Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
No, it is rather the United States that is disappearing from the world’s map.
The Paris climate accord is not going to be cancelled because of the U.S. decision to withdraw from it. In fact, the agreement’s objectives will be upheld, even in America: the United States Climate Alliance—a coalition of states including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Puerto Rico, which represent 36 percent of the U.S. population and $7 trillion in GDP—has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals of the Paris agreement.
As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the eleven remaining Pacific Rim countries agreed on a way forward without the United States, whose influence and commercial penetration in the region will dramatically decrease as a result. Even the Iran deal would likely survive if Washington ever chose to pull out of the accord, after failing to recertify Tehran’s compliance in October.
Walking away from multilateral agreements (or international organizations like UNESCO, for that matter) does not weaken multilateralism; it only isolates and decreases the influence of those who leave.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Multilateral organizations have often been ignored by individual states: the Soviet Union defied the United Nations after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan; and the United States and the United Kingdom stretched the interpretation of UN Security Council resolutions to justify invading Iraq in 2003. Elsewhere, EU member states sometimes break the union’s rules; while the UK and Russia grumble about the European Court of Human Rights. But such challenges to the authority of international organizations have not threatened multilateralism as such: countries often find they need the UN to deal with the messes that they themselves have created, for example.
What is new today is that the United States in particular, but also the UK, Russia, and others, often contrary to their own interests, are trying to go it alone more often—whether by pulling out of international agreements, leaving international organizations, or annexing territory in violation of international law. It is too early to say, however, that multilateralism is on the wane: that depends on how the rest of world responds to these moves. If others also undermine international organizations and their norms, then the system will collapse. But so far, China and the EU (in particular) seem to be trying to shore up the multilateral order. Fingers crossed that they succeed!
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
The world’s two most important powers—the United States and China—are today led by presidents with world views that are fundamentally unilateralist and transactional. For the United States, that’s a dramatic change. For China, it’s not; but China’s influence on the global stage is increasing.
Add the weakness of many central governments and the rise of populism, and it’s clear that multilateralism is on the wane. It’s less global; instead, it’s most robust when it’s more regional and thematic.
Fraser Cameron Director of the EU-Asia Centre
Yes, multilateralism is clearly on the wane, and we are heading toward a new multipolar system that will vary according to the issue. We should not worry about this, as it reflects the realities of global power distribution. The bipolar world was based on mutual deterrence, while the unipolar world lasted less than a decade. Both were inherently unstable.
The cruxes of the emerging new system must be transparency; adherence to agreed rules, whether they are existing agreements (such as the WTO rules), or new ones (including the Paris climate accord); and openness. If the United States wishes to recommit to the Paris deal, or the UK one day wants to rejoin the EU, those doors should be open.
The emerging system will thus be a mix of the old and the new, often with ad hoc membership and structures to tackle pressing issues. If this system does not work, we could face another bipolar world, dominated by the United States and China—or anarchy.
István GyarmatiPresident of the International Centre for Democratic Transition
No, it is not. But it is changing, and we must urgently revise our approach.
Over the past several decades, multilateralism was thought to be the only acceptable solution to upholding the global order. To a large extent, that paralyzed democracies when responding to crises. It also made international organizations lazy, ineffective, and corrupt, as they could be quite sure they would be used nevertheless.
This is especially true of the United Nations. Declaring the UN Security Council as the only method to legalize the use of force meant giving veto rights to dictators.
While preference to multilateral cooperation is justified and correct, it should not be the only option. It has to be made clear that there are others available and—most importantly—that we (democracies) would be ready to resort to these options, should multilateralism prove to be impossible, ineffective, or corrupt.
This will make our actions more effective, but will also put pressure on international organizations to change. It will be a deterrent to those who abuse their power to prevent multilateral solutions (thereby discrediting them), and then accuse others for being unilateralists. This by no means justifies actions to ignore areas where only multilateral (that is, global) solutions work, like fighting climate change.
Richard YoungsSenior Associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at Carnegie Europe
It is difficult to detect any single macrostructural trend to global politics. For those who support the notion of multilateral order, the current actions of the United States are clearly serious and preoccupying. But the overall situation is still one of fluid and multidirectional adjustment to the patterns of global governance.
There is much variation, with multilateralism faring better in some policy sectors than in others. The actions of the Trump administration may accelerate the formation of pragmatic and flexible subgroupings of states committed to maintaining the norms of multilateral cooperation on a reduced scale and on select policies. We are probably witnessing the remolding rather than the demise of multilateralism; different types of global order are likely to coexist with each other in the future.
Much will depend how other powers respond to the United States’ increasingly equivocal stance towards multilateral order. Trump’s decisions could encourage actors like the EU to step forward and invest more effort in upholding the liberal global order. Or they could tempt the EU and other powers into the “strategic hedging” of pursuing their interests in ways that bypass the norms of liberal order. At present, most powers (including the EU) adopt a mix of these two strategies. This leaves the liberal global order looking precarious, but not yet down and out.