President Donald Trump embraced transactional bilateralism and emphatically rejected globalism — and to some degree even multilateralism — in his address to the United Nations on Tuesday.
“The U.S. will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” Trump told the General Assembly.
This may sound benign, even welcome to some Americans. But the U.S. is in no danger of being under global governance, and in fact the more profound fear should be of a world in which nations lose the willingness, if not the ability, for collective action to respond to crises. And it must be remembered that the postwar international institutions that are the architecture of multilateral global order were generally created by, and give great benefit to, the U.S. The risk in rejecting these global protocols is that they will become ineffective, or that a geopolitical rival such as China will fill the void.
The speech was “a real homage to sovereignty under the ‘America First’ rubric,” Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told an editorial writer. Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer, added that Trump’s doctrine “underestimates how much American influence is enhanced by these international bodies” and that “the danger is we end up isolating ourselves.”
Isolation is dangerous, and Trump’s indifference and even occasional hostility to allies can embolden adversaries. Trump barely mentioned NATO partners in his speech, except for one: Germany, which he criticized for becoming too dependent on Russian energy supplies. Conversely, even though the president spent much of his speech emphasizing sovereignty, he did not criticize Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the ongoing, online malice it spreads in Western democracies.
Instead, he mostly pointed his ire toward Iran, Venezuela, Syria and China. Trump is right to call out the theocracy in Tehran for its support of Syria’s homicidal Bashar Assad as well as other regional destabilization. What’s more, millions of miserable Venezuelans can attest to the damage done by President Nicolas Maduro’s despotism. And Trump reflects bipartisan consensus that China’s abusive trade practices must be addressed.
But all these issues — and similar challenges — are best met with coordinated, multilateral approaches. Abrogating U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and other multilateral pacts, as well as rejecting the International Criminal Court, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. Global Compact on Migration — three entities Trump criticized in his address — is counterproductive.
“Democratic principles are under siege,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said just before Trump spoke. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented. Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward. Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”
Trump shouldn’t add to the fire, but instead use American leadership to advance multilateral solutions to preserve democratic principles.