When Secretary of State Michael Pompeo talks about global challenges, he insists that Donald Trump is doing a bang-up job steering the international community down the right path.
He sees Trump’s America First mantra not as a retreat from the international stage or a slur on other nations’ ideas of leadership but as a frank acknowledgement that Washington does indeed know best and is in the best position to lead everyone else.
“He is returning the United States to its traditional central leadership role in the world. He sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Pompeo said in Brussels about Trump recently.
Pompeo has been talking a lot these days about the administration’s vision of a new international order, as if international security were a zero-sum game in which governments have a simple choice: rely on the United Nations and other multilateral organizations or rely on Trump.
As part of that messaging, he has been dissing the European Union and other international organizations. He is especially fond of picking on the UN, taking advantage of a leadership void there since Nikki Haley resigned as US ambassador at the end of 2018. (Trump announced on Dec. 7 that the State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, would succeed Haley, but as of Jan. 30 he hadn’t submitted her nomination to the Senate.)
Pompeo says he doesn’t want to just change US policy. In his view, the international system requires a remake because it has let itself go and is no longer in shape to ensure global peace, security and economic development. And he wants Washington to be in charge of the remake.
“After the Cold War ended, we allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode. It failed us in some places, and sometimes it failed you and the rest of the world,” he said, referring to his audience, heavy with European officials. “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.”
Republican administrations have long beaten up on the UN, believing it undermines US sovereignty. But Trump and his high-turnover cast of foreign policy operatives seem to be taking this tactic to new extremes.
Since taking office in January 2017, the Trump team has tried to work around the UN, questioned its authority, challenged its motives, accused it of bias, spurned its rulings of international law, cut back on its funding, withdrawn from key agreements under its aegis and abandoned certain of its affiliated agencies and programs.
“Today at the United Nations,” Pompeo said in Brussels, “peacekeeping missions drag on for decades, no closer to peace. The UN’s climate-related treaties are viewed by some nations as simply a vehicle to redistribute wealth. Anti-Israel bias has been institutionalized. Regional powers collude to vote the likes of Cuba and Venezuela onto the Human Rights Council. The UN was founded as an organization that welcomed peace-loving nations. I ask: Today, does it continue to serve its mission faithfully?”
To Trump and Pompeo, the UN simply fails to understand that multilateral solutions no longer suit international reality. Each world government must instead be left free to act as a sovereign nation and do what is best for itself. Taking it a step further, they believe that governments must accept an apparent contradiction: that policies that put America First are the ones that are best for every other country as well.
Most nations, of course, reject this idea, dismissing it as a sign that Washington, the lone world superpower, doesn’t give a fig about anything but its own interests.
Are there indeed two ways of looking at every global issue? Maybe Washington is trying to cut back on its UN dues to ensure a more equitable distribution of the UN budget burden. Or maybe it just needs to save some money to pay for Trump’s border wall.
As Pompeo sees it, only America is big and powerful enough to pull off an international restructuring that can repair all those global problems. This is what it has always done, he argues — at least, until that dastardly guy Barack Obama ignored Washington’s international responsibilities and failed to notice key global shifts like the rapid spread of terrorism.
“Bad actors have exploited our lack of leadership for their own gain. This is the poisoned fruit of American retreat. President Trump is determined to reverse that,” Pompeo said in Brussels. “Every nation — every nation — must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.”
“The first two years of the Trump administration demonstrate that President Trump is not undermining these institutions, nor is he abandoning American leadership,” Pompeo went on. “We’re supporting institutions that we believe can be improved; institutions that work in American interests — and yours — in service of our shared values.”
And yet, for all his criticism, there was Pompeo traveling to New York on Jan. 26, early Saturday morning, to enlist the UN in driving Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power. Addressing the Security Council (video below), Pompeo championed Trump’s decision to line up behind the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president and declared it was now time “for every other nation to pick a side.”
Pompeo’s appearance seemed more like theater than international persuasion. While a fair number of countries had already sided with Washington against Maduro, Pompeo knew all along that China and Russia, permanent members of the Council with veto power, would block a US-backed statement or resolution supporting Guaidó.
Beijing and Moscow had already condemned the US strategy as improper interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs, and Pompeo made it harder for them to change their minds by insulting them both during his remarks. After his insults, representatives of China and Russia made clear they had not changed their minds. (Just days before, Germany had offered to broker negotiations with the US and Maduro, which Pompeo roundly rejected.)
“[O]ur Russian and Chinese colleagues refused to let this move forward,” he said in the Council. “It’s not a surprise that those who rule without democracy in their own countries are trying to prop up Maduro while he is in dire straits. Nor are these countries supporting international norms as they cynically claim. China and Russia are propping up a failed regime in hopes of recovering billions of dollars in ill-considered investments and assistance made over the years. This money was never intended to help the Venezuelan people, it lined the pockets of the Maduro regime, its cronies and its benefactors.”
But when all was said and done, Pompeo’s New York appearance demonstrated that the UN can be useful and effective, even for those who mistrust it. In this case, it enabled Washington to make its pitch in a forum that counts every world government as a member. It provided a prominent stage for debate that enabled those who saw the situation differently to respond; perhaps that will end up making things clearer and easier for future diplomacy.
So in this situation, Pompeo had no need to take his own advice and “pick a side” — bypassing the UN out of a hazy concern it might not be working as well as it should. Does anything work perfectly?
However Pompeo describes Trump’s foreign policy vision, it does not change that so far it has mostly irritated global efforts to work with Washington on global peace, security and economic development.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.