Trump’s aversion to multilateralism plunges world into multilateral crisis

By Ameen Izzadeen
Pax Americana 2.0 was the title of a political discussion on Russia Today television on New Year’s Eve. The Crosstalk programme conducted by Peter Lavelle had as its theme a recent speech delivered by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Addressing European leaders last month at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, Secretary Pompeo critiqued multilateralism and questioned the worthiness of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Criminal Court. The topic of the lecture was “Restoring the role of the nation state in international order.”
Pointing out that the United Nations was founded as an organisation of peace-loving nations, he asked whether the world body continued to serve its mission faithfully. His answer was that not only the UN, but most multilateral institutions also had not lived by their ideals.
Then dismissing criticism that the Donald Trump administration has undermined multilateralism, Pompeo said, “Critics in places like Iran and China, who really are undermining the international order, are saying the Trump administration is the reason this system is breaking down. They claim America is acting unilaterally instead of multilaterally, as if every kind of multilateral action is by definition desirable. Even our European friends sometimes say we’re not acting in the world’s interest. This is just plain wrong.”
Though, Pompeo was critical of multilateralism, he defended NATO, describing it as “an indispensable institution. He called on all NATO allies to strengthen what he hailed as “the greatest military alliance in all of history.” Perhaps, such praise was heaped on NATO because since it was set up in 1949, it has been acting like an appendage of the US military. This is selective and self-centred multilateralism, which gives little thought to humanity’s wellbeing or the health of the Planet Earth.
Though the US Secretary of State declared in international affairs multilateralism was a failure, he was promoting a new liberal order led by the US, prompting the Russia Today programme host to ask whether such an international order meant the universalisation of American law and whether it would limit sovereignty for the rest of the world.
From Day One, the Trump administration has made it clear that it will not uphold multilateralism at the cost of the United States’ national interest. Trump’s ‘America First’ declaration is paved with selfish undertones which are now evident in his administration’s international, political and trade relations. This does not mean that his predecessors did not put America first in their foreign and trade policies. The difference is that they understood the larger picture and realised the importance of making compromises in bilateral and multilateral agreements. They believed that multilateralism with a give-and-take spirit would be beneficial to the United States in the long run. If not in terms of immediate economic benefits, it was still a price worth paying for in terms of long-term benefits and, of course, to maintain the United States’ global leadership.
But in his first act symbolising the America First Policy since taking office on January 20, 2017, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a trade deal that was pressed ahead by his predecessor Barack Obama to prevent a China-led international trade order from taking shape. The Trump administration has since then withdrawn from the Paris climate deal and from the United Nations Human Rights Council. On January 1 this year, the US formally withdrew from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), accusing it of having an anti-Israel bias.
Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, in a harsh tweet blasted the UNESCO as being among the most corrupt and politically biased UN agencies. “Today the U.S. withdrawal from this cesspool became official. #USStrong” she tweeted, bringing out the incompatibility between Trump’s America First policy and multilateralism.
The appointment last year of hardcore Neocon John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor is yet another proof of the Trump administration’s aggressive nationalism and contempt for multilateralism. Bolton once disdainfully remarked that the UN headquarters could easily lose ten of its floors without any impact. On another occasion, he remarked that there was no United Nations.
True, in a stricter sense, there is little altruism in multilateralism. Countries subscribe to multilateralism because there is much to gain from it. In overcoming the challenges the humanity faces at large, concerted action through multilateralism can bring quicker and speedier results than what can be achieved individually at national level. The Ebola outbreak in Africa was a case in point. If Liberia, for instance, had been left alone to tackle the issue on its own, it would have failed miserably and millions would have died, while the disease would have become a worldwide pandemic. It is largely because of global efforts and the involvement of the World Health Organisation that the outbreak was contained.
Then take the crucial issue of climate change. Although the Trump administration, in keeping with its disregard for multilateralism, has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, other nations are not as mindless as Trump’s America as to dismiss climate change as a hoax. It goes without saying that the global warming can be contained only if the entire world comes together.
Multilateralism has contributed towards the relative success of the UN’s ambitious Millennium Development Goals. As a result, member-states have been motivated to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets now. Multilateralism has improved the quality of life of billions of people worldwide. Life expectancy, literacy and access to health have seen remarkable gains in the past fifty years largely due to multilateral efforts.
Despite criticism, multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund have contributed towards the smooth functioning of world trade and helped many nations to overcome economic crises.
If multilateralism collapses, it would only spell further misery to humanity. Already, in many countries, anti-multilateralism sentiments have led to the erosion of liberal values. Right wing demagogues opposing multilateralism are gaining strength in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. One wonders whether the disturbing trend has a direct correlation to the US failure to live up to the values multilateralism advocates.
Washington needs to realize that the collapse of rules-based multilateralism could lead to world wars and an erosion of values. In this international anarchy, powerful countries will try to pursue their empire-building ambitions.
With the US not in favour of all-out multilateralism, while the European Union is under strain due to a tendency to disintegrate following the Brexit example, is the alternative a China-led multilateralism in which universal values such as democracy, human rights and freedoms of speech, movement and worship have little or no recognition?
Regardless of China’s quest to be the world’s number one economic power, the US could still be the world leader if it gives leadership to a rules-based global order and takes genuine measures to promote peace and justice. Is this wishful thinking?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Jan 4, 2019)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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