Unilateralism versus Multilateralism: United States and the Dilemma of its Declining Global Power

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The conduct and management of international relations as at today is increasingly being marked by rise in isolationist nationalism and selfish trade protectionism to the detriment of global peace and security. At the inception of contemporary international relations in 1870, that is, at the time of Franco-Prussian war, bilateralism began to be the hallmark of modern inter-state cooperation.

Interest in multilateralism as a framework for maintenance of international peace and security began at the end of World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations, and particularly with the carving out of International Relations out of Political Science as a new discipline of its own. The word, ‘international,’ as explicated by Joseph Bentham, an English philosopher, means between nations. In common usage, ‘between’ applies to only two people or things while ‘among’ applies to more than two.

Explained differently, ‘between’ is about bilateralism, that is, what transpires at the level of two countries. ‘Among’ refers to multilateralism, that is, a relationship involving many countries. When only three countries are involved, the relationship is referred to as tripartite or trilateral. However, in the late 1970s, a French school of thought came up with a new argument that the notion of multilateralism is too ambiguous and that there was the need to differentiate between multilateralism at the global level and multilateralism at the regional level.

At the regional level, there are the ECOWAS of sixteen countries created in 1975, the Organisation of American States, founded on 30 April, 1948 and comprising the 35 independent states of the Americas, the European Economic Community of Six, which later became nine, then ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty-eight and now twenty-seven, with Brexit. In the eyes of the French school, relationship among this group of countries should be referred to as plurilateral while multilateralism should refer to relationships at the universal scale. This is how bilateralism has become part of the lexicon and has been co-existing with multilateralism and bilateralism.

What is trending now is the gradual return to unilateralism and national protectionism in the conduct and management of international relations, especially as evidenced by United States foreign policy under President Donald Trump. The unilateralism à la United States has an isolationist character that reminds one of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. In fact, the way the United States is engaged in the conduct and management of international questions is now imperialistic in design, manu militari in execution, non-compromising in negotiation and counter-productive in outcome. And most unfortunately too, the United States is celebrating its 242nd Anniversary of Independence amidst a growing anti-American environment this year as a result. In fact, US foreign policy under Donald Trump is not only straining relationship with its traditional allies, it is also pointing to the limitations of the main thrust of the policy: ‘America First.’ United States global power is gradually being eroded.

Consequently, the future of global peace and security remains very shaky to the extent that many questions should be raised on the ‘state’ as the main unit of analysis in international politics; first, is multilateralism giving way to unilateralism? the challenges of global trade and national protectionism; the conflict between unilateralism, on the one hand, and bilateralism, plurilateralism and multilateralism, on the other hand; and most importantly, what is the future of the competing national interests in the context of an emerging new Cold War order?

And perhaps more notably, it should be said that the way Donald Trump is currently engaged in the conduct and management of international affairs will not only prove right the theory of Professor Jean-Baptist Duroselle of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, who has argued that ‘tout empire périra’ (every empire shall perish). What Professor Duroselle is simply saying is that there is a beginning of, and there is an end to, any given empire, imperialism, and domination, etc.

In other words, if the United States was great, for how long could the greatness be sustained? Is the sustenance best protected by unilateralism? Is it best done on the basis of bilateralism or multilateralism? Is it possible for the United States to be a global leader without followers? It is impossible because leadership without followership is, at best, meaningless. It is the myopia and meaninglessness with which the United States foreign policy has now come to be characterised that has the potential to undermine making America great again. It is also for this same consideration that the foreign policy thrust of ‘America First’ cannot but remain more of rhetoric than anything else. US foreign policy under Donald Trump is a clear pointer to this observation.

US Foreign Policy of Unilateralism

US foreign policy of unilateralism did not begin with President Donald Trump. Previous presidents had engaged in it. In most, if not in all the previous cases, the first and main reason given is allegation of bias against Israel, while the second reason is always bad management of the organisations concerned. It is on record, for instance, that the US, in disagreement with the policies of the UNESCO, withdrew from the organisation in 1984 and asked the United Kingdom to represent and protect its interests. In this regard, the United States refused to pay its arrearages to the organisation.

The United States later returned to the UNESCO in 2003 but the Trump administration announced on October 12, 2017 that the US would withdraw again from the UNESCO and the reasons are not far-fetched. As contained in the communiqué of the Department of State, the reasons were ‘US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.’

The United States stopped paying its assessed dues to the UNESCO in 2011 and, therefore, currently has arrearages to the tune of US$542,671,681, representing about 22% of the budget of the organisation. In the eyes of the United States, the UNESCO is an ‘already highly questionable UN agency,’ to borrow the words of Ms. Nikki Hayley, the US ambassador to the UN. This statement is very characteristic of US foreign policy pronouncement whenever the US finds it difficult to make use of any organisation for the protection of its foreign policy interest.

What should be noted, most unfortunately, is that the US was one of the first signatories to the agreement establishing the UNESCO in November 1949 and it was the US delegate to the conference, Archibald MacLeis, who provided the draft of the opening of the agreement: that ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. The UNESCO was established as an instrument for the promotion of global peace and security, by particularly building peace in the minds of men through culture, education and science.

However, the United States under Donald Trump is only now building unrest, protectionism, belligerence and partisanship-driven mediation in conflict resolution, particularly in the context of Israelo-Arab conflict. US has partisan interest and yet wants to still lead in the resolution of the dispute between Israel and the Arabs. No wonder, Israel is always quick to support any US foreign policy on this matter.

For instance, on the announcement of possible US withdrawal from the UNESCO, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the future withdrawal in December 2018 as a ‘courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theatre of the absurd and instead of preserving history, it distorts it.’ In fact, Netanyahu has directed its Ministry of States.’

Even though the US is always using the anti-Israel bias as a case for withdrawing, Sheila Jackson-Lee, US Congress woman, said in 2001 that ‘US membership of the UNESCO will enable us to better combat the threats Americans face in the 21st Century.’ This is the truth but since the UNESCO may no longer serve that purpose, the rationale for the withdrawal is understandable.

In this regard, what is the implication of US withdrawal from UNESCO for the promotion of global peace and security, especially that the major reason for the establishment of the UNESCO is to prevent new conflicts and use the organisation to foster international peace and security? What about Donald Trump’s promotion of US national security to the detriment of collective security in international relations?

Again, the story of US withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and from the Iran nuclear deal is not in any way different. As regards the climate change agreement, on June 1, 2017 President Trump announced the intention of the US to withdraw not only from the agreement but also to cease the implementation of the agreement with immediate effect, especially the Nationally-Determined Contributions. The announcement was promptly followed with an official letter of withdrawal from the agreement on August 4, 2017. Since resignation of membership can only take effect from the following end of December of the following year, the United States has to remain a member until December 2018 and also remains obligated to settle all assessed dues to the UNESCO during the period.
We believe here, and strongly too, that the withdrawal cannot be a true reflection of the national interest of the United States, because, in June 2016, a national poll carried out by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that 71% of American adults supported US participation in the agreement. The poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in November 2016 also showed that 69% of the registered voters favoured continued US participation in the agreement. Additionally, in June 2017, only 28% of Americans supported US withdrawal from the agreement.

However, President Trump did not bother about majority-driven governance, even though, grosso modo, the withdrawal was also greeted globally with condemnation. The British newspaper, The Independent, for instance, saw the withdrawal as a ‘tension between myth and reality, while the China’s Xinhua State news agency described it as a ‘global setback.’ Perhaps more disturbing, the Toronto Star, said: ‘in the long catalogue of destructive things that Donald Trump has inflicted on the United States and the world, pulling out of the most important global attempt to slow the impact of climate change must go down as the worst.’

Regarding the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, the US sees the Council as a ‘hypocritical and self-serving organisation.’ As noted again by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, the US gave the Council opportunity after opportunity to make changes but ‘it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded.’ Additionally, she accused the Council of ‘chronic anti-Israel bias’ and ‘not worthy of its name.’

Thus, the US had the same reasons of bad administration and non-reform and anti-Israel bias for withdrawing from the Human Rights Council. Without doubt, the Council is quite politicised and the US has been complaining about it. However, no one wants to accept the domineering mainmise of the US in the Council, and by so doing, a systemic problem emerged. The problem is essentially a resultant from the freedom of voting for one’s preferential candidate as member of the Council. Under the administration of Kofi Anan as UN Secretary General, the Council was reformed and 47 member States of the UN were elected into the Council which was hitherto calledCommission. What is noteworthy about the withdrawal is that the Washingtonian government made it clear that the withdrawal was not permanent and that whenever there is reform of the Council, the US will not hesitate to rejoin it.

Most unfortunately, however, many Member States with very poor records of human rights violations were elected contrary to the expectation of Kenneth Roth, the then Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, as well as the Director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, who said ‘countries with poor human rights records like Saudi Arabia’ will never have a seat on the Council again.’ This was an unrealistic political imagination of the highest order.

As noted by Imogen Foulkes of the BBC News in Geneva, ‘clearly, that optimism was misplaced. The process of becoming a voting member of the Council is more rigorous, but the politicisation in which regional neighbours, or like-minded regimes, support each other continues.’ Since it is difficult to prevent sovereign states from voting according to their wishes and the US can no longer impose its own will, the natural option left is to consider withdrawal, especially that Israel is also an issue: Israel is under regular monitoring of the Council for its activities in the Gaza and the Occupied Territories.

The US does not contest the fact of human rights violations by Israel, but that other countries like North Korea are not being talked about. However, if the protection of human rights is still an important question in US foreign policy making, withdrawal from the Council should not and cannot be the best approach. The US should, like others, address the critical human rights abuses by Israel in the Gaza and Occupied Territories, as well as insist on monitoring and sanctioning North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc. Withdrawal of membership cannot enable the protection of human rights.

On US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, it is the ‘worst deal ever’ in the eyes of Donald Trump, who strongly believes that the deal is to the advantage of Iran, and especially in its enablement to still develop nuclear capability. The United States argued that Iran has not been complying with the spirit and obligations of the nuclear deal but other stakeholders (France, Germany, United Kingdom, China and Russia) disagreed. Like the US disagreed with the whole world in the case of Saddam Hussein of Irak who denied US allegations that he had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), but which the Vienna-based UN atomic agency also confirmed that Iraq did not have WMD, the US again did not believe in Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. The US has withdrawn from it and we can again talk about the US acting alone against its allies in an unequal equation: 5 against one, in fact, 6, with Iran, against one.
The US withdrew from the Statutes of the International Criminal Court which the African Union leaders see as a Western instrument of attack on them. It was in 2002 that the US President George W. Bush informed the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, that the US had ‘no legal obligations arising from its signature’ done during the Bill Clinton era. Without doubt, many countries wanted and still want to withdraw from the ICC. South Africa attempted to withdraw but its High Court ruled against it on the consideration that the decision to withdraw could not be that of the executive arm of government alone.

In fact, the African Union, in February 2017, provided all AU Member States with ‘holistic approach, analysis, and implications of initiating the withdrawal provision under the Rome Statute in accordance with the constitutional provisions of African States that wish to reassess relationships with the ICC. This advice has therefore gone beyond AU’s condemnation of the bias of the ICC in its discriminating policies on who to prosecute. The point being made here is that it is not simply the United States that has grudges against the ICC, many other countries do. However, it is not the grudges that largely explain US withdrawal but the fact that resistance to US superpower rule and policing of the world, increasingly with arrogance, is being strengthened.

Apart from policies of withdrawal from international contractual agreements, President Trump has adopted hostile polices which have not helped the good image of the United States. For instance, it recognised Jerusalem as political capital of Israel contrary to the prescriptions of the UN. Donald Trump increased tariffs on steel and aluminium against US main trading partners. The partners have also adopted reciprocal measures which the Donald Trump administration is not finding easy like the George W. Bush did have.
It should be recalled that George W. Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel on March 5, 2002 and the policy took effect from March 20, that is twenty days after, but the tariffs had to be lifted on December 4, 2003. The European Union retaliated. It led to a trade dispute that was referred to the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organisation, which, on November 11, 2003 ruled against US tariffs because the US tariffs violated America’s WTO tariff-rate commitments. The US was to be sanctioned and made to pay more than $2 billion, the heaviest penalty ever imposed by the WTO against any member, if the US did not remove the tariffs immediately. The tariffs were eventually removed.

The US quest for militarisation of the space by seeking to establish a Space Force is also worth mentioning. On Monday, 18 June, 2018, President Trump directed the Pentagon to establish as quickly as possible a Space Force as a new and sixth branch of the Armed Services in the Defense Department. As said by President Trump, ‘it is not enough merely to have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space… We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force.’ The US Marine General, Joseph Dunford and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was directed to carry out the assignment with immediate effect.

There is absolutely nothing wrong for the US to seek military domination of the space over which no country has exclusive sovereignty. The problem is that others also have the same right over the use of the same space. Consequently, it should be expected that other powerful rivals might react, meaning that arms rivalry in the space cannot be ruled out in the near future. By then, the emerging Cold War cannot but become more pronounced.

In the event of a more pronounced Cold War, who will be the allies of the United States? Currently, it is already ‘G-6 plus 1’, to borrow the coinage of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, at the level of G-7, who tried to suggest that the US is one country against six members of the G-7. In the various cases referred to above, it is again the US acting alone against all others. To what extent can the US unilateralism successfully prevail on the multilateral disposition of other members of the international community? Time will tell, but before then, US foreign policy under President Donald Trump is only weakening the US power and influence more than it is designed to make America great again in international relations. The ultimate implication is that the United States is making the global community insecure. It is working against the aims and objectives of the United Nations. This is the dilemma with which the world is at present confronted. It has to be addressed.

First published by This Day Live

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