We live in an age of uncertainty caused by the shifting structure and dynamics of international politics, economics and social change. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in his address to the General Assembly in September that this uncertainty was “a bad case of trust deficit disorder” at three levels.
First, within countries, he said, people are losing faith in political establishments and society is being polarized and populism is on the march. Second, among countries, we are witnessing a decrease in the level of cooperation. And third, trust in global governance is getting fragile. All these factors are affecting the UN and multilateralism.
The unexpected rise of Donald Trump as a political force in the United States upended what had been, until now, the accepted political, economic and social norms and values. Trump’s America First policy is also seriously affecting multilateralism and diminishing the traditional leadership role of the US.
Under his presidency, his government has withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Unesco and the Human Rights Council. The US is also withdrawing from the Universal Postal Union. It has reduced or stopped financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund and other climate initiatives, the UN Population Fund and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or Unrwa.
The US is also threatening to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and other international institutions, which it considers obstacles to pursuing its unilateralist policy. It is also pressuring the UN to cut back on its expenditures, and UN peacekeeping operations have already been targeted.
The US is not alone in reducing commitments to multilateralism and universal values. Russia is alleged to have been meddling in the democratic processes of Western countries, contravening the established norms in this regard, while eliminating effective domestic opposition in its own elections. China seems to be trying to put the right of the state over the right of individuals by introducing resolutions in the Human Rights Council that undermine individual human rights.
The UN is, first and foremost, a universal political organization composed of sovereign countries. At the same time, the UN has produced a wide range of international conventions and treaties, has upheld and promoted various universal values, including the human rights of every individual, and has contributed to improving the lives of the global population. This dual character of the UN is facing severe challenges.
A serious division has been seen most recently in the handling of the war in Syria, particularly in the use of chemical weapons, and over the Middle East peace process. The Security Council has not contained the conflicts in Ukraine and Yemen and is split over the nuclear accord with Iran. It has failed to deal effectively with recent humanitarian crises, including the Rohingya people. While all of this does not necessarily negate the role of the Security Council, the divisions within it are also poisoning the spirit of collaboration on many other international issues.
What we are witnessing is a retreat of the US from the position of a global leader and its retrenchment from universal values. Yet the US influence is still strongly felt in many areas.
Its decision to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran is influencing private companies to withdraw from Iran for fear of being squeezed out of the US market. The revised trade agreement among the US, Canada and Mexico shows that the American position prevailed. The trade war precipitated by the US against China is beginning to bite into China’s economy.
Bilateral US pressure may soon fall on Japan and the European Union in their trade relations.
In this context, Japan and Europe are uniquely poised to uphold the UN and multilateralism. The financial contributions of Japan and Europe to the UN collectively exceed that of the US. While Japan is currently not serving on the Security Council, the European Union is well represented in the UN.
Japan and Europe should be the force to uphold the norms and values that sustain multilateralism, to make up where the US deviates, and to work with the US where our interests converge. Japan and Europe should work more closely to strengthen and not weaken the Human Rights Council, to coordinate ways to deal with climate change and to promote the Sustainable Development Goals by sharing good lessons learned. The joint effort to reform the World Trade Organization is an example of where all three can work together.
The recent US announcement to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty is alarming. One may recall the fear of a nuclear war in Europe when the Soviet Union and the US deployed intermediate-range nuclear missiles there in the 1970s. That fear led to the convening of the special sessions of the UN General Assembly on disarmament in 1978 and 1982. The INF treaty ended that fear. The US’s abrogation of the treaty would revive that fear and lead to a further nuclear arms race and insecurity.
The European Union should be seriously concerned about such a policy. The US used the China factor as one reason for its decision. Yet it would deprive the US of the political, legal and moral power of using the INF treaty to persuade China to join the restrictive legal instrument on intermediate nuclear forces and destabilize the strategic equation in Asia.
Japan and the European Union have a lot in common. Both are strongly committed to democracy, to a respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights and to multilateralism. The recent conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement between Japan and Europe, for example, shows the leading role both can play in preserving free trade while paying attention to those who might be negatively affected by lower tariffs.
Japan and Europe have been increasing budget contributions to Unrwa to mitigate the negative impact of the US decision to cut its funding to this important organization. Japan and Europe should expand cooperation in addressing the causes of instability and economic hardships that have driven migrants from their countries. Japan and Europe should collaborate more closely in the UN to uphold universal norms, values and principles and enable the UN to remain effective and relevant to the changing world.
A longer version of this article was delivered as a speech at the Japan-EU Conference in Brussels on Oct. 30, 2018.