How ‘America First’ has actually strengthened multilateralism

The White House’s FY2021 International Affairs budget released this week proposes to cut funding to the State Department and international aid programs, “dramatically reduce or eliminate aid to international organizations, including the United Nations,” and slash U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping, global health, and global environmental initiatives. Budgets tell us about priorities, and Trump’s proposal reveals in stark terms the strategy underlying these proposed cuts.

Indeed, the “Trump Doctrine” on multilateralism is based on three precepts: an underlying distrust of international organizations, a clear preference for unilateral action, and calls for reform coupled with threats to withdraw from international agreements, as well as actual withdrawals. We have seen this play out time and again in the past three years, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the Iran nuclear deal, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and in changes to the World Trade Organization dispute resolution system. While each of these moves has given the U.S. more freedom of action, they have not led to an overhaul of the international system, nor have they changed public opinion. Both internationally and domestically, and seemingly in a rather unintended way, the Trump Doctrine actually has revealed the robustness of multilateralism rather than its limits.

The case for multilateralism is based on efficiency. It is easier to solve problems that cross borders, whether trade barriers, climate change, or human rights, with many countries in the room rather than working bilaterally negotiating agreements one at a time. President Trump views these arrangements as harming U.S. interests rather than advancing them, but this presumption is based on a misreading of the evidence.

The Economic Report of the President notes that the U.S. wins the dispute cases at the WTO that it files 86 percent of the time, and that even when the U.S. is the defendant, its winning percentage is above average.

Research by the Council on Foreign Relations tells us that the proportion of U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions targeting Israel decline when the U.S. is a member of the body, and increase when the U.S. is not a council member.

As much as Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made it a point to claim that the U.S. bases bilateral aid decisions on whether aid recipients voted with the U.S. at the U.N., this was more a codification of existing practice rather than a diplomatic revolution. In a very real sense, the public posturing about withdrawing from these agreements was more about appealing to the president’s base than a clear appraisal of how the system works.

Rather than follow President Trump’s lead, other countries have doubled down in support of multilateralism, revealing the limits of the White House’s influence. The U.N. Human Rights Council reverted to business as usual, with Iceland elected to the U.S. seat. The EU and China reaffirmed their support for the Paris Accord, and countries are working to build an alternative dispute resolution system in the WTO excluding the U.S. France and Germany launched an Alliance for Multilateralism last year, an effort supported by 64 other countries. While it is not clear what the Alliance will become in practice, these countries rebuked the White House with their pledge to play by the rules rather than upend them.

China has capitalized on America’s absence to assert more control in multilateral organizations. It has lobbied for personnel appointments and used its investments in the U.N. to secure multilateral endorsements for the Belt and Road Initiative, and it has sought to blunt the impact of the U.N. Human Rights Council by strengthening a norm of non-interference. It has responded to the U.S. neglect of multilateralism by promoting candidates for heads of many U.N. agencies, including the World Intellectual Property Organization. The concern here is that these appointees will reflect Beijing’s preferences and shape these policies in an increasingly China-friendly way, harming U.S. interests in the process.

It is no surprise that China’s assertiveness at the U.N. caught the U.S. unaware. The U.S. was unable to block China’s candidate for the Food and Agriculture Organization, and has only recently responded by designating a special envoy to counter Chinese influence at the U.N. As this administration hurries to play catch-up, it will continue to lose credibility. As a result, few countries are going to take the U.S. seriously moving forward. It is hard to persuade others to share your commitment to multilateralism when you do not have one yourself.

The White House stands alone at home as well as abroad, its moves flying in the face of public opinion. The Better World Campaign has consistently asked whether the U.S. should best achieve its foreign policy objectives by working with major allies and international organizations or by working mainly on our own. The percentage of respondents who thought the U.S. should work alone in 2019 (16 percent) is basically unchanged since 2003 (17 percent). Looking at more specific policy areas, the Trump years have seemed to strengthen a bipartisan consensus rather than weaken it.

Across party lines, Americans are increasingly supportive of foreign trade, and 77 percent of respondents in a Chicago Council survey thought that the U.S. should comply with WTO rulings even when the U.S. is found guilty of violating international trade rules. In 2017, seven out of ten Americans favored remaining in the Paris Accord rather than leave it, which includes majorities of both parties. The president’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal failed to move the needle, as fewer than one in three Americans supported withdrawing. The much derided NATO has higher favorability ratings than Trump, and even the U.N. is experiencing a bounce in its public opinion numbers. The percentage of U.S. respondents who feel the U.N. is doing a good job is at its highest level in more than 15 years, and American support of the U.N. is at a ten year high. As the president gears up for re-election, the break between public opinion and his policies should invite serious questions about the Trump foreign policy record.

The last three years invited hard questions about where and how America relates to the rest of the world. Both at home and abroad, “America First” has led to America Alone, and multilateralism is sturdier than it appears. It will be up to voters to decide whether they wish a new direction or to reinforce the Trump agenda.