Gulliver and the Lilliputians

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Articles, Korea

Gulliver and the Lilliputians


Superpowers don’t like multilateralism.  They fear that smaller countries will gang up to tie their hands, as the tiny Lilliputians bound mighty Gulliver in the famous novel.


In the last four years, the U.S. Gulliver has defied the Lilliputians and projected an unprecedented amount of unilateral power – military, economic, and political.  It invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected treaties on arms control and global warming, and imposed tariffs on steel and other commodities.  Critics have complained that U.S. actions have harmed important alliances with France and Germany, antagonized middle powers like India and Brazil, and increased the threat of war in hotspots such as the Korean peninsula.


The Bush administration disagrees.  In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush claimed multilateral backing for all U.S. actions including the war in Iraq.  In a recent article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that the United States has embraced a strategy of partnership in an “age of cooperation.”  Gulliver, in other words, is working hand in hand with the Lilliputians.


Who is right, the Bush administration or its critics?  They both are.


In this complex, globalized world, the United States can not do very much by its own force alone, except in the negative sense of rejecting agreements.  But this does not mean that the Bush administration is singing in harmony with the international chorus.  In fact, the administration deeply distrusts the global order created in the wake of World War II.  It wants to create an entirely new “age of cooperation.”  This new multilateralism is, in some ways, much more dangerous than “go-it-alone” unilateralism.


Let’s look at three aspects of this “new multilateralism” that directly affect the Korean peninsula: the Six Party Talks, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and genetically modified agriculture.


In its dealing with Pyongyang, Washington has deliberately downplayed unilateral options such as preemptive strikes.  The Bush administration cannot easily use force to resolve the nuclear crisis, with the U.S. military overstretched and the U.S. public fed up with the escalating costs of empire.  At the same time, the administration has avoided bilateral negotiations for fear of backing into an agreement that U.S. conservatives would label “appeasement.”  The multilateral format of the Six Party Talks, on the other hand, allows the administration to focus Chinese and Japanese pressure on North Korea as well as constrain South Korea’s ability to offer bilateral incentives.  Key U.S. Democrats and Republicans want to negotiate face-to-face with North Korea.  But the Bush administration has outmaneuvered its critics by making the Six-Party format a fact on the ground that even China wants to make permanent.


A more far-reaching development is the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).  This new “coalition of the willing” of 14 countries is designed to halt the transport of weapons of mass destruction by countries deemed “rogue.”  The Bush administration calls PSI “an activity” not an actual organization.  This “activity” has generated ten military exercises and resulted in at least a couple of seizures.  China, Russia, South Korea, and other major countries are concerned that PSI challenges existing multilateral structures – namely the United Nations and the International Law of the Seas – and doesn’t address the underlying problem of weapons production.  Concerned that such an effort would bog down in the UN, the Bush administration wants to establish a separate structure with UN blessing but under U.S. control.


The new multilateralism applies to proliferation as well as non-proliferation. The United States and a handful of other countries including Canada and Argentina strongly support the spread of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The European Union, South Korea, Japan and most of the rest of the world are skeptical.  This skepticism produced the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by 87 countries that agree on the need for labeling and providing documentation for large shipments of GM crops.  The Bush administration has refused to sign the Cartagena Protocol.  Rather than simply rest on this unilateral gesture, however, it has mobilized a new coalition of GM-friendly forces to defeat the skeptics in the World Trade Organization, the Codex Alimentarius and other international bodies.  When Egypt pulled out of this new coalition, the United States retaliated by canceling bilateral trade talks.  Similar threats were leveled against Croatia and Thailand for expressing support for the European position.


It is easy to criticize U.S. unilateralism.  But this unilateralism has largely been reactive and ad hoc.  With its new multilateralism, the Bush administration is designing institutions and coalitions that achieve U.S. goals in unequal partnership with other countries.  Such institutions have a longer life span than ad hoc unilateralism and will not be easily reversed by any successor, Republican or Democrat.


South Korea has attempted to steer an independent course on these issues.  It has conducted negotiations directly with North Korea on non-nuclear issues, remained outside of PSI, and been cautious toward genetically modified crops.  South Korea is not alone.  In early March, India, Brazil, and South Africa launched a new vision of multilateralism that, in emphasizing disarmament, democratic reform of the UN, and south-south economic cooperation, stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s global aspirations.


The Lilliputians, who are not so small after all, are not fooled by the “new multilateralism” of Gulliver.  The struggle to create a new world order has only just begun.

Munhwa Ilbo, March 16, 2004

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