Democrats and Trump: Multilateralism Should Not Be Ignored

By Thomas G. Weiss
Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Synopsis: With the Trump administration’s aberrant attacks on international institutions short-sighted and missing the mark, Democrats should once again champion multilateralism.

Keywords: multilateralism, institutions, United Nations (UN), United States (US), domestic politics


Amidst impeachment angst and domestic political anguish, the Trump administration’s onslaught on the United Nations (UN) and multilateralism more generally has received scant attention. Just as during the 2016 presidential debates, the seven Democratic Party presidential debates thus far have given an occasional nod to NATO but otherwise ignored the theme of multilateralism. This neglect cries out for remedy if the toxic residue from Trumpian and other new nationalisms is not to pollute the international environment long-term, well beyond any changes in governments.

Much of my work has involved looking at United States (US) policy toward international institutions and its exceptional capacity for wreaking on them budgetary and political havoc. Even against this backdrop, Washington’s current practices are aberrant, based on the notions that partners and cooperation are for dummies, unilateralism is preferable to joining forces, and alliances and intergovernmental organizations are distractions from narrowly-defined national interests. There are many candidates for the most bizarre example of Trump’s short-sightedness, but my personal favorite was his administration’s announced threat in October 2018 to withdraw from the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which since 1874 had allegedly been threatening US sovereignty by fixing international postal rates. While that crisis was averted in late 2019 after UPU Member States agreed to a US proposal to reform its fee structure, meaningful multilateralism remains an endangered species without Washington’s participation.

Alas, today Washington has no monopoly on radical nationalism. The Trump regime has competitors. In addition to the architects of Brexit, other extreme chauvinists abound: Putin, Erdovan, Xi, Modi, Duterte, al-Sisi, Maduro, Orban, and other nativist cabals across the globe, to reference only a few. There are more similarities than differences between Washington’s stance and policies of “Russia First” or “Brazil First” or “China First.”

Trump and his now-former national security adviser John Bolton made a brazen couple, especially because the latter had made a career of attacking the UN. They sneered at international cooperation of any type. Partners and allies were irrelevant in their zero-sum ideology. Sustained collaboration for mutual benefit was not something either believes in or does. Ever. With Bolton dismissed, nothing has changed.

My most recent book asked, “Would the World Be Better without the UN?” The current administration and the toxic political atmosphere have led me to add a second question: “Would the World Be Better without Donald Trump as president?” The answer to the book’s title is a measured “No,” but the reply to the latter question is an unequivocal “Yes.” We require US leadership.

My book concentrates on the UN, but the Trump administration has routinely attacked multilateralism in all forms. A security organization like NATO fares no better than such economic multilateral efforts as the EU, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA, and the WTO. Currently these multilateral arrangements are moving ahead without the US or are the targets of Washington’s systematic attacks. Informal groupings have fared no better: the Group of 7 and the Group of 20 have become the “G-7 minus 1” and the “G-20 minus 1.” Meanwhile, in the Age of Trump, specific problem-solving approaches such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration have been eviscerated.

From Trump’s perspective, though not from the world’s, the attacks on multilateralism have thus far been “costless”—useful distractions and red meat for his base. In particular, the UN is not a four-letter word but a two-letter invective for a foul-mouthed president.  The UN presents the world’s biggest stage, where the annual UN General Assembly has furnished the former reality-TV star with a fitting performance space for exhibitions in the tradition of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev’s shoe-banging, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yassir Arafat’s checking his pistol at the door; and Hugo Chavez’s reference to the devil’s sulfurous odor in the hall (a reference to George W. Bush).

“… [Trump] treated “globalization” and “global governance” as dangers to the Republic and threats to US sovereignty and vital interests …”

As every first-year student of international organization knows, the UN and other intergovernmental organizations—even the supposedly supranational EU—remain sovereignty-bound. In his first September 2017 address to the UN General Assembly, Trump uttered the “S” word 21 times. His redundant repetition of “sovereignty” was noteworthy even by his own standards. The mantra was well-received by such champions of human rights as Russia, China, Myanmar, Venezuela, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Cuba. These countries customarily emphasize the sacrosanctity of state sovereignty in order to ward off criticism by Washington and the West. That parrying is no longer necessary because they have a US permission slip to proceed as they wish. One does not have to be a Barack Obama groupie to recognize the stark contrast. Obama’s first address to the General Assembly in 2009 referred to “sovereignty” once, and he used the term to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to international cooperation as an essential contribution to of US national interests.

In his address at the 2018 General Assembly, Trump uttered “sovereignty” only six times, but he treated “globalization” and “global governance” as dangers to the Republic and threats to US sovereignty and vital interests. The administration’s efforts to dismiss international cooperation and to reassert the power of one to address global problems continued at the 2019 General Assembly, where Trump fumed: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” It matters not that such myopia flies in the face of the reality of contemporary world politics and the scale of global challenges such as climate change and mass migration.

We should recall the predecessor of Trump’s unilateralism. Founded in 1940 by proto-fascists Charles Lindberg, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin to keep the US out of World War II, the America First Committee was the largest and shortest-lived anti-war group ever created. It collapsed less than a year later in December 1941. Trump’s version has not as yet given up the ghost although one hopes it will without the incentive of a Pearl Harbor.

“… Trump’s unilateral and populist perspectives will ultimately be revealed to be as short-sighted and off-the-mark as de Gaulle’s ….”

While Trump has never met an ally or an international organization that he liked, history contradicts his penchant. The creation of the UN reflected a radically different US calculation about interests and a radically different attitude toward consistent international cooperation during the Second World War.

Ironically, Trump’s disdain for international organizations and cooperation resembles that of a more respected, cultivated, and dignified Western leader. It may seem odd to mention Trump and Charles de Gaulle in the same sentence, but the comparison is apt when one considers their shared hostility toward multilateralism. The General was temporarily successful in combining his Gallic nationalism with his attacks on international organizations. With a view to creating a space for France outside US-Soviet hegemony, in 1965 he dismissed the UN as “le machin” (the thing). A few years later as president of the Fifth Republic, he threatened NATO’s common military structure by seeking autonomy and keeping French forces outside the Western alliance. He also temporarily left the French seat empty (the “chaise vide”) in the European Economic Community (EEC, and since 1993, the EU) in order to ensure that all members, but especially France, retained full sovereignty.

Although steeped in history, de Gaulle ignored the fact that the UN had its origin in the war-time alliance, the predecessor of “the thing” that had liberated occupied France. He also ignored NATO and the EEC’s essential contributions to maintaining peace and ensuring growth and prosperity in France and on the Continent.

Trump’s unilateral and populist perspectives will ultimately be revealed to be as short-sighted and off-the-mark as de Gaulle’s. The multilateral institutions dismissed by de Gaulle over half a century ago were resilient enough to expand operations and membership after his departure from the Élysée Palace. The UN, NATO, the WTO, and international cooperation more broadly also could flourish  after Trump exits the White House.

That exit is unlikely to result from impeachment. Nonetheless, November 2020 is not far off. Amidst the chaos of scandals, lies, Constitutional crises, and now impeachment, the attacks on multilateralism are being neglected; but they demand serious attention, and Democrats should seize the issue of multilateralism to distinguish themselves from Trump.

Thomas G. Weiss’ latest single-authored volume is, Would the World Be Better without the UN? (Polity Press, 2018).

(Photo credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten)

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