A Good Word for the Cowboys

"Questions Grow Over U.N. Curbs on North Korea."

That’s The New York Times, than which I guess there simply can’t be found a sterner advocate of "multilateral" engagement in the cause of world peace and order.

Alas, The Times is obliged to inform us, multilateralism is right now having its downs as well as its ups. Last week, the Security Council enacted sanctions intended to bring North Korea around before it can develop nuclear weaponry and possibly go bananas.

Still, as The Times noted Monday, "both South Korea and China — the North’s two most important trading partners — indicated that business and economic relations would be largely unaffected." China, for instance, disclaimed any "intention of stopping and inspecting cross-border shipments, as called for, but not specifically required, in the resolution."

Which could leave you wondering just how badly the North Korean nuclear gambit upset the Chinese to begin with. So might it leave you scratching your head over an even larger question: Can the world really do without the "cowboy unilateralism" we’re all currently supposed to hate and fear?

If "multilateralism" means passing resolutions and letting the parties decide how fully to comply, the case for good old-fashioned American "cowboyism" looks better by the day. Never mind how carefully we’ve been instructed to turn green and faint at the sound of George W. Bush’s voice.

Not just in foreign capitals, but on the Democratic Party blogs here, and on the campaign trail, the conventional rap on Bush exempts the United Nations from failing to control Iraqi bad behavior, especially as concerned the weapons of mass destruction nearly everyone agreed Saddam Hussein was building and guarding. When the Bush administration asked for help in corralling Saddam, yet failed to enlist the United Nations in the cause, Bush had to fall back on "the coalition of the willing." A number of us had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. We had desired there might be something like general agreement as to punishing Saddam Hussein for failure to live up to the U.N.’s expectations. No such luck.

Nor, given the pusillanimity and moral lethargy of so many U.N. member-states, is it clear the new sanctions will much abate the North Korean regime’s malice and plain old nuttiness. One thing about the sanctions: Nobody can rightly blame the Bush administration for riding into Pyongyang on horseback, with guns blazing. The administration did no such thing. It adhered to the multilateralist formula: ask; persuade; wheel and deal; soften; compromise; vote; rejoice.

With the multilateralists, at least sometimes, process is the thing — the search for unanimity and cooperation; everyone on the same page. The North Korea mess has not yet made the case against multilateralism, nor has the Iraq mess made the case for semi-unilateralism of the sort the United States ultimately pursued. And yet … and yet…

If unilateralism can sometimes prove a snare, multilateralism is lowest-common-denominator strategy — the diplomatic equivalent of a House or Senate vote on the eve of adjournment, when all that matters is getting out of town. The famous miscue in the Garden of Eden — an early consequence of human pride — appears to consign humans to an eternity of self-seeking and less than straightforward deal-making. The more parties involved, the greater the potential for accomplishing next to nothing. Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — you want a "unilateralist" to announce what has to be done and to take charge of getting it done. The worse the United Nations gets, and that’s pretty awful already, the clearer it becomes that "unilateralist" is no insult, save perhaps in fancy-pants newspapers and journals.

You need your "cowboys" now and then, ready to act on tested principles of virtue and honor. As for "multilateralism," shall we keep our eyes for a while on far-off North Korea? We might be about to learn something we should have known all along.