Tuesday, January 30, 2007

No Wonder The US Goes Unilateral

An article in today's New York Times details a growing spat between the US and the EU over the pace of imposing sanctions on Iran as punishment for Iran's continued violations of UN Security Council resolutions to abandon its nuclear program. Specifically, despite being in the forefront of the diplomatic push against Iran's nuclear program and strongly supporting the UNSC resolution calling for sanctions, the EU is now dragging its feet in actually imposing those sanctions. According to the Times:

At issue now is how the resolution is to be carried out, with Europeans resisting American appeals for quick action, citing technical and political problems related to the heavy European economic ties to Iran and its oil industry.


Administration officials say a new American drive to reduce exports to Iran and cut off its financial transactions is intended to further isolate Iran commercially amid the first signs that global pressure has hurt Iran’s oil production and its economy. There are also reports of rising political dissent in Iran.


“We are telling the Europeans that they need to go way beyond what they’ve done to maximize pressure on Iran,” said a senior administration official. “The European response on the economic side has been pretty weak.” The American demands and European responses were provided by 10 different officials, including both supporters and critics of the American approach.

One irony of the latest pressure, European and American officials say, is that on their own, many European banks have begun to cut back their transactions with Iran, partly because of a Treasury Department ban on using dollars in deals involving two leading Iranian banks.

American pressure on European governments, as opposed to banks, has been less successful, administration and European officials say.

The main targets are Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain, all with extensive business dealings with Iran, particularly in energy. Administration officials say, however, that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the current head of the European Union, has been responsive.

Europe has more commercial and economic ties with Iran than does the United States, which severed relations with Iran after the revolution and seizure of hostages in 1979.

The administration says that European governments provided $18 billion in government loan guarantees for Iran in 2005. The numbers have gone down in the last year, but not by much, American and European officials say.

American officials say that European governments may have facilitated illicit business and that European governments must do more to stop such transactions. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. has said the United States has shared with Europeans the names of at least 30 front companies involved in terrorism or weapons programs.

“They’ve told us they don’t have the tools,” said a senior American official. “Our answer is: get them.”

“We want to squeeze the Iranians,” said a European official. “But there are varying degrees of political will in Europe about turning the thumbscrews. It’s not straightforward for the European Union to do what the United States wants.”

[Interesting, isn't it, that this is a very similar problem to the one going on during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; the Europeans, specifically the French and the Germans, were pushing for easing the sanctions on Iraq so they could ramp up their business dealings with Iraq, while the US was demanding stronger actions.]

The US under the Bush Administration has come under extremely heavy criticism for its failure to act multilaterally and for its disrespect of international institutions. Much of that criticism has been well deserved, as the US has squandered much of its post-9/11 goodwill, harmed its reputation as a cooperative actor, and damaged the institutions that it uses to govern the international system. However, multilateralism can be, if done poorly, just as dangerous as can be unilateralism.

Unilateral action can be more efficient, but it is also prone to less rational decision making processes. Multilateral action may get more opinions involved in the decision making process, and it may increase the sense of legitimacy surrounding an international action, but it can also be more prone to collective actions problems, such as free riding. Furthermore, when multilateral action in dealing with a crisis is not backed up with a sanction of force, it can easily devolve into appeasement.

It is plausible [please note I'm not arguing that this would have happened, only that it is plausible] that if France, Germany, and those in the UN opposed to the invasion of Iraq had been willing to enact a resolution threatening Iraq with war unless increased cooperation with previous resolution was immediately forthcoming, the US might have been willing to wait to see if inspections and sanctions would have worked, possibly avoiding the invasion all together. Instead, the UN steadfastly refused to give its own resolutions teeth, France and Germany continued lobbying for the erosion of the sanctions regime, and the US had good reason to doubt that the UN would do what was necessary to enforce its resolutions. One need look no farther than the moronic comments of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency for another example of multilateralism that cannot be taken seriously.

If multilateralism is to be taken seriously in the security arena -- that is, if states and particularly the leader of the international system, i.e. the US, are to place responsibility for their own security in the hands of other states or even international institutions -- multilateralism must prove itself capable of fulfilling its mandate. And that will, occasionally, require the serious threat of force, and in even rarer circumstances, the use of that threatened force. The US will only see fit to restrain its unilateral freedom of action if the international community steps up to the plate when called upon. In this case, if the EU wishes to remain a meaningful partner in the non-proliferation efforts against Iran and wants to be taken seriously as a power broker on the world stage, it must be capable of enforcing the rules that it creates. It must develop the tools, in the case, to punish Iran for its proliferation according to the rules that the EU helped put into place. Then, and only then, can one even begin to discuss getting the US to behave in a more multilateral fashion. And if the EU or the UN will not do that, then the US will continue to ride roughshod over international opinion in an effort to provide for its own security.


WeeZie said...

A simple observation I have made about your views.

You say that the Iraq vote is NOT illegal because international law, as put forth by the U.N is ineffective yet at the same time, you use, or rather abuse the name of the U.N when it comes to what Iran is doing. Is not not a double standard being set?
The U.S can go against the U.N charter but another nation, a signatory to the NPT who has no chance of actually having any weapons in the near future, should be reprimanded by the UN.

Seth Weinberger said...


You need to read more carefully and not be so dismissive. I note that IF the UN, or multilateral action more generally, is to be a serious option by which states pursue their national interest and security, it must be more meaningful, and that it can only be more meaningful by being willing to threaten (and ultimately use) violence. It is because the UN has no power than both Iran AND the US feel free to violate its dictates. If the US felt confident that the UN would do what is necessary to enforces it rules and protect international security, it is much more likely that the US would, in turn, respect the UN.

WeeZie said...

But you know as well I do that the U.S blocks EVERYTHING on the security council that it deems against its interest. By virtue of that fact, the U.S controls much of the U.N apparatus.

During the summer war in Lebanon, where HezbAllah defeated the Israeli army (although I know you saw the war as an Israeli victory)every country in the world backed a ceasefire with the exception of Israel, the UK and the United States. Shouldn't the opinion of 150 other countries supersede the interests of 3? I would think so but nonetheless, the destruction of Lebanon was allowed to occur. The U.N can never have an enforcement mechanism if the U.S can simply veto any security resolution that is brought up.

Seth Weinberger said...

France, China, Russia, and the UK all have the same veto power...the problem isn't in the US per se, but in the structure of the UN itself. The laws and norms it creates cannot be enforced or upheld by the bureaucratic structure. That's the fundamental problem.

WeeZie said...

True, but France, China, Russia, and the UK have not continually blocked resolutions for a span of 30 years.

Let me give you an example--
Dec 11, 2002 155 Member-states endorse UNGA Res. 57/125 reaffirming the applicability of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV to Israeli practices and policies in the occupied territories, the U.S and Israel are the only ones casting an opposing vote. This is not in the security council but nonetheless, shows the nature of how the U.S abuses its power.

Seth Weinberger said...

WeeZie: You're either not reading my posts or you're misunderstanding my arguments. There is no denying that the US uses its veto power to block UN Security Council resolutions, especially as they pertain to Israel. That's not the point. If the US decided to never veto anything and obey every rule passed by the UN, the UN still wouldn't work because other countries have veto power too. It's not the US that was protecting Iraq, it's not the US that blocked interventions in Kosovo and Darfur. Voting according to its interest doesn't mean that the US is abusing its power because the UN is incapable of protecting the US's interest, or the interests of any country nor is it abusing power when Russia or China blocks something either. The UN is incapable of fulfilling its mission vis-a-vis international security due to its structural makeup which makes it almost always incapable of using force to enforce its rules and resolutions. And that is why the US does it without the UN. Whether you agree with how the US uses its power is another issue entirely.