UNESCO is among the organisations that have been sidelined by the Trump Administration
UNESCO is among the organisations that have been sidelined by the Trump Administration | Photo: Julien Chatelain | CC BY SA 2.0

Saving Multilateralism in Times of Trump: What Can Europe Do?

The Trump administration’s recent statements and actions have removed any doubt that it is set on dismantling part of the multilateral order which the United States once helped build. America’s retreat from the role of a hegemon that creates and enforces order is a problem for US allies committed to a rule-based world. What can they do to save it, and what can they learn from past episodes of US unilateralism? In this blogpost (based on a new article), we argue that even though great challenges remain, in many policy-areas the prospects of a “multilateralism minus one” have improved.

If anyone still had harboured doubts about the Trump administration’s fundamental, ideological opposition to multilateral rule-based cooperation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was happy to dispel them in his 4 December 2018 address tellingly titled “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order.” Addressing a Brussels audience, he bashed not only the European Union, but international organizations and agreements from the United Nations to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and International Criminal Court. He stated bluntly that “[i]nternational bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated” and that “[o]ur mission is to reassert our sovereignty”. He demanded to “make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them”. Defending the US retreat from the Paris agreement on climate change, Pompeo boasted that “[i]n America, we’ve found a better solution – we think a better solution for the world.”

US withdrawal across the board

For those who prefer multilaterally negotiated solutions over Pompeo-style “American solutions”, the accelerating US withdrawal from multilateral treaties and institutions is a serious problem. Since coming to office, US President Donald Trump has decided to formally withdraw the US from global agreements ranging from the Paris Agreement on Climate change, the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to more obscure treaties such as the Universal Postal Union. He has also walked out of negotiations on the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement and on a non-binding UN Global Compact for Migration, and has renounced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka “Iran deal”, threatening sanctions against companies in other countries still doing business with Iran. Recently, his administration has announced the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a bilateral agreement with Russia that is, however, central to the United States’ fulfilment of its disarmament commitments under the multilateral Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Under Trump’s administration, the US has also ended cooperation with UN rapporteurs on human rights violations occurring within the United States, cut down funding for UN peacekeeping and UN agencies dealing with human rights, Palestinian refugees, population control, sustainable development and global warming, and threatened key multilateral organizations including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

US unilateralism then and now: drawing lessons from a recurring debate

While the Trump administration’s destructive track record is admittedly impressive, US unilateralism is not a new problem for Europeans. Under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, US foreign policy already took a decidedly unilateralist turn.

In fact, even though the United States took the leadership in setting up the pillars of the contemporary multilateral order, American policies have long been marked by ambivalence towards multilateral rules. Accordingly, as early as the 1980s pundits debated the possibility of “non-hegemonic cooperation” – sustaining or creating multilateralism without American leadership (see e.g. here and here). Back then, even more than Reagan’s unilateralism, the perceived loss of US primacy cast doubt on the US ability to lead. After the Cold War, a new wave of American-led institution-building ended this first debate, only to be followed by new US quarrels with, e.g., the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention or the Kyoto Protocol on climate change – and a new debate on “non-hegemonic diplomacy” and a “multilateralism minus one” (see also here and here).

These past episodes of US unilateralism and the scholarly debates they triggered offer a number of insights than can help to assess the potential effectiveness and political viability of “non-hegemonic” multilateralism in the age of Trump. Some key “lessons learned” (see here for more) include:

Lesson 1: US contributions are becoming less central – in some areas!

The prospect of success of any initiative without the United States depend on America’s importance to (a) the specific problem at stake or (b) the solution to this problem. In both respects, the US weight – both in causing problems and solving them – has been diminishing, as relative power is gradually shifting to new actors. The United States’ share of global trade is declining and it no longer holds the top spot among global greenhouse gas emitters. Where money is part of the solution to global problems – in climate finance, aid, or the UN peacekeeping budget – emerging powers are becoming increasingly important donors, while wealthy Western nations, particularly in Europe, are still capable of doing more. In all of these areas, advancing multilateral cooperation promises to generate global benefits – even without US leadership or support. In contrast, in areas such as nuclear arms control the US – as the most important of only a handful of nuclear powers – is still absolutely central to the problem being addressed, as well as to potential solutions. In such fields, achieving substantive progress without having the US on board would be an illusion.

Lesson 2: When compromise is elusive, staying principled and hoping for future change is the best option

In the past, supporters or multilateral solutions often faced the dilemma of whether to try to give in to US demands in order to maintain its support, even at the cost of watering down the multilateral effort. The Trump administrations’ unreliableness and its uncompromising stance have changed the calculus. Trump – as in the case of the Paris accord and the JCPOA – routinely promises a “better deal” when withdrawing from an existing one, but the emptiness of these promises could not be more obvious. Because it is highly unlikely that compromise could ensure US participation in most cases, multilateralists are better off taking a principled position.

At the same time, even though the unilateral challenge goes beyond the president, with national security adviser John Bolton a key driver and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a willing enabler of Trump’s unilateral instincts, there is a chance that some policies will be reversed under a future administration. Thus, even in policy-areas such nuclear arms control, “multilateralism minus one” – although not immediately effective – could help to put multilateral cooperation on life support, in the hope that it can be woken up under a more multilaterally minded future US president.

Lesson 3: Alternative leadership coalitions are emerging, but Europe must get its act together

The big question of course remains who can step up to fill the vacuum left by US leadership. On its own, Europe is hardly able to take on the many challenges of global governance. Too often, it lacks the kind of unity necessary to pull its weight – the growing internal disagreements on climate change or arms exports are a case in point. But even when it acts united – as in its struggle to save the Iran nuclear deal – it needs partners outside the EU. Recognizing this, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is calling for an “alliance for multilateralism”, for which like-minded states such as Canada, Japan, New Zealand or South Korea are obvious candidates. Yet while the EU is already forging new trade deals with some of these players, the “alliance” has thus far failed to step up to pressing tasks such as stopping gaps in climate finance, or jointly pushing back against human rights abuses in Saudia Arabia. Besides like-minded partners, some cooperation with rising powers is inevitable. China will be a key partner in some areas, such as combatting climate change, but Europeans have to evaluate the risks of cooperating with China carefully. On trade, China’s role is ambivalent: While it can help countering unilateral measures that undermine the WTO, China’s commitment to a truly open trade order remains highly doubtful. And a stronger China in the UN threatens the body’s work in the area of human rights. For instance, when the US pushed through cuts to the peacekeeping budget, China sought to use that opportunity to get rid of human monitors in peacekeeping missions. European diplomats successfully resisted this move, but such resistance would become more difficult in the future if the financial gap left by the US would be filled by China alone. To avoid making UN peacekeeping dependent on a different (and less liberal) principal donor, Europeans will have to step up their own contributions.

There is no doubt that the world would greatly benefit from US engagement in the multilateral order. Thinking about the possibilities of a multilateralism minus one is not born out of choice but out of necessity. Since the end of the 1940s, US criticism of the United Nations has steadily grown. In the past four decades, the range of US behaviour toward the multilateral order has ranged from lukewarm support to outright hostility. Under these circumstances, not having an alternative to relying on US leadership would be reckless and naïve.


Cover Global GovernanceThis post is based on the article „Dispensing With the Indispensable Nation? Multilateralism minus One in the Trump Era“ in Global Governance 25/1 (2019) that is currently available for download (Open Access).
Caroline Fehl

Caroline Fehl

Caroline Fehl is Senior Research Fellow at the PRIF Research Department “International Security”. Her research focuses on international norms, institutions and organizations in the fields of arms control, humanitarian law and international criminal justice. | Twitter: @CarolineFehl
Johannes Thimm
Johannes Thimm is Senior Fellow in the research division “The Americas” at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik). His research topics include US foreign policy, transatlantic relations and international organizations.
Johannes Thimm

Latest posts by Johannes Thimm (see all)

Caroline Fehl

Caroline Fehl is Senior Research Fellow at the PRIF Research Department “International Security”. Her research focuses on international norms, institutions and organizations in the fields of arms control, humanitarian law and international criminal justice. | Twitter: @CarolineFehl

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