The term unilateralism describes an approach toward conducting foreign policy in which a country does not subordinate its aims or actions to the wishes of other countries or the constraints of international agreements. While few would advocate discarding all multilateral commitments, there is disagreement over the degree to which a country (and especially, a hegemon like the United States) ought to pursue its foreign policy in a unilateral fashion.
Although the debate over unilateralism became heated during the administration of President George W. Bush, the concept has a long history in U.S. foreign policy. In his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington (1732–1799) urged the United States to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far … as we are now at liberty to do it.” Advocates of unilateralism emphasize that such a policy does not imply isolationism. Nor does it imply that the ends sought by a country are narrowly defined or that they neglect the interests of other countries. Indeed, Charles Krauthammer celebrates a “new unilateralism” that, he argues, “is clear in its determination to self-consciously and confidently deploy American power in pursuit of … global ends” (2002/2003, p. 14), such as promoting democracy and maintaining peace and stability. In this view, the hegemon has unique responsibilities in managing the international system that other states may not share or even support.
Countries with less power naturally seek to restrain the hegemon. Robert Kagan, for instance, argues that “Europe’s military weakness has produced a perfectly understandable aversion to the exercise of military power” (2002, p. 10). Ideology, economic interests, domestic politics, or honest disagreement about the wisdom of a particular policy may also lead smaller powers to oppose the hegemon’s unilateralism. As a result, there may simply be little the hegemon can do to assuage smaller countries. Furthermore, American unilateralists argue that the United States should not, as President Bush remarked in his 2004 State of the Union address, “seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.”
A unilateral approach does not shun allies, but it counsels against adjusting one’s policies to accommodate the views of other states. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in 2002: “The mission must determine the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission. If it does, the mission will be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, and we can’t afford that.” According to Rumsfeld, exercising strong leadership will eventually bring countries on board. As Krauthammer argues, “no one wants to be left at the dock when the hegemon is sailing” (2002/2003, p. 17).
By contrast, critics argue that acting unilaterally reduces a country’s ability to achieve its interests and increases the associated costs of its foreign policy. Part of the reason why unilateralism is such an inefficient way to achieve national goals lies in its lack of legitimacy. As a result, other states will be less likely to support or cooperate with such policies, reducing the probability of success. Power is less costly to exercise when it takes the form of authority, combining power with consent from others. Moreover, other countries find a hegemon’s unilateralism threatening and are thus more likely to balance against it. By contrast, multilateralism signals that a state is taking the interests of other countries into account in formulating its own foreign policy; this poses less of a threat to other countries and reduces the chances that they will align against the hegemon. Although there is much debate over whether such counterbalancing occurs, survey evidence makes clear that the United States is perceived by much of the world as acting unilaterally and that this has generated widespread resentment since the late 1990s.
Advocates of unilateralism answer critics by pointing out that while there may be costs to unilateralism, there are also costs to multilateralism. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s second term, argued that “the costs [of multilateralism] to the United States—reduced constitutional autonomy, impaired popular sovereignty, reduction of our international power, and limitations on our domestic and foreign policy options and solutions—are too great, and the current understanding of these costs far too limited to be acceptable” (Bolton 2000, p. 221). Similarly, in an overview of the case against unilateralism from the standpoint of international relations theory, Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth (2005) argue that most scholars oppose unilateralism on substance grounds and have provided only weak theoretical reasons to criticize the approach on more general procedural grounds.
In economic relations, the term unilateralism is used more specifically to refer to trade policies, frequently carried out by the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, that involve imposing sanctions on countries whose markets are deemed to be closed to foreign products. Proponents of this approach argue that only this pressure can pry open previously closed markets; thus, unilateralism could increase the total amount of international trade and improve world welfare. In particular, they argue that countries such as Japan that are characterized by structural or informal trade barriers often do not respond to multilateral rules and thus require more forceful measures— such as results-oriented managed trade—to break into their markets.
Critics of so-called aggressive unilateralism, such as Jagdish Bhagwati (1990) and Douglas A. Irwin (1994), respond by questioning whether in fact these countries are really acting “unfairly.” To the extent that powerful countries, responding to domestic pressure, threaten sanctions against allegedly closed markets, the targeted state might respond by satisfying the complaining state, thereby diverting trade from countries with less political clout. The result would thus not be more trade, but rather discrimination in favor of the powerful. Within the target country, the power of bureaucrats would be expanded rather than reduced—an effect that would slow down the country’s integration into the world trading system. Most seriously, when powerful countries determine for themselves whether other states are acting unfairly, the rule of law in the international trading system is undermined. As Bhagwati writes, “the world trading regime should not be built on the assumption that any one player, no matter how dominant, can impose its own rules, unilaterally claiming social legitimacy for them” (1990, p. 36). In fact, the spread of this policy was an important factor in building support for the creation of a stronger World Trade Organization (WTO). Since the creation of the WTO, such resorts to unilateralism have declined. Nonetheless, as the controversy over antidumping duties suggests, the issue has by no means disappeared.
SEE ALSO Bilateralism; Internationalism; Multilateralism; Trilateralism; United Nations
Bhagwati, Jagdish. 1990. Aggressive Unilateralism: An Overview. In Aggressive Unilateralism: America’s 301 Trade Policy and the World Trading System, eds. Jagdish Bhagwati and Hugh T. Patrick, 1–45. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
Bolton, John. 2000. Should We Take Global Governance Seriously? Chicago Journal of International Law 1 (2): 205–222.
Brooks, Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth. 2005. International Relations Theory and the Case against Unilateralism. Perspectives on Politics 3 (3): 509–524.
Bush, George W. State of the Union Address. 2004. http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2004/index.html.
Irwin, Douglas A. 1994. Managed Trade: The Case against Import Targets. Washington, DC: AEI Press.
Kagan, Robert. 2002. Power and Weakness. Policy Review 113: 3–28.
Krauthammer, Charles. 2002/2003. The Unipolar Moment Revisited. National Interest 70 (winter): 5–17.
Rumsfeld, Donald. 2002. Twenty-First Century Transformation. Remarks delivered at National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, DC, January 31. http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2002/s20020131secdef.html.
Washington, George. 1796. Farewell Address. U.S. Department of State International Information Programs: Basic Readings in U.S. Democracy. http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/49.htm.
"Unilateralism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/unilateralism
"Unilateralism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/unilateralism
u·ni·lat·er·al·ism / ˌyoōnəˈlatərəˌlizəm; -ˈlatrə-/ • n. the process of acting, reaching a decision, or espousing a principle unilaterally. DERIVATIVES: u·ni·lat·er·al·ist n. & adj.
"unilateralism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/unilateralism
"unilateralism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/unilateralism