Though Trump’s rhetoric and actions in office have accelerated and exacerbated the fraying of the multilateral system, the crisis of multilateralism has much deeper roots as the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions approach or embark on their 75th years. Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN, sees three crises in particular: first, a crisis of power in which the shift of power from the U.S. to China has diminished America’s ability to shape the international agenda and drive collective action; second, a crisis of relevance in which antiquated and sometimes sclerotic international institutions struggle to tackle the critical global challenges, from Syria to cybersecurity; and, third, a crisis of legitimacy as frustrated regional powers and nationalist leaders withdraw from multilateral organizations or erode them from within. In this depressing brew, Gowan, who is with the International Crisis Group, sees an opportunity for the EU to become a third pole in geopolitics (along with the U.S. and China) as the practical champion of multilateralism. Considerable thinking has gone into how middle powers from the Americas to Europe to Asia can bolster the so-called rules-based order. The €64,000 question, however, is whether any of this has a prayer without the United States. Almost certainly not.
If you listen to Trump-administration officials, 2020 candidates, members of Congress, and pundits, there seems to be only one bipartisan consensus in Washington: We are living in a new era of great power competition. For the United States to win (whatever that means), it must compete—economically, militarily, technologically, and politically. Yet this paradigm, fed by President Trump’s zero-sum worldview and the anti-China hysteria sweeping Washington, has buried a key to America’s once and future success in the global arena: cooperation.
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After the devastation of the Second World War, U.S. policy makers looked for a different way to reconstruct global order and drew on America’s own political culture of consultation and compromise, economic openness, and the rule of law as a model. A multilateral spasm ensued, and the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the GATT (later the WTO), NATO, and eventually the European Union were born.
These institutions and America’s multilateral leadership style were essential to winning the Cold War—the last great power competition. Why? Because Washington attracted countries and people to it by convincing them that America was out for more than itself. How? By (mostly) upholding its commitments, following global rules, defending friends and allies, finding common ground with foes, and practicing painstaking consultative diplomacy.
This produced an unprecedented era of relative global peace and prosperity, but not without some costs and constraints. The United States had to follow the same rules as everyone else, even though it was the most powerful country. Washington shouldered a substantial, perhaps disproportionate load, politically and financially, for supporting international organizations and alliances; and allies and partners did free-ride on occasion. And while many Americans prospered, many also lost their jobs, and sometimes their communities, as an open global economy enabled companies to find cheaper labor and less regulation overseas. Trump has used these downsides to drive a wedge around multilateralism and make America isolationist again. His administration has denigrated international cooperation as weakness and deliberately damaged the multilateral system America built. It has done so at great peril.