The Bush revolution in foreign policy is over. After September 11, the Administration acted on the conviction that an America that dared to shake off the constraints of international rules, laws and institutions could remake the world for the better. What they found instead was that an America unbound alienated allies, empowered adversaries and divided Americans. Faced with an overstretched military and multiplying threats, the Bush Administration in its second term has acknowledged through its deeds what its critics have long argued: The United States, powerful but not omnipotent, needs to work closely with others if it is to solve the foreign policy challenges now confronting it. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we’re all multilateralists now.
While the Bush Administration’s renewed commitment to cooperate with others resolves one major foreign policy debate of the past six years, it doesn’t resolve another—namely, what kind of multilateralism do we need? President Bush’s conversion to multilateralism has been of a particular sort. It mostly involves traditional diplomacy, typically only with close U.S. allies, and almost always on an ad hoc, problem-oriented tactical basis—as with the decision to take Iran’s nuclear program before the UN Security Council. There is no strategic vision of how international institutions can be shaped to serve longer-range American interests. In many ways, then, President Bush’s second-term multilateralism is a kinder, gentler version of his first-term unilateralism.
In contrast, many of the President’s critics call for a return to a traditional multilateralism. They initially urged the Administration to cede postwar political control of Iraq to the United Nations, and then to give a greater military role to NATO. This instinct to turn to New York and Brussels remains strong in other contexts, too, like nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and violence in places such as Lebanon, Darfur and East Timor. Yet the track record of existing international organizations in addressing problems like these is spotty at best. World bodies often respond with too little and too late—not least because the arduous search for consensus tends to produce agreements that reflect the political needs of member-states rather than what the situation requires.
The Bush Administration and its critics thus offer, respectively, 19th- and 20th-century foreign policies for a 21st-century world. We can and must do better than that. In an era where dangerous developments anywhere can have devastating consequences everywhere, including here at home, we need international institutions capable of prompt and effective action both to prevent and, when necessary, respond to threats to international security. We need institutions that bring together the most capable states that share common interests and perspectives on the dangers confronting us. A Concert of Democracies, which brings together the world’s established democracies into a single institution dedicated to joint action, fits that bill.1
Democracies share the most important value of all—a common dedication to ensuring the life, liberty and happiness of free peoples. And democracies constitute the world’s most capable states in terms of military potential, economic capability and political weight. A Concert that brings the established democracies together into a single institution will be best able to meet the many challenges that beset the new age of global politics.