They call it the “Trump effect” and it is permeating and weakening support for numerous international agreements still in their formative stages. For governments, diplomats and civil society around the world, accustomed to bombastic outbursts from Donald Trump, American policy appears to be consolidating into more than ad hoc attacks on efforts to tackle global problems cooperatively.
It is now settled doctrine, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made unabashedly evident in two important speeches in Brussels on Dec. 4.
The Trump approach also signals the aim of creating a loose but radically conservative, antimultilateral coalition to “reform” the liberal world order, according to Pompeo, a less aggressive but deeply ideological face of the Trump team.
Pompeo delivered his message as governments are meeting on two global pacts to deal with the continuing crises of climate change and migration. In both cases, it is being reported that the United States is actively undermining consensus.
Coincidentally, and perhaps meaningfully, Pompeo’s speeches also coincided with an international outpouring of praise for the late President George H. W. Bush, a day before his state funeral in Washington. Bush, the 41st US president, left a substantial record in foreign engagement, especially with Europe, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin wall fell.
Pompeo took a different view. “After the Cold War ended, we allowed this liberal order to corrode,” he told an audience at the German Marshall Fund — the inheritor of the most generous American gesture ever made to Europe in postwar distress.
The old liberal world order, he said, “failed us in some places, and sometimes it failed you and the rest of the world. Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have the better the job gets done.”
“Was that ever really true?” Pompeo asked. “The central question that we face . . . is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today, and as the world exists — does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?”
Pompeo went on the offensive not only against the United Nations — “peacekeeping missions drag on for decades, no closer to peace,” he said — but also environmental initiatives supported by UN member governments. “The climate-related treaties are viewed by some nations as simply a vehicle to redistribute wealth,” he said.
For good measure, he also dismissed such intergovernmental bodies as the “rogue” International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council, the Organization of American States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — the latter for “crowding out the private sector.” As for the European Union, in whose headquarters city he was speaking, the Brexit vote “was a political wake-up call.”
Under the Trump doctrine, internationalism and the multilateral institutions that have sustained it have led to exploitation of the US. Pompeo called the global system “poisoned fruit,” saying, “President Trump is determined to reverse that.”
Peter Burleigh is a distinguished American diplomat, now retired, who served as deputy chief of the US mission to the UN from 1997 to 1999 (for a year during that time as acting permanent representative).
He came to the UN with extensive experience in embassies around the world. Multilingual, including in Arabic and several South Asian languages, he had also been coordinator of counterterrorism at the State Department and headed, over time, several departmental offices on the Middle East, such as the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.
“The Trump Administration, including the President and all his senior foreign policy officials appear to be acting in a time warp: assuming that the US can have its way in the world, without key allies and without credible standing in multilateral organizations, including importantly the United Nations,” Burleigh said in a memo to PassBlue.
“By withdrawing from major, foundational agreements made by previous Administrations, the U.S. has effectively limited its chances of success in pursuing important initiatives, whether with North Korea, Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, climate change/environmental issues, or trade,” he added.
Burleigh had worked through many thorny issues in the UN as well as in the US foreign service. At the UN, he was involved in dealing with ethnic conflict in Kosovo, East Timor’s violent transition to independence and a UN standoff over prohibited weapons in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
“While pursuing multilateral diplomacy can be, and often is, frustrating and slow-moving, it is also the only way to organize international pressures in pursuit of US goals,” Burleigh said. “An assumption that agreements reached by earlier administrations, are by definition, flawed is foolish and short-sighted. Dropping out of prior agreements is not the way to sustain credibility.”
“It was only through multilateral pressures on Iran, flowing from the coordinated actions of the P-5 [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US] plus Germany, and involving all the major petroleum importers in the world, that Iran was eventually brought around to serious negotiations over its nuclear programs,” he said.
He added that the Trans-Pacific Partnership among 12 countries trading with China, and rejected by Trump, “would have given our negotiating position dramatically greater heft, as well as prospects for success.”
Early this month, as a crucial meeting opened in Poland on the Paris climate agreement, the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) published a report on the damage already threatening the accord by Trump’s refusal to honor US commitments it made under the Obama administration.
The meeting in Katowice, from Dec. 4 to 14, is known as COP24, the informal name for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“At ongoing international climate negotiations, the Trump Effect is slowing progress,” wrote Joseph Curtin, a senior fellow at the IIEA and a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council, in the report. “The Trump Administration has reneged on a pledge to the Green Climate Fund, leaving an outstanding liability of $2 billion, and has opposed stringent rules for reporting on efforts to scale up financial commitments from rich countries. These decisions have aggravated distrust between developed and developing countries, which is a necessary ingredient for progress.
“Meanwhile, the EU, China and India, which have room to take on more ambitious commitments in 2020, are unlikely to play their cards in the absence of a similar commitment from the US,” Curtin concluded. “In this manner, the Trump Effect could grind the Paris ‘ambition mechanism’ to a halt.”
Internationally, the hope seems to be that after the current administration has left office, some agreements will be salvageable but much delayed. Trump, speaking to the UN General Assembly in September, firmly rejected international accords that constrain the US, a long-held principle of his national security adviser, John Bolton.
At the UN, Trump went further, committing the US to an inflexible, blanket defense of national sovereignty and applying that mind-set to other governments as well. A growing number of nationalist governments — among them India, Hungary and now Brazil — welcome Trump’s pledge not to interfere in their domestic policies or behavior. Critics see this reaction as a death knell for American leadership in human rights worldwide. Free expression is increasingly attacked and nongovernmental organizations face new restrictions in several countries.
Shyama Venkateswar, director of the public policy program at Roosevelt House and a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College of the City University of New York, is an analyst of politics in her native India and in the US, where she received a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.
In a conversation with me published recently by India Abroad, she said that the domestic side of the nationalists’ doctrine cannot be overlooked. There is scant attention by these leaders to the needs and opinions of their own populations, which they were elected to serve. Taking power can become an end in itself and an opportunity for corruption by inward-looking populist-nationalists, Venkateswar said.
“Illiberal and exclusionary politics rest on the vast amount of money and power at stake, mainly sourced from the defense and energy sectors across the world,” she said.
“Acquiring power or having close access to those in power is a guarantee of personal enrichment. We are seeing this again and again in Western democracies as well as in countries without formal democracies. The threads of illiberalism and corruption are ties that bind.”
Such are the countries and leaders the US now relies on as friends. Trump and Pompeo see them as part of “a new liberal order.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.