Unilateralism: a Concept That Repeatedly Fails

George W. Bush going to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; first Ariel Sharon, then Ehud Olmert deciding to pull out of Gaza (and soon, undoubtedly, a part of the West Bank as well), without bothering to negotiate with the Palestinians; French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin imposing without any consultation the CPE [contrat de premiere, or First Employment Contract, governing youth employment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrat_premi%C3%A8re_embauche] … These are all examples of what is termed “unilateralism.” This political trend is characterized by a flat refusal to discuss or compromise with the “other side”, be it one’s enemy, partner or competitor. In short, this new doctrine – for that’s exactly what it is – signals a return to the “rule of the strong.”

Not surprisingly, the world’s powerful prefer a somewhat different interpretation of these events. Basically, they argue that when political dialog is no longer possible, when the opposing positions are too well entrenched or when U.N.-style multilateralism would simply waste too much time, then yes, more aggressive action is certainly preferable to the maintenance of an undesirable status quo.

The latest example comes from Israel. Clearly, first Sharon, then Olmert, came to the realization that was no longer possible to sustain the myth of a Greater Israel – in any case, not without eventually having to sacrifice democracy and the very existence of a Jewish State, especially given the country’s particular demographic makeup. Logic dictated a return to the bargaining table and a negotiated deal to assure security for Israelis, and a measure of justice for Palestinians. This would have amounted to a peace plan between enemies, which had become erstwhile partners with common interests.

As we all know, this didn’t in fact happen, for several more-or-less credible reasons. Israel is incapable of pursuing talks with a partner, Hamas, that calls for the destruction of the Jewish State. This is perfectly understandable. However, there is also Israel’s unstated intention to keep the greater part of its colonies intact, as well as maintaining control of the Jordan Valley, all without having to make any concessions, naturally. This is therefore the rule of the strong, by which the enemy – in this case, the Palestinians – is accorded whatever is considered most convenient.

As is often the case, the United States set the precedent for such behavior. Traumatized by 9-11, the Americans eagerly adopted Saddam Hussein as their own Great Satan, the man capable of putting the torch to an entire region, and one deemed vital to U.S. interests. There were, of course, a host of other, much more dubious reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with justice or American security concerns. Everyone is familiar with what then followed, including the resistance of most U.N. Security Council members, which history has since fully justified. This type of preventive war is the military outcome of unilateralism, a doctrine firmly established in Washington and which could easily be applied to its dealings with Iran.

Without necessarily going to war, unilateralism would seem to be firmly established in politics. This phenomenon has most recently been apparent in France, where Dominique de Villepin chose to force new First Employment Contract legislation on the nation, without first consulting the trade unions or that segment of society specifically targeted by the new legislation: the French youth.

[Editor’s Note: The new law would allow employers to actually fire new workers within the first two years of employment. Firing workers in France is said to be notoriously difficult, hampering French business].

Three different examples, three different facets of the same unilateralism. But also, three foreseeable failures, for a doctrine with clear limits. In Iraq, the United States is bogged down in a conflict which should never have been. Israel will undoubtedly abandon a part of the West Bank without, however, having made any progress in its conflict with the Palestinians. As for Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister would seem to be paying politically for his rash behavior.

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