We’ve Been Here Before: The Durability of Multilateralism

This piece will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of the Journal of International Affairs.

Several of the Trump administration’s opening foreign policy salvoes have been aimed directly at the world’s multilateral structures. The president and his nominees lambasted the UN Security Council for its December resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal. A draft executive order reportedly called for funding cuts of up to 40 percent to the United Nations and an end to new multilateral treaties. The administration withdrew funding from the UN Population Fund and hinted that it might spurn its Human Rights Council as well. “A wave of populism … is challenging institutions like the United Nations and shaking them to their foundations,” said UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The United Nations is far from the only multilateral target. The president quickly pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and demanded changes to the longstanding North American Free Trade Agreement. His team floated the idea of tariffs on Mexico that could violate World Trade Organization rules. He pledged to review U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change. Just days before taking office, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and predicted that more members would abandon the European Union. In a sign of displeasure at what he perceives as freeloading NATO members, Trump reportedly presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a “bill” for underinvestment in her country’s military.

The president’s apparent aversion to key alliance structures and multilateralism has fed growing alarm that the administration plans to abandon the post-World War II international order. In this publication, scholar and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter warned that “the next four to eight years may well see the end of the United Nations as a serious forum for global decisionmaking about peace and security.” Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor who worked in the Bush Justice Department, called Trump’s early moves “the beginnings of the greatest presidential onslaught on international law and international institutions in American history.” Others have argued that China may now be more committed to key global institutions than Washington.

Major multilateral organizations like the UN, WTO, and EU and multilateral treaties are not, of course, the whole of the international order. Informal norms, habits of cooperation, and embedded power realities arguably play an even greater role in maintaining a modicum of order in the international system. But formal organizations and treaty regimes undoubtedly play an important role, which has become more prominent since the end of the Cold War. The prospect of an American administration actively undermining these instruments is unnerving.

As with much else in the administration’s troubled first months, however, there’s confusion about what exactly lies beneath the smoke and steam. The draft order on UN funding has been delayed for further review. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly toned down (or openly contradicted) several of the president’s most outlandish comments. Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure European allies that Washington does in fact value NATO and the EU. So how serious and unprecedented is the Trump administration’s challenge to multilateralism?

Revising the GOP Playbook

Many of Trump’s attacks on multilateralism draw on a well-thumbed playbook. Nikki Haley’s pledge to “take names” at the United Nations echoed Jeane Kirkpatrick’s insistence in the early 1980s that opposition to the United States should come with costs. Kirkpatrick told Congress in 1983 that “we must communicate that it is not possible to denounce us on Monday, vote against us on important issues of principle on Tuesday and Wednesday, and pick up our assurances of support on Thursday and Friday.” Voting at the United Nations, she insisted, should factor into U.S. decisions on foreign aid.

There’s also ample precedent for slashing UN funding. The United States withheld funds in the 1980s to insist (successfully) on changes to the UN budgeting process. During the 1990s, senator Jesse Helms pushed the United States to withhold chunks of UN funding, ostensibly to punish the organization for its position on Israel and perceived inefficiency. UN envoy Richard Holbrooke finally brokered a compromise in 2000 that saw the United States release most of the sequestered funds. Early in its tenure, the Obama administration requested and received from Congress funds necessary to pay off additional overdue payments (the UN still argues that the United States owes several hundred million dollars—but there is little chance those dues will ever be paid).

The skepticism of multilateral treaties that Trump’s draft executive order reflected may have the longest pedigree in Washington. Conservatives and foreign policy isolationists have long viewed many of these treaties as either ineffective or, more darkly, as a means to circumvent domestic political processes and enshrine in international law a set of what they view as mostly liberal policies. GOP opposition has prevented ratification of a raft of treaties, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the new Arms Trade Treaty.

But Trump departs from the traditional Republican playbook in several instances. He has extended the skepticism of multilateral projects to institutions Republicans have usually left untouched. The GOP’s willingness to delegate substantial power to the WTO—including giving a group of international experts the right to resolve major trade disputes—has always sat oddly with traditional Republican insistence on defending national sovereignty. Trump has also talked about NATO—which has long enjoyed bipartisan support—in disparaging terms usually reserved for the United Nations. Trump’s challenge to multilateralism is therefore broader and, in a strange sense, more intellectually consistent than garden variety Republican skepticism.

A Cruder de Gaulle

The breadth of the American president’s hostility to multilateralism makes it hard to imagine a leader of a major power as unnerving to international organizations and their supporters. But there is one Western leader who may have come close: Charles de Gaulle. When France’s wartime resistance leader returned to the French presidency in 1958, his first order of business was finding a way out of the bloody Algerian conflict that was tearing apart French society. But de Gaulle soon set his sights on what he saw as a plague of international officials and structures encumbering French power and autonomy.

De Gaulle contemptuously called the UN “le machin” and fiercely denounced the UN’s secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold. France’s unwillingness to pay for a large UN peacekeeping operation in Congo helped produce the UN’s most serious financial crisis. Brussels got much the same treatment as Turtle Bay. While he favored Western European solidarity, de Gaulle loathed the idea of Europe being run by technocrats in Brussels. His hostility to the European Commission culminated in the 1965 “empty chair crisis,” which generated doubt about further European integration.

In most respects, Trump and de Gaulle have little in common. De Gaulle was a military hero and leader of the resistance deeply versed in history who commanded multiple languages (he taught himself German after he was wounded and captured in World War I). But de Gaulle’s insistence on restoring national glory echoes in Trump. De Gaulle often said that “France cannot be France without greatness,” a more refined analogue to “Make America Great Again.” And like Trump, de Gaulle favored a realist version of international politics focused on the major powers and their interests.

De Gaulle’s crusade against what he saw as the excesses of multilateralism made plenty of waves, but it didn’t amount to much in the long run. The UN weathered the financial crisis of the early 1960s and its peacekeeping activities continued. Since the Cold War, in fact, UN peacekeeping has mushroomed, with more than 100,000 blue helmets usually deployed at any given time. (In fact, one of the UN’s largest operations is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of the earlier mission that so infuriated de Gaulle.) Europe’s move toward delegating greater power to Brussels proceeded apace as well, although in fits and starts. Many of the innovations that de Gaulle vehemently opposed—including more power for the European Commission and the European Parliament—happened despite his best efforts.

In fact, since de Gaulle’s time, international organizations have assumed much more prominent roles in what used to be considered the domestic affairs of states. This shift has happened in multiple stages and through different mechanisms, but the overall effect is profound. Born as a mechanism for alleviating conflicts between states, UN peacekeeping is now devoted almost entirely to remedying conflicts within states. In the area of human rights, the UN has expanded its machinery for investigating domestic violations. More than a dozen UN “special rapporteurs” crisscross the globe, poking into state practices and writing up reports. And countries now routinely appear before the UN Human Rights Committee to answer criticisms of their records. Meanwhile, new and newly empowered regional and international courts hear cases about alleged atrocities and other human rights violations. The International Criminal Court has broad jurisdiction to investigate crimes and prosecute even senior military and political officials.

In the financial realm, the International Monetary Fund has become much more deeply involved in countries’ domestic practices than its founders ever imagined. IMF loan packages now include detailed conditions on the kinds of domestic reforms governments should make. International bureaucrats tell borrowing countries how much domestic spending to cut, what industries to privatize, and how to reform financial institutions. For its part, the WTO regularly analyzes domestic environmental and health legislation to ensure that it comports with trade law. On multiple fronts, national regulations and legislation get unprecedented international scrutiny.

A Global Populism

This reality is one part of what of anti-globalists and populists fear about the world’s trajectory. And concerns about the distance between multinational bureaucrats and domestic publics is not confined to the political right. Criticism of the World Bank, IMF, and WTO has been a staple of left-wing politics for decades. By merging traditional Republican skepticism of the UN and multilateral treaties with populist anger at international financial institutions, Trump is drawing together objections to multilateralism in a potentially powerful way; the raw material for a sustained push to reform the international architecture is there.

In that effort, Trump has some assets that de Gaulle lacked. Trump leads the world power most responsible for the creation and maintenance of the multilateral order. By contrast, de Gaulle’s efforts often faced opposition from Washington and were easily dismissed as a quixotic bid to restore waning French grandeur. Moreover, Trump’s animosity to multilateralism is part of a broader wave that de Gaulle’s was not. Brexit stunned the European Union months before Trump was elected, and British Prime Minister Theresa May has committed her country to a clean break with the EU. Across Europe, Euroskeptic and nationalist parties enjoy growing popularity. If Marine Le Pen prevails in the French elections, the three permanent Western members of the UN Security Council could all have leaders convinced that multilateralism has gone too far.

In that conviction, this new generation of Western leaders will find plenty of agreement in Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi. In different ways, all of these major powers harbor deep doubts about the intrusiveness of global bodies. China and Russia both view most multilateral human rights activities with suspicion. China chafes at what it sees as the sluggishness of the World Bank and IMF, and many observers saw Beijing’s launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a direct challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions. India has long resisted UN involvement in South Asia and often views multilateral diplomacy with suspicion. In many negotiations, it adopts loud but idiosyncratic positions that win few allies. Adept diplomacy might convince all these countries to support change.

But what kind of change? For all the populist rage at globalism, its leading voices are strikingly vague on what they want the world architecture to look like. Few populist leaders seem to favor the wholesale dismantling of key organizations. And when it comes to what these organizations should do differently, any consensus dissipates. Republicans on Capitol Hill want the UN to stop attacking Israel, leftist anti-globalists usually like pressure on Israel but hate the IMF’s heavy hand, and European populists focus their anger at Brussels and often lack clear views on how global institutions should be reformed.

Even if some kind of populist consensus did emerge, effecting major multilateral reform can be deceptively hard. Neglecting and circumventing international institutions can do some damage, but the structures remain in place, waiting for a more propitious climate. The UN’s renaissance after the Cold War is a reminder of how institutions can go dormant, only to flourish when geopolitics thaw. That dynamic of marginalization and revival has occurred even more recently.  When the Bush administration invaded Iraq without UN approval, some observers worried that the institution was mortally wounded. But a few years later, the Security Council had dispatched a record number of peacekeepers to hotspots around the world.

The hurdles to more permanent change, such as amending the UN Charter or reworking IMF lending rules, are daunting. Big powers can use the purse strings to secure some changes on their own, but the diplomatic costs often aren’t worth the limited policy successes. And that reality underlines what may be multilateralism’s most formidable defense mechanism: For all the resentment international organizations attract, reform rarely stays at the top of the critics’ to-do lists. More pressing issues quickly crowd out institutional reform.     

Even if these obstacles to multilateral remodeling could be overcome, there is one that likely will not: The Trump administration has shown no signs of the diplomatic constancy and finesse that would be necessary to attempt major change. His team will likely shatter some glass. Congress may slash UN funding, complicating the organization’s work. The administration could defy, at least for a while, an adverse WTO ruling. America’s tacit support for the International Criminal Court’s operations could evaporate. But in the end, Trump’s challenge to the slow march of multilateralism may be even less consequential than de Gaulle’s.


David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University. Follow on Twitter @multilateralist.

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