In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, it was reasonable to wonder if the man would prove to be “all bark and no bite” once in office. For various reasons, many people were convinced that Trump’s beliefs and personality would have no real bearing on the exercise of American power, which is supposed to be stable over time.
Yet after more than a year of Trump’s presidency, it has become increasingly clear that the malicious aspersions he cast on the international system are capable of drawing blood.
Trump withdrew from the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as one of his first official acts in office, and he ended America’s participation in the Paris climate agreement not long thereafter.
Meanwhile, his administration has launched unprecedented attacks on the World Trade Organization, by accusing it of infringing upon American sovereignty, and by blocking the appointment of judges to its Appellate Body.
In another rebuke to the WTO this spring, the Trump administration announced sweeping import tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum, the costs of which will fall largely on Europe and Japan, owing to exemptions that have been granted to other countries.
The Trump administration is also threatening to impose additional tariffs on $100 billion worth of Chinese goods.
And, in an episode reminiscent of the colonial era, it is pressuring China to drop its complaints against the United States at the WTO without a reciprocal commitment.
But if Trump’s trade policies were not evidence enough that he is taking a nationalist sledgehammer to the rules-based system, then his decision this month to renege on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal drives the point home.
There can no longer be any doubt that he intends to defy the multilateral institutions that the US itself played a primary role in creating and sustaining throughout the postwar era.
To be sure, certain strains of American political culture have long cast doubt on the value of multilateralism. But with the rise of Trump, distrust has turned into outright hostility.
Fear And Loathing In Trumpland
With the departure of more mainstream White House officials such as Gary Cohn, the former director of the National Economic Council, and H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, Trump’s disdain for internationalism is now driving his administration’s agenda.
Accordingly, one of the administration’s key objectives is to replace the rules-based system with one based solely on outcomes.
To Trump’s mind, rules and principles are irrelevant; what matters are results (or at least good ratings). The ends always justify the means.
A perfect illustration of this is Trump’s volte face on the Chinese technology firm ZTE, which his administration recently banned from purchasing US inputs, owing to national security concernsand previous violations of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Trump has now instructed the US Department of Commerce to reconsider the ban, presumably with the hope that the Chinese will reduce exports to the US, thereby closing the US-China trade deficit and delivering on one of his central campaign promises.
The Trump administration also seems to be dispensing with America’s allies, which the US now treats with indifference, if not contempt.
As Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, recently toldDer Spiegel, America has “a president who views allies as a burden.” By this twisted logic, it stands to reason that the US should extract economic concessions from them.
Taken together, Trump’s onslaught against the rules-based system and America’s alliances represents a veritable break from the past 70-plus years of US foreign policy.
Even former President George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq clearly violated the United Nations Charter, never renounced US allies. Of course, Bush did his best to divide them, with the support of Tony Blair, but he still saw allies as necessary for conferring legitimacy on his administration’s actions abroad.
And, rather than threatening multilateral commercial arrangements, he expanded a number of bilateral trade deals and encouraged dialogue between the US and the European Union at the WTO.
History Trumps Trump
Though Trump is unprecedented in American political history, it would be a mistake to assume that the end of his presidency will usher in a renaissance of multilateralism.
The fact is that many of the factors behind today’s crisis of multilateralism predate Trump and will persist long after he is gone.
Multilateralism is faltering at the precise moment that the international order is becoming more multipolar.
The question we should be asking, then, is whether multilateralism and multipolarity are compatible.
One might think that in an international system where power is spread more widely than in the past, the need for consensus through negotiation and dialogue would be commensurately greater. But while that might be normatively true, recent events show that the world is heading in a different direction.
For example, Russia, wielding its veto power at the United Nations Security Council, continues to stand in the way of any resolution to the war in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems completely uninterested in addressing the crisis multilaterally, and has instead pursued a narrower peace process alongside Iran and Turkey, with the obvious goal of diminishing America’s influence in the Middle East.
The deadlock at the WTO is equally apparent. The December 2017 WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires was a failure, even after the agenda had been deliberately narrowed to deliver at least a limited result. And long before that, the Doha Development Round – first launched in 2001 – was pronounced dead and buried.
Today, with only a few exceptions, even far more limited accords, such as 2015 expansion of the Information Technology Agreement, which could be regarded as a template for so-called plurilateral agreements, concluded among like-minded states on a specific issue within the broad WTO framework, stand a small chance of success.
The crisis of multilateralism at the WTO has been brewing at least since 2008, when the Doha round stalled once and for all. When later efforts to restart the process collapsed, it was largely because of a symbolic disagreement between the Obama administration and the Indian government on the question of agricultural subsidies.
The Obama administration’s arguments at the time were much less aggressive than what one hears from Trump and his officials, but the grievances they addressed were not fundamentally different.
The problem for the US, then as now, was that WTO negotiations no longer serve as a useful mechanism for containing China’s rise.
Ironically, the need for new containment methods was a key factor in the Obama administration’s pursuit of the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which was also abandoned (though at a much earlier stage, and both parties were to blame for bad design and the wrong timetable).
The Meaning Of Multilateralism
Still, the current crisis of multilateralism should not be mistaken for its death throes. Most of the world’s major powers still support it. But in an increasingly multipolar world, multilateralism itself now means different things to different countries.
Start with China, which publicly supports the WTO, even when it is penalized in dispute-settlement proceedings. The reason is not that China is a champion of multilateralism, but rather that it benefits from the status quo.
China would prefer to see as few reforms to the global trading system as possible, because it does not want new rules to impede its economic growth. That is why it supported, behind the scenes, the tough Indian stance during the Doha Round.
Under the current system, China is still treated like the country it was in 2001, even though it is now one of the world’s leading economic powers.
Much to the chagrin of Americans and Europeans, China has managed this feat while deferring its commitment to adopt a market economy.
And India, for its part, has exploited the same double standard, by maintaining that Western countries should open their markets to developing countries without any expectation of reciprocity.
India is very interested in exporting its qualified manpower, but equally keen to protect its agriculture and industry.
The average Indian level of protectionism remains extraordinarily high compared to that of China.
Whereas these countries’ embrace of multilateralism is largely pragmatic, the EU’s is rooted in its fundamental values. Multilateralism is in the EU’s DNA, and thus is regarded as the only acceptable framework for governing trade. Fundamentally, the EU supports multilateralism because it is itself a multilateral construct.
And it sees in multilateralism collective insurance against power politics.
From a European perspective, existing international agreements should be used to confront China on contentious issues such as its subsidies regime, state-owned enterprises, and approach to intellectual property.
The Trump administration’s failure to join with Europe to define a common position toward China is especially disheartening for Europeans.
And the same frustration applies to Iran. European leaders share America’s concerns about Iran’s regional influence and its ballistic-missile program.
But they regard those issues as separate from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 deal is officially known, which they believe should be preserved as long as Iran is in compliance with its terms.
Europeans now have good reason to fear that the Trump administration is intentionally dismantling the multilateral system so that it can pursue the kind of power politics for which the EU is utterly unequipped. Already, the ongoing power play between the US and China threatens to impose new costs on Europe.
For example, if China agrees to limit its exports to the US market, it will immediately increase its exports to the EU, thereby dragging the bloc into a trade conflict it never sought.
This very real possibility suggests that multipolarity undercuts multilateralism by creating a structural advantage for strong states to forge bilateral deals that yield short-term gains, regardless of the effects on global norms.
Under such conditions, leading powers would not necessarily oppose multilateral rules across the board; but they would freely opt out of those rules when it suits them.
The resulting erosion of global trade arrangements would be exceedingly difficult to repair.
Zaki Laïdi, Professor of International Relations at Sciences Po, was an adviser to former French prime minister Manuel Valls. His most recent book is Le reflux de l’Europe.