How can Multilateral and Bilateral security partnerships coexist, while advancing U.S. strategic goals?
By Ahmet Ajeti
The United States of America is a unique example in the world’s affairs when it comes to having stretched its influence to every corner of the world. The U.S. has a great number of bilateral defense and security partnerships, as well as membership in many multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, etc. In addition to these partnerships, regional or “coalitions of the willing” are another instrument in United States’ arsenal in advancing its interests worldwide. These Coalitions are generally functional - meaning they deal with a phenomenon, such as terrorism - or regional specific issues, where they tackle a threat from/to a specific country, or region.
While these partnerships bring many advantages, they are not always easy to manage. In many instances, certain countries might be friends and partners with the United States, but they are rivals, or enemies with each other. Such cases make multilateral engagements difficult for the U.S. In some instances, it can damage the United States’ influence over an individual country, as it might be perceived that the U.S. is favoring the country’s enemy.
These challenges are more evident when it comes to the need to bring a bigger coalition together. The animosity between different U.S. partners makes it difficult to have the coalition function without friction. Depending on the operation, the U.S. has been successful in mitigating these differences in certain operations, at least in the theater of operations. Usually, this is done by physically deploying in separate AORs.
The value of bilateral partnerships in the multilateral environment
The United States has quite successfully used multilateral and bilateral partnerships ‘against’ one another, to advance its interests in respective partnerships. In the United Nations, apart from being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. can push its agenda by relying on the support of a close bilateral relationship with individual UN member states.
On the other hand, the weight of multilateral partnerships can be used to advance a bilateral partnership. Among many cases, the use of NATO in support of the Baltic countries and Poland, has advanced bilateral partnerships between the U.S. and the aforementioned countries.
Bilateral partnerships can be both geographically, or regionally constrained (U.S. – Japan, or U.S. – South Korea partnerships), or can be global (United Kingdom, Canada). Among many benefits of such relations is flexibility. The U.S. can adapt a bilateral partnership to address a time or region-specific interest. This adaptation is difficult in a multilateral environment. These partnerships are constrained by the established rules, processes, and treaty agreements and changing them to meet the challenge is either too slow or cannot be done at all.
The best use of bilateral and multilateral partnerships is when they can be ‘dual-use’, or complementary to one another. The case of the U.S.-UK partnership works best for this example. The U.S. ‘uses’ its “special relationship” with the United Kingdom for both bilateral cooperation and action, as well as in the multilateral organizations and partnerships that they are both part of. On the bilateral side, the U.K. has stood by the U.S. in almost all of U.S. global engagement in pursuit of U.S. interests. It does help that the UK’s interests are nearly always aligned with those of the U.S.
The United States needs to try to find a balance between bilateral and multilateral partnerships. While both are important, the bilateral partnerships have been the backbone of the United States’ advance of its strategic interests. Multilateral platforms/partnerships are still relevant, but any success that the U.S. has achieved was mainly due to well-nurtured bilateral partnerships. Aside from Europe - where multilateral partnership through NATO has been a cornerstone for the United States’ ability to project its influence after WWII - in other regions in the world, like the Middle East and all of Asia, there is not yet another credible multilateral alternative for the U.S. to advance its interests, though the QUAD and AUKUS may be effective in the future. Similarly, in Latin America, bilateral partnerships should continue to be the main platform for the U.S. to project its influence and pursue its strategic goals.
While stressing the importance and credibility of the bilateral partnerships and alliances, the same ones should be used to advance the interest of the U.S. in multilateral forums.