With Election Day looming, American progressives yearn for an about-face from President Trump’s foreign policy — perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to US multilateralism.
Multilateralism — working with other countries both through large international institutions and looser coalitions toward common goals — has been a pillar of American foreign policy since World War II.
From the creation of the United Nations and NATO to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War “coalition of the willing” and President Barack Obama’s negotiations alongside Russia and China on the Iran nuclear deal, America has rarely operated alone.
But Donald Trump changed all that.
The Trump administration’s approach truly has been America First equals America Alone. Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He’s in the process of exiting the World Health Organization (WHO). He’s repeatedly questioned the value of NATO and mused about withdrawing from it.
Yet, amid calls to reprioritize “international cooperation, not competition,” progressive aspirations cannot paper over the real geopolitical frictions that will persist post-Trump. Just as conservative efforts to desert multilateral institutions are self-defeating, so too is the belief that international cooperation will blossom after November 3.
American progressives should seek to reengage in multilateral institutions, from the WHO to the UN. But they cannot forget that those institutions remain competitive zones where democracies must defend their values against authoritarian rivals.
Multilateral cooperation has never seemed more urgent — or more lacking
Covid-19 is only the latest instance in which the Trump administration is truculently set against the world, not just withdrawing from the WHO but also refusing to join the Covax initiative, a historic, global multilateral effort to ensure that all countries, rich and poor, will have access to a novel coronavirus vaccine if and when one or more become available.
Amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis, congressional Republicans seek to dismantle the World Trade Organization (WTO), all while a trade war batters American consumers and farmers. The last of the major US-Russia nuclear arms control agreements teeters on the verge of collapse, and both North Korea and Iran continue to improve and expand their nuclear and missile programs.
Given this bevy of undoubtedly self-injurious policies, it is understandable that some progressives are calling on a potential Biden administration to undertake a “fundamental re-envisioning of the United States’ role in the world,” emphasizing international cooperation.
But a desire for the United States to rejoin international institutions and agreements should not be synonymous with a belief that global cooperation will define a post-Trump world.
That belief naively and recklessly ignores a stark reality that has become all too apparent in recent years: Multilateral institutions have become one of the primary battlegrounds where the unfolding international clash of systems between democratic and authoritarian regimes is being waged.
Authoritarian countries like China and Russia know this fact well and are skilled at manipulating and exploiting international institutions to serve their own ends. The United States used to understand this fact, too, once upon a time, but it seems to have forgotten it lately.
It’s time for America to remember. It’s time for America to start using these institutions to punch back.
Hope that shared threats will outweigh geopolitical divides is not new
An American belief that international organizations could “help depoliticize controversial issues by treating these as neutral, technical challenges” underlaid the building of global institutions following World War II.
More recently, the early Obama administration viewed the “challenges of a new century” — countering violent extremism, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, economic growth, and pandemic disease — as common ground around which international stakeholders would rally.
In both instances, however, cooperative visions foundered on the shoals of geopolitical differences.
Neither in 1949 nor in 2009 could shared “problems without passports” outweigh the equally immediate threat posed by liberal, democratic norms to authoritarian regimes. As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright has written, a resurgence in geopolitical rivalry was “rooted in a clash of social models — a free world and a neo-authoritarian world — that directly affects how people live.”
That clash stemmed not only from traditional military frictions, but even more basically from the threat that open, democratic societies pose to the stability of authoritarian regimes.
Increasingly, those authoritarian regimes are striking back. Senator Elizabeth Warren has described a “belligerent and resurgent” Russia and a China that has now “weaponized its economy,” both of which seek to undermine open, democratic societies. Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders has outlined a future contested between “a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and “a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”
Consequently, while dangers like Covid-19 threaten everyone, differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes can yield contrasting responses. Take, for instance, something as basic as using technology like smartphones and apps to aid in contact tracing in the fight against Covid-19. As Vox’s Dylan Scott explains:
In the United States and across the world, smartphone applications are seen as a promising option to automate some of the work that health workers have traditionally been asked to do. Namely, they could silently track which people we’ve been in contact with, and if one of those people tests positive for Covid-19, our phone would send us a notification letting us know about our potential exposure.
But the data collection needed to do this quickly becomes entangled in concerns surrounding “digital authoritarianism,” where illiberal regimes employ such tools to “surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations” alike. The Chinese Communist Party’s use of this public health crisis to expand the scope of its surveillance and control shows that even when the world can agree on a common challenge, solutions may diverge based on a regime’s values.
Thus, even amid areas of international cooperation, a degree of vigilance is required to defend democratic interests. By no means is cooperation entirely foreclosed — which is why the Trump administration’s rejection of the Covax initiative is misguided. Nonetheless, democracies should not mistakenly believe that unalloyed cooperation in the face of every shared challenge advances their interests.
How to stand and compete from within …
While the United States cannot be starry-eyed about multilateral engagement, it also can’t afford to be cavalier as to its value — as Republican leaders increasingly are.
Not only does the United States confront a true peer competitor in China, making allies more necessary than ever, but the key domains of that competition — from trade and investment flows to advanced technologies and communications infrastructure — are already deeply enmeshed in multilateral institutions.
Authoritarian leaders understand this emerging dynamic.
Russia, long skilled in multilateral diplomacy, has amplified its efforts to shape international institutions, as President Vladimir Putin declares “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose.” Likewise, China, in seeking “reform of the global governance system,” looks to realign the world to better support the CCP’s illiberal rule at home — including its persistent surveillance of its citizens and the internment and forced “reeducation” of Uighur minorities.
Thus, rather than use cooperative mechanisms like Interpol for the intended purpose of catching criminals, Russia and China have focused on abusing the system to pursue political dissidents. Authoritarian leaders do not hesitate to twist international institutions to defend illiberal behavior beyond their own borders, such as the Russian head of the UN Counterterrorism Office striving to legitimate Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
As Beijing and Moscow lead the charge to redefine global norms, democracies must meet that challenge. From privacy rules for artificial intelligence to norms for combating transnational corruption, international standards set abroad will not remain overseas.
As the 2020 Hong Kong National Security law demonstrates, if authoritarian actions at the national level can reach into democracies around the world, so will global rules set by illiberal states. Consequently, the United States and like-minded partners must compete in international institutions to defend the values that underpin open societies.
That competitive posture does not necessitate withdrawal from international organizations, as some conservatives have preached. As Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute recently argued, “it is a ridiculous solipsism…to believe that if we stop participating in international cooperation and institutions that that cooperation stops happening.”
Instead of shifting the locus of competition to more advantageous ground, by withdrawing from these institutions, the United States merely cedes influence in the very arenas where the essential debates are occurring. Rather than isolating authoritarians to increase democratic states’ leverage, the United States is cutting itself off from the partners it needs.
So long as more universal forums, such as the UN International Telecommunications Agency, are where relevant standards are set, then active participation is called for. Abandonment only opens space for authoritarian powers to press their agendas.
This is perhaps nowhere clearer than the juxtaposition of the sidelining of Taiwan in the WHO against the March 2020 election for head of the obscure, but important, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
Despite Taiwan’s robust performance in managing Covid-19 — with only seven deaths thus far — Beijing has continued to block Taipei’s participation in WHO meetings, hampering sharing from that success. The Trump administration’s response? Only to throw up its hands and complain about China’s influence as it heads for the WHO’s door.
Conversely, in the March election to lead WIPO, the UN organization charged with protecting intellectual property, the United States chose to show up and take a stand. Recognizing the impact of Chinese-based intellectual property theft and cyberespionage, the Trump administration, in a rare moment of diplomatic engagement, rallied a near 2-1 vote in favor of the US-supported candidate against the Chinese alternative.
The message is clear: The United States leaning into a coordinated diplomatic push can make all the difference.
… and from without
Simultaneously, continuing to participate in universal institutions like the UN or WTO does not preclude pursuing new multilateral innovations to better defend democratic societies.
A decade ago, proposals for a “concert of democracies” or a “global NATO” stalled. Mistrust in the wake of George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq coupled with a fear that being seen to push the expansion of Western-style democracy would alienate rising powers from India to Brazil, scuttling such efforts. Why needlessly stir the pot in a world where cooperation on shared transnational threats seemed critical and the march of liberal democracy appeared inevitable?
However, the current international landscape differs vastly from then. New institutions to enhance democratic societies’ defensive coordination may have seemed unnecessary a decade ago but should be seen in a different light today, when authoritarian regimes pose a real challenge to the liberal model.
Thus, today’s version — what Edward Fishman of the Atlantic Council and Siddharth Mohandas of the Center for a New American Security have called “councils of democracies” — would aim to protect democracy at home, rather than justify its forcible expansion abroad. In doing so, the United States and its democratic partners should neither pull up the drawbridge from universal bodies that include authoritarian actors nor remain beholden to those institutions, as they constrain democracies’ ability to better cooperate in their own defense.
Fortunately, US Cold War strategy offers lessons on managing that balance. Importing a Cold War strategy lock, stock, and barrel for current challenges would undoubtedly be mistaken. Nevertheless, that history reveals democracies are not forced to choose between more universal organizations like the UN and more values-based ones like NATO. Rather, working at times through narrower groups grounded in a shared belief in liberalism and democracy can enhance the position of open societies in those larger bodies.
For instance, instead of being caught between abandoning the WTO — a folly few other states would join in — and continuing to struggle along with the system’s real limitations and abuses, the United States could work outside the system to build leverage within it.
Here, as Jake Sullivan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group have outlined, a forum convening democratic states to build shared norms and standards on 21st-century economic issues — digital tax, data privacy rules, etc. — could be “layered over the WTO system.”
Such a combination would not only create a space to build the norms that democratic societies need for managing 21st-century governance challenges, but also maximize their leverage within the WTO to raise standards across a global economy.
At the same time, democracies should work in values-based coalitions to promote democratic security in increasingly strategic areas of international finance, advanced technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, and battling transnational corruption. To protect democratic ideals, there will be times when it is necessary to exclude those who would seek to undermine them.
Today’s threats and circumstances may not require a global expansion of a formal alliance like NATO. Nonetheless, deepening ties between democratic societies will be essential on issues from sharing best practices on countering disinformation to maintaining information systems that appreciate values of transparency, accountability, and respect for individual privacy.
Here, the United Kingdom is an example of an early mover on what’s possible. Against rising concerns over cybersecurity and espionage from Chinese 5G leader Huawei, London has begun exploring a potential democracies-only grouping to better secure 5G communications technology, alongside other national security supply chains.
5G is only one illustration of a range of issues at the intersection of advanced technologies and the evolving digital economy where democracies must set the international rules if they are to maintain values such as privacy and free speech for their own citizens.
Thus, steps such as closer transatlantic coordination on investment security — reviewing foreign purchasers and investors in US or European companies — and export controls for new technologies emerge as essential in maintaining a lead in tomorrow’s technologies, in order to shape their use around liberal principles.
Fundamentally, as democracies increasingly compete with an economically powerful China and revanchist Russia, their best defense rests in recognizing that not only are democracies more competitive together, but that a gap in the armor in one is likely a gap for all.
A contest that cannot be wished away
In only four years, President Trump has left the United States embattled on nearly every front. An urge to trumpet international cooperation as a departure from his administration’s ceaseless antagonism is understandable.
However, in considering a world post-Trump, progressives must separate his disastrous policies from the structural reality of a growing clash between open and authoritarian societies — a contest that cannot be wished away.
Democracies must reengage multilaterally, but without losing sight that shared challenges do not necessarily beget shared solutions. Good-faith efforts at cooperation must be tempered by vigilance against authoritarian leaders who will not hesitate to use multilateral institutions to roll back and undermine liberal values in order to “make the world safe” for authoritarianism.
Given that reality, assertive measures are necessary to close ranks with other like-minded partners to defend democratic values in a more interconnected, but more contested, world. A post-Trump foreign policy may open the door for the pursuit of progressive goals; but they will have to be fought for abroad as much as at home.
Will Moreland is a foreign policy analyst focusing on US alliances and multilateralism. Previously, he served as an associate fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy. Find him on Twitter at @MorelandBW.
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.