In the recent debate on “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR) with China, some progressives argued that failure to ratify the bilateral deal would constitute a retreat into “unilateralism.” They asserted that U.S. unilateralism is a bad thing–so bad, indeed, that they supported PNTR even though they agreed with opponents that China’s entry into the WTO, facilitated by PNTR, would likely be bad for most workers in both China and the USA. 2 I think this position rests on a false premise. The policies of the United States–whether acting alone or in concert with other states–have often been at odds
with progressive internationalist principles, but they need not be. This
paper aims to justify this conclusion and to identify the conditions under
which unilateral U.S. actions can serve progressive internationalism.

What is Unilateralism?

State policies are often dubbed “unilateral”
if they: (a) are undertaken by a single state, (b) have significant impacts
on people in other states, and (c) are not governed by bilateral or multilateral
treaties. By this definition, U.S. refusal to grant PNTR status to China
would have been a unilateral action because the U.S. would have been acting
alone and because it would have exercised a de facto veto over China’s
accession to the WTO. By the same token, if the U.S. and three other countries
had signed a treaty agreeing not to support China’s membership in
the WTO until China became a democracy, then congressional refusal to
support China’s admission to the WTO would have been a case of multilateralism.

If this is what unilateralism means, it is hard to see why
it is more problematic than bilateralism or multilateralism, independent
of the substance of the policies pursued. A group of states, acting in
a coordinated fashion, can usually impose a policy on other countries
more effectively than can any single member of the alliance. So if a policy’s
net impact on most of those affected is negative, its cooperative pursuit
will generally be more harmful than its uncoordinated pursuit by an individual
state. The cooperation of the creditor states in their bargaining with
Third World debtor nations in the 1980s illustrates this point. Cooperation
enabled the creditors to impose much more far-reaching neoliberal conditionality
on the debtor countries than would otherwise have been possible.
All other things being equal, interstate cooperation may
be preferable to its absence. But such an abstract preference is easily
outweighed when the net external effects of a policy are substantial and
negative. I conclude that the animus of some progressives against unilateralism–U.S.
or otherwise–cannot be justified under the conventional definition
of the term.

A stronger case against unilateralism can be made if it
is redefined as actions by one or more states that have significant “external”
impacts, undertaken without the agreement of the governments whose citizens
are affected by these actions. 4 Here the key
is not whether one or more states pursue a policy, but whether those significantly
affected by that policy agree to it under noncoercive conditions. By this
definition, it is not so important whether the Federal Reserve (Fed) secured
the agreement of the Bundesbank or the Bank of England before it dramatically
hiked real interest rates in 1979. What matters is that the Fed did not
secure the consent of the governments of the many nations whose economies
and people were seriously harmed when the Fed’s new policy precipitated
the Third World debt crisis.

The principle invoked here is a familiar one: one ought
to be held accountable for the harms that one does to others. Lack of
intent to do these harms is not an excuse. Failure to consider such external
consequences before acting is negligence; recognizing that serious negative
externalities are likely, but proceeding nonetheless, without attempting
to warn or protect the likely victims, is recklessness. It is reasonable
to insist that states consider the consequences of their actions for people
living outside their borders, inform those likely to be affected by these
actions, and attempt to secure their consent. Where agreement by all affected
states is secured, the policy is no longer unilateral–it has become
a multilateral agreement.

As redefined here, unilateralism faces a serious ethical
challenge any time the policy pursued has significant external effects.
For if we do not ask those affected by our actions whether they see them
as beneficial or harmful, how are we to know? It is not enough to say
that, if we were in their place, we would like (or dislike) the effects
of this policy, because there are important differences in values and
policy priorities within and among our societies. Given that such differences
exist, the people affected must decide how they evaluate those impacts.
The consent of their governments to the policy must therefore be secured,
insofar as it reflects popular judgments on these matters.

As redefined here, there is one situation–and one alone–in
which unilateral action can be morally justified: where the external effects
of the policy benefit most of the people in the countries affected, but
the governments of those countries oppose the policy nonetheless. This
situation is most likely to arise where two conditions are met: first,
the policies in question embody progressive internationalist ideals (as
defined below); and second, the governments that oppose them are authoritarian
regimes or low-quality democracies catering to the interests of powerful
minorities within their societies. The agreement of such states is not
sufficient to certify that a policy benefits most of “their”
people; on the other hand, failure to secure the support of such states
does not indicate that the policy would be opposed by most of the people
in those countries.

When broadly popular political organizations, autonomous
from the political regime, call for a particular policy–as the African
National Congress (ANC) called for economic sanctions and rejected the
U.S. alternative of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid
South African regime–this manifests that most people in that country
support the policy, even though the state strongly opposes it. Whether
sanctions are pursued by one or more states often determines how effective
they are likely to be. But sanctions are justified, even if only one state
imposes them, provided they have at least some of the desired impacts. 5
This is a relatively easy case.

What are we to do, though, in countries where an ANC or
a Polish Solidarity does not exist, because the regime has been successful
in suppressing their equivalents? China is the largest and most powerful
example of such a regime today, but it is far from the only one. Here
we face a more difficult challenge, not only because it is more difficult
to learn what most citizens in such countries actually think, but also
because what they think is heavily manipulated by the state’s control
of information flows and interpretations of that information. Despite
these difficulties, it is our responsibility in such cases to impute those
interests based on the best evidence available to us.

The alternative is paralysis, and that is unacceptable: those with power
and resources to make a difference have an obligation to help the oppressed
to escape their bonds, particularly if the governments of the powerful
were partly responsible for the creation of those bonds, as is often the
case in our world.

We cannot be sure whether most Chinese peasants, given the
opportunity to investigate and discuss the matter freely, would support
the agricultural trade liberalization and intellectual property rights
provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO). But we know that many
of their Indian counterparts strongly oppose these policies and the WTO
in its current form. Peasants constitute a majority of the populations
of both countries, so in high-quality democracies, we would expect their
opposition to the WTO to weigh very heavily in government deliberations. 7
A full analysis of the economic interests of Chinese peasants with respect
to trade matters would have to be much more sophisticated than this, but
these are among the arguments and evidence that would have to be considered
in such an assessment.

Where our best efforts to impute interests indicate that
the external effects of the policy contemplated would be largely positive,
unilateral action is justified, despite opposition by authoritarian or
low-quality democratic states. On the other hand, reckless (or negligent)
unilateralism, such as that of the Federal Reserve in 1979, cannot be
morally justified.

Progressive Internationalism

What is progressive internationalism? What are the basic
elements of a progressive internationalist (PI) conception of a just international
political economy? The argument in the previous section implies at least
part of an answer. It assumes that principles of fairness and justice
that we would apply among ourselves should not stop at national borders,
and that what is true of ethically responsible behavior by individuals
is also true of responsible behavior by states in the international system.

The first objection to such a position is that it makes
a mockery of the principle of national sovereignty: the Federal Reserve
should be accountable only to the people of the United States.
If states are ethically constrained to pursue only policies to which majorities
in countries affected by those policies would assent, what is left of
national sovereignty? If the same argument holds for reckless unilateralism
by transnational corporations, as a progressive internationalist would
hold, what is left of private property rights? The answer is that neither
national sovereignty nor private property rights would disappear, but
both are second-order values that must operate within the space that is
left by the requirements of justice.

Put this way, to achieve a just international political
economy, the policies pursued by such an economy’s organizations–as
well as the institutions that shape the goals of those organizations and
the means by which they may be pursued–must have the consent of the
governed. This consent implies an international political process in which
the interests and preferences of popular majorities in all countries are
effectively represented (Held 1995).

in turn, implies high-quality democracy in all of these countries, so
that national governments know what the interests and preferences of the
majority of their peoples are and actively pursue those interests in negotiations.
The low quality of democracy in many contemporary states–including
the United States, where private money and growing social inequality have
been reducing the quality of democracy (from a modest baseline) for a
quarter-century–means that we cannot look to the policies of these
states to learn what the majorities of the world’s peoples would

What, then, can we do? I see two ways to proceed. One is to focus
on the various requirements of a progressive internationalist order that
are built into its very definition–above all, the stipulation that
all of its constituent states be high-quality democracies. The other is
to focus on what popular sector organizations from the North and South
have so far agreed would be a superior alternative to the neoliberal model
of global economic organization. I will treat the common elements of two
proposals developed by Northern and Southern nonprofit, nongovernmental
organizations as a first approximation of a progressive internationalist

The six most important measures
common to both proposals are summarized in the left-hand column of Table

Progressive U.S.

Under our redefinition, unilateral actions can involve
one or many countries. What makes them unilateral is that they are undertaken
without the consent of states that are seriously affected by the actions.
U.S. unilateralism occurs when the U.S. is the only nation pursuing a
unilateral policy. Can the United States, acting alone and unilaterally,
do anything to shift the current international political economy toward
our first approximation of the progressive internationalist ideal? The
rest of Table One addresses this question.

The center column identifies actions that the U.S. could
undertake alone with a realistic prospect of advancing the progressive
internationalist reform agenda. We see that, for five of the six most
important reform proposals summarized in the table, the U.S. could make
a significant positive difference, even if it had to act alone. The right-hand
column of Table One considers whether the U.S. actions listed in the center
column would be unilateral as defined here–that is, would they be
opposed by at least some of the states whose populations would be affected
by the U.S. policy. In all five cases, the table indicates, the U.S. might
have to act unilaterally, though only in the case of core worker rights
is this almost certain to be the case.

All six of the measures summarized in the table are important,
but the first one deserves particular attention, because success in protecting
core worker rights would not only realize progressive economic goals but
would also substantially enhance the prospects for high-quality, stable
democracy (Rueschemeyer et al. 1992, Robinson 1993, Adler & Webster
1995). Frundt has shown that worker rights provisions in U.S. trade law
since 1984 have had significant positive impacts on struggles for worker
rights in Central America and the Caribbean. This was so even though executive
branch support for worker rights (whether at home or abroad) was minimal,
and administration officials interpreted and applied the worker rights
provisions in ways that significantly weakened their potential effectiveness
(Frundt 1999). The U.S. could also use social tariffs–or, more aggressively,
economic sanctions–to promote direct changes in state behavior conducive
to higher quality democracy.

There is not space here to explore in similar detail the
reasoning behind the other four measures where individual U.S. action
could make a positive difference. However, they are perhaps relatively
straightforward. For example, if the U.S. administration announced that
it would not seek to enforce NAFTA and WTO restrictions against Southern
states wishing to impose investor performance requirements on U.S. investors,
it would be less intimidating for these states to employ such measures.

Individual U.S. action is not likely to advance the Tobin tax proposal
(row 6), because if the U.S. were the only country imposing such a tax,
currency trading would simply move offshore to avoid it. Consequently,
the cooperation of at least the other G-3 powers–Japan and the European
Union (EU)–would be required. Could the U.S. act unilaterally to
bring pressure on these states to cooperate in such an endeavor? As always,
the U.S. can bring many bargaining chips to the table to induce the cooperation
of other states, but ultimately the Tobin tax cannot work without their
active support, so unilateralism is not a live option here, even if it
could be justified.


Over the past 25 years, successive U.S. administrations
have taken the lead in promoting a neoliberal model of global economic
organization. To this end, these administrations have acted either alone
or in concert with other states, depending upon which approach they thought
would be more effective. Many of these actions–both the individual
and the collective ones–were both unilateral and reckless, as these
terms have been defined here. Reckless unilateralism by transnational
corporations is also rampant in the global economic order that has resulted
from these policies. Recklessness–whether individual or collective,
private or public–is morally unacceptable. International institutions
that now permit–and sometimes encourage–such recklessness should
be reformed so that they punish recklessness and compensate its victims.
That said, not all unilateralism is reckless or negligent.

Progressive unilateralism is not an oxymoron. Some unilateral actions
can be legitimated on progressive internationalist grounds, whether the
unilateral action is undertaken by the United States, some other state,
or a combination of states. Unilateral actions are justified on this basis
if and only if two conditions are met: (1) the balance of evidence suggests
that most people in the affected countries believe that the policy would
benefit them (or would believe this if they had access to all of the relevant
facts and arguments); and (2) the affected states that oppose the policy
are low-quality democracies or authoritarian regimes in which national
governments routinely ignore the interests of the majority of their people.
Where these conditions are met, unilateral action by the United States
is ethically justified. Whether justified U.S. unilateralism is also a
potent force for progressive internationalism can only be assessed on
a case by case basis. However, the examples in Table One suggest that
this can sometimes be the case.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.