Roosevelt Was Right about Multilateralism

What would provide the world with real hope of living in prosperity and peace? Global cooperation is a good starting point, says Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico and current Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. The United States once took the lead in establishing international institutions to prevent conflict and promote global well-being. As such, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Marshall Plan have engendered positive change for millions of people across the globe. But, he warns, Washington's recent unilateralist bent threatens to undermine the processes which give these institutions their strength. Pursuing a heavy-handed policy of 'self-interest above all' risks creating a backlash against the US that could spiral into another arms race - a repetition of history the world can ill afford. Aside from inclusive globalization and constructive interdependence, Zedillo concludes, there is no rational way to ward off the double danger of poverty and chaos. - YaleGlobal

Roosevelt Was Right about Multilateralism

US should return to the best traditions of its leadership
Ernesto Zedillo
Friday, June 13, 2003
President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933: The US should return to his internationalist vision.

Looking to the future, the United States should seriously consider the consequences of a go-it-alone policy that would leave behind the international institutions it has nurtured.


It is worth remembering that just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke not only of winning the war, but also of winning the peace that would follow. Roosevelt's purpose was to promote the enactment of rules to govern international behavior and the creation of institutions to foster international cooperation. The United Nations charter was negotiated and ratified in San Francisco, and a meeting in Bretton Woods set up the IMF and the World Bank to guide international economic cooperation and investment in reconstruction and development. Then followed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to foster international commerce, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the birth of the European Union. The generous Marshall aid averted the dangers that "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos" posed to the newly freed nations of Europe, and it helped remake the world.


American and other world leaders in the 1940s and '50s devoted so much energy and so many resources to building international institutions because they had seen the destruction that results when nations are divided and pursue only their own self interest. So they sought to create a system - anchored in freedom, openness, and the rule of law - that would support the security and prosperity of all its members.


How well has this system worked? International institutions have fostered a greater convergence of values than has ever before occurred in human history. For the first time, most of the world's governments are democratic. The multilateral order has also presided over mankind's greatest period of wealth creation. The impressive economic expansion achieved by the United States and other industrial countries would not have been possible without the multilateral economic system. In the developing world, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, though much more remains to be done.


Today, however, the international system appears to be in crisis. Deep disagreements have emerged about how best to combat new threats to international peace and security and how best to preserve and extend prosperity in the world. Contempt for the multilateral system can be seen in the marginalization of the UN, the transatlantic rift, the division in NATO and in the European Union, and the current resentment among old friends, neighbors, and partners.


The question is this: At the beginning of this new century - one marked by unquestionable unipolarity - does the US need the multilateral system? The only reasonable answer that can be given is: Yes, all nations, even the most powerful, need the multilateral system. Certainly the weaker members of the international community would prefer to navigate in the international arena according to agreed international rules and by means of institutions in which their voices can be heard and their legitimate interests represented and recognized. For the United States, the true hyper-power of our era, the case for multilateralism is no less compelling, though it is more subtle. Of course, the leadership in Washington must look after U.S. national interests, but unilateralism may actually undermine those interests. The world in our time may be unipolar, but it is also interdependent.


At this hour of global interdependence, even the mightiest power has limits to its influence, to its capacity to control how others react to its actions. For unipolarity to be more than a moment in history, others must perceive it not as a threat but as a true anchor of peace. Aggressive unipolarity will set the world in search of a different equilibrium, one in which other powers can balance the military strength of the United States. This process would prove tragic and expensive. A world with so much poverty cannot afford another arms race, or the conflict it could unleash.

It would be dangerously naive to think that terrorism - today's biggest security concern - can be fought single handedly. Combating terrorism requires the support of friends, allies and, sometimes, even adversaries. Besides security, the United States and all countries face other problems that respect no national boundaries and therefore require global cooperative solutions. Think of global warming, destruction of biodiversity, depletion of fisheries, ocean pollution, infectious diseases, drug trafficking, or human smuggling, just to name a few. Not one of these dire challenges can be met by a nation acting alone. Only through international cooperation can there be any hope of success in combating them.


Equally, in the pursuit of prosperity and the prevention of evils such as international financial crises, recessions, and now deflation, international cooperation is vital to success. Economic cooperation is needed now more than ever. There is a danger that the multilateral trading system could become the battleground of unsettled geopolitical disputes, with disastrous consequences.

Some in the unilateralists' camp are mindful of these arguments. They are ready to concede that the United States must swallow a dose of international cooperation in the pursuit of legitimate national interests. And so they propose to live by double standards. That is an interesting approach, but it does not convince anyone.


Could international cooperation coexist with aggressive unipolarity? A useful multilateral system depends on negotiations, compromises, and agreements. None of these can be cultivated in a soil of acrimony and resentment. From that soil only spring the weeds of antagonism, envy, and fear - weeds that can crowd out inclusive globalization and constructive interdependence.


It is time to stop bashing multilateral institutions. They are no better or worse than what the major powers put into them in terms of leadership, diplomacy, and resources. The right way to proceed is not to undermine these institutions but, where needed, to reform them so that they can better serve the good causes of human rights, security, peace, and prosperity.


Going forward, this enterprise will require the enlightened, not the aggressive, leadership of the United States. But the pursuit of this endeavor should assuredly be guided by the same vision that President Roosevelt outlined in 1941: the vision of a world order founded upon "a cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society." Above all, by the vision of a world order founded upon the essential human freedoms.

Click here for the full text of the speech that Ernesto Zedillo delivered on June 5, 2003 at the 352nd Commencement of Harvard University.

Ernesto Zedillo is the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and former President of Mexico. This article is adapted from a speech that he delivered on June 5, 2003 at the 352nd Commencement of Harvard University.

© Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization