Bill Clinton’s speech at Woolsey Hall last Friday was filled with the kind of saccharine fluff to which no one can really object. Clinton first expressed his hope that the world in the 21st century will become a more integrated global community, with more shared values and benefits. To achieve this utopia, he then argued that countries must fight poverty, promote education, relieve debts, fund healthcare and reduce pollution. “This is not expensive and it’s not rocket science, but it will make the world more friends and fewer terrorists,” Clinton said. Despite the former president’s rock-star appeal, this section of his talk resembled a lecture on driving safety, or a plate of broccoli — good for you, but rather bland.

The speech suddenly became more provocative toward the end, when Clinton discussed what his vision meant for America. In his view, a more peaceful and prosperous world can only be achieved if America follows a multilateral foreign policy. President Bush’s policies are therefore wrong when they do not reflect a global consensus (e.g. opposing the Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal Court, attacking Iraq), and laudable when they do (e.g. negotiating peace in Sudan, organizing an Iraqi donors conference in Madrid). Since Clinton’s stance on multilateralism mirrors the positions of all the Democratic presidential candidates — and contrasts sharply with President Bush’s view — it is important to subject it to some scrutiny, and see how it holds up.

Many of the advantages of a genuinely multilateral foreign policy are obvious. When tackling a problem, the United States could draw upon other countries’ resources in addition to its own. Per the old adage that many heads are better than one, the wisdom of its peers could help America avoid foolish foreign policy errors. And people abroad would be more apt to speak glowingly of the “American dream” and the “land of opportunity,” and less prone to invoking terms like “rogue superpower” and “bull in a china shop.” So it’s not surprising that an inveterate globetrotter like Clinton would prefer a policy that results in flowers and adulation in foreign capitals, rather than sullen faces and shaken fists.

Why, then, are we not all multilateralists? The answer, of course, is that playing with the other kids in the sandbox sometimes means that we have to wait in line for the swing set. In many cases, the resultant delay and consultation are not problematic. Achieving consensus among the NATO allies before bombing Serbia in 1999, obtaining a U.N. Resolution before confronting the Taliban in Afghanistan, forming the Quartet (the United States., Russia, the EU, and the U.N.) to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — these are all instances where the United States pursued multilateral policies at the cost of some lost time, but no real harm to its interests.

Unfortunately, these are the easy cases. Often, other nations want not only dialogue and consultation, but also substantive change in American policies, before they will agree to them. During the Kosovo crisis, for example, France’s price for entering the coalition was an American pledge that military targets with civilian value (the Serbian electrical grid, dual-use factories, etc.) would not be bombed initially. More recently, Britain insisted that the United States seek U.N. endorsement before attacking Iraq (we said yes), and Turkey demanded billions of dollars and post-war control over northern Iraq before it would commit its forces to the invasion (we said no).

Finally, there are situations in which American national interest runs directly against the positions of the countries that we would like to have in our coalition. There was arguably no concession that the United States could have made that would have persuaded France, Germany and Russia to back us in the war against Iraq. And America’s self-interest — at least as interpreted by a Republican administration — fundamentally differs from Europe’s on issues like fighting global warming, prosecuting war criminals, banning landmines and ending nuclear weapon tests. These are the cases, then, where the Clinton-style multilateralist must prove his mettle. Should America sacrifice its own interests for the sake of international cooperation and harmony? Or, after consulting with our allies in good faith, should we reserve the right to chart our own foreign policy course?

Clinton and the Democratic presidential candidates appear to lean toward the former of the two positions. But I would suggest that the latter is the only sensible approach in a world where our interests coincide less and less with those of our traditional allies — multilateralists when we can be, unilateralists when we must.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a first-year student at Yale Law School.