — a free-for-all on land that has consumed the country since the central government imploded in 1991. As any warlord there can tell you, the violence is almost always about cash. “We just want the money” is their mantra.

If that sounds like the 1800s, it also invites talk of solving the problem the same way: pound the bravado out of the pirates by taking the battle to them where it hurts most — on shore. But any effort to wipe out Somali pirate dens like Xarardheere or Eyl immediately conjures up the ghost of “Black Hawk Down,” the episode in 1993 when clan militiamen in flip-flops killed 18 American soldiers. Until America can get over that, and until the world can put Somalia together as a nation, another solution suggests itself: just steer clear — way clear, like 500 miles plus — of Somalia’s seas.

In his remarks on Monday, the president once again resorted to promising multilateral action to deal with the threat of piracy. The rub, as always, will come when our allies shrug their collective shoulders and we must, once again, act to defend both our and our friends’ security interests.


So if the president is in a reflective mood, perhaps he will grasp that the rhetoric of multilateralism and the Left’s fetish of running down America do not get him very far. It might even embolden our foes (as when North Korea shot a missile while Obama talked disarmament).

What has worked historically and what continues to offer the best hope for success is bolstering American military might and demonstrating resolve — making clear our intentions and impressing upon friend and foe alike that if multilateralism does not achieve the desired result promptly, the U.S. intends to defend our interests and those of our allies by acting on its own. If multilateralism, and the painstaking process of reaching consensus, impedes prompt action to defend the security of the U.S. and its allies, then the price may be too steep. And if multilateralism necessitates that the president denigrate our accomplishments and moral standing then it is counterproductive, and not simply a waste of time.

The president has seen how multilateralism works in practice. Perhaps it will guide his actions and inform his speeches as he settles into his role as commander-in-chief. What sounds good on the campaign trail or in the halls of Harvard doesn’t necessarily work in the Oval Office. We can only hope the president is, as he says, not “naive” and comes to recognize this simple reality. Then he can begin to conform his words to his actions and provide clarity to friends and enemies alike.


That has usually served our country well.


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