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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

'Unilateralism' just a question of perspective

By Richard Halloran

Critics of America — and particularly of President Bush — have vehemently and repeatedly accused the United States of "unilateralism," meaning that Washington often sets out on a course without getting the approval of other governments. The catch phrase is "going it alone."

Officials of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies hold an impromptu meeting in the entry of the center's Honolulu headquarters. The center has educated 1,100 military officers, civilian defense officials, diplomats and others from 40 Asian and Pacific nations.

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American officials have asserted just as vigorously that the United States acts in concert with other nations far more often than not, especially in combined military training and operations in Asia and the Pacific.

Careful scrutiny and a wide-angled perspective suggest they have the better argument. During a policy seminar of Asians and Americans at the East-West Center last week, speaker after speaker lashed out at the United States for being unilateralist. Said one Asian: "Many Asians see the U.S. as a power that interferes with our domestic political stability." Similarly, an American said: "It has become dangerous to oppose the U.S. because the U.S. has the power to punish people."

Earlier this month, Americans attending an Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, organized by the Malaysian Institute of Strategic and International Studies, got an earful. One said the United States was labeled a "dominant hyper-power" that is an "out-of-control unilateralist." Another said a "blistering attack on U.S. unilateralism" came from a supposedly Canadian ally.

Under the ground rules of both conferences, speakers could not be identified, so they would feel free to be candid.

In contrast, the American ambassador to South Korea, Thomas Hubbard, said in a brief interview after the East-West Center gathering: "The U.S. is not nearly so unilateral or pre-emptive as our critics sometimes contend."

Two senior military commanders, Adm. Thomas Fargo, who heads Pacific Command here, and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who commands allied forces in Europe, are advocates of a multinational approach. Both have been quoted as saying, "No nation is so big as to be able to go it alone, and no nation is too small to contribute."

Part of the disagreement is a tangle of semantics. Those who accuse the United States of unilateralism say they favor multilateralism, in which everyone involved has a say. The multilateralists don't come right out and say so, but each wants a veto, a sure formula for gridlock.

Americans rarely have been enthusiastic about multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the most multilateral of them all. A recent poll showed only 37 percent thought the United Nations was doing a good job and 58 percent who did not.

When it comes to multinational ventures, the United States stands at the front of the line. The most immediate endeavors are negotiations among China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States, scheduled to open in Beijing Wednesday, about curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

For months, North Korea insisted that the talks be conducted only with the United States. The Bush administration was adamant in arguing that Pyongyang's nuclear program posed a threat to all its closest neighbors and that the talks therefore be multinational. China tipped the balance by demanding that North Korea sit down with the other five nations.

The annual Cobra Gold drill in Thailand has been a long-standing military exercise in Asia. Initially a combined operation between the United States and Thailand, it has included Singapore for the past two years. Next year, Malaysia and the Philippines and even Japan may participate. Pacifist Japan has been hesitant until now about anything that hinted at collective defense.

And finally, since its founding in 1995, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu has educated 1,100 military officers, civilian defense officials, diplomats and law-enforcement officers from 40 Asian and Pacific nations in the non-war-fighting aspects of security.

Nor does the United States insist on being the leader of combined operations. Australians led the multinational peacekeeping operation in East Timor in 1999, with the United States relegated to providing logistics. Senior American military commanders have said U.S. forces would play similar roles in the future.

The multilateralists, who would tie down the United States as 6-inch-tall Lilliputians bound Lemuel Gulliver, often assert that the United States operates to serve its own national interests and not those of other nations.

In the real world, any government that does not serve the interests of its own nation, especially in a robust democracy, ought to be turned out by its voters and taxpayers for dereliction of duty.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times reporter in Asia.