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What Is Multilateralism?

THE White House-led missile strike against an Iraqi intelligence target June 26 may have been a legitimate retaliation after an alleged assassination attempt against former President Bush. But its main aim was probably to address a perception, at home and abroad, of a White House with a weak or uncertain foreign policy that is unwilling to use force. Whether fair or unfair, the perception developed after President Clinton backed off action in Bosnia in May, and after a policy speech by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff outlining a reduced American role in the world.

An ongoing perception of US weakness could bring more instability in a post-cold-war world where nations still look to the US for leadership.

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Mr. Clinton inherited terrible options. President Bush rode out the end of the cold war; he spoke, prematurely, of the triumph of democracy and of a peace dividend. But the Clinton administration must now define a new post-Soviet era. It is unclear what principles the West stands for and will defend. The European Community is not unified. NATO is on the wane. Ethnic strife is on the rise. The West may no longer have to fear a Soviet nuclear strike, but nuclear proliferation, in North Korea and elsewhere,

is a possibility. During the UN human rights conference in Vienna that ended June 27, half the world argued for two weeks against the idea of absolute, universal human rights.

To face this new world, the White House brings a foreign policy strategy called "multilateralism." In theory it is a fine idea. It means the US will make decisions based on consulting allies and won't "call the shots" unless its "national interest" is at stake.

Yet is multilateralism adequate for a world whose principles and alliances are still unclear?

The limits of this policy were seen after the Iraq bombing. Angry Egyptian comments about a double standard - why bomb Baghdad but not Serbs persecuting Bosnian Muslims? - caused UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright to say the US supports the Muslim world's efforts to lift the Bosnian arms embargo. Yet only last week, when German Chancellor Kohl, acting on a letter from the White House, stuck his neck out in the EC to lift the Bosnian embargo, Clinton backed off his own letter. "We didn't expect the European s to take action," a US official confided. What principles are these?

Multilateralism has its positive elements, but must prove it is not simply a means of escaping responsibility. Rather than act on Haiti, for example, Clinton merely blamed the UN. Moreover, the "national interest" could be invoked to cover what would seem an arbitrary use of US power.

The world needs hard-headed idealism from the White House - not a retreat. Let's hope that in his foreign-policy speech in San Francisco July 5, President Clinton provides leadership, and a better concept of multilateralism.

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