The existence of multilateralism is not new: the practice of negotiating with more than three parties to define common rules has been tried for centuries. It was already present in classical times during the negotiation of the great international treaties that founded the successive European orders, from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the Congress of Vienna in 1814.
Nevertheless, it was with the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War and, even more so, with the creation of the United Nations in 1945 that multilateral practices became institutionalized. Multilateralism is no longer just a diplomatic system; it has evolved into a political approach aimed at fostering cooperation by encouraging interdependence between states.
From a relatively neutral tool, multilateralism has been invested with ideological virtues and transformed into a reference value for the conduct of international affairs. In this transformation, the United States has played a key role. Not only was it the originator of the two global organizations of the 20th century (the League of Nations and the United Nations), but it also clearly contributed to and participated in multiple international organizations in the economic, commercial, educational, social and military fields. Yet the United States has been highly critical of multilateral cooperation, as in the case of relations with both world organizations – the Senate refused to ratify the League of Nations Charter and opposition to the United Nations by several administrations has been frequent and sometimes virulent.
This seemingly contradictory position would not be matter much if the United States did not occupy a dominant position in international relations. Many states maintain ambivalent relations with multilateralism: sometimes they are ready to play the game of multilateral cooperation, sometimes they withdraw or even break with multilateral bodies and their binding decisions. Their commitments or defections are not negligible, but they weigh in proportion to their capacity to influence the course of international events.
The same is true for the United States, whose power consequently gives a crucial turn to its commitments, its non-commitments or its breaks in commitments: if the United States had been the driving force behind multilateralism, it can now also be its resolute brake. As for the effectiveness of multilateralism, it is in line with the hypothesis of the “hegemonic stability theory”, according to which the success of a “regime” will depend on the ability of the hegemon to establish rules and to have them accepted and respected by the other states.
In this sense, it is true that no multilateral breakthrough is assured if the United States does not play the game. Nevertheless, multilateralism proved to be totally ineffective during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to “vaccine nationalism”, and even more so since the beginning of the war in Ukraine on February 24, when the United Nations proved to be non-existent and its Security Council blocked by the Russian and/or Chinese veto. These two crucial episodes have clearly shown that there is no room for evolution in the current multilateral system and, in particular, that there is no hope for its ability to ever reform itself.
What was once seen as a matter of power dilemmas for the US now has an obvious solution. The United States can live with ad hoc alliances such as NATO, which are under its total control, but should definitely get rid of any support for the UN and its satellite agencies.
The United States has been a major player in international relations since the 19th century. Its exceptional capacities in the key sectors of the economy, defense, finance and research allow it to define many of the rules of the international game. This position of power tends to make multilateralism an optional choice. The advantages of multilateral engagement – such as risk sharing, stability of rules, predictability of conduct – are weighed against its major constraints, such as unacceptable limitations on sovereignty, infringement of certain sectoral interests, slow decision-making and a total lack of control and accountability.
Much of the initial creation and enthusiasm for the United Nations was based on the idea that the United States was destined to have a major influence in defining the new international order. However, without parliamentary support and with the limited capabilities available to the UN, the ambitions of the Roosevelt administration were quickly dashed.
Moreover, it is essential to understand the failure of multilateralism in terms of the areas it covers: peace, development, trade, disarmament, environment, human rights, etc. Some dimensions are more binding than others: it is difficult to impose force in the economic and trade spheres, where interests are more intertwined than elsewhere; but the military arena can give the most powerful a strong degree of autonomy, while the arena of transnational issues such as education, migration, environment, terrorism, health, etc., lends itself to all sorts of calculations. The complexity of the global situation and the limited impact of multilateralism are thus at the heart of its collapse.
Multilateral cooperation will often be a condition for international action; conversely, the international policy of the so-called “middle powers” will spontaneously be more favorable to the defense and extension of multilateralism. On the other hand, because it has more capacity, the United States can afford to be more selective, to maintain its leadership in multilateral forums and to practice “multilateralism à la carte”, whereas the Europeans, for example, have no choice but to play the multilateral card in order to make themselves heard at the big table.
Multilateral engagement is therefore certainly not a necessity for the United States. The multilateralist orientation of international cooperation remains the unique chance to exist on the world map only for the vast majority of “medium and non-power” countries. The multilateral proliferation encouraged by a number of these states and reinforced by the increasingly frequent mobilizations of civil societies have shaped the landscape of international relations in an abstract and dangerously naive way.
Indeed, the dispersion of institutions, the contestation of their representative-ness and the vagueness of their missions have triggered an unprecedented crisis of multilateralism that can no longer be resolved. The major multilateral institutions will continue to function even without the United States, but within the framework of their own bureaucratic logic, which will only encourage further withdrawals and defections.
U.S. administrations must therefore accelerate the movement against, even though, in a world of more than 190 states, multiple non-governmental actors, and diverse transnational networks, multilateral structures of exchange and cooperation will remain inevitable. So too will the grounds for confrontation and conflict, as evidenced by the major war in Ukraine and the more than 20 armed conflicts underway around the world.
In doing so, the United States will return to a pragmatic foreign policy like the one pursued during the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-1974). A policy based on a balance of power, taking into account a maximum of data and a wide range of options.
Three decades after September 11, the unilateral policy of the Bush administration must be placed in its historical and contemporary context. It appears that this administration, while often mistaken, has not made a radical break with the multilateralist habits of the past. The overblown fantasies on which the Bush administration based its wars were supposed to represent a fundamental change in the American leadership’s vision of its role in the world, but it ended up adopting what can be called “unilateral multilateralism”.
Decreased in credibility by the second war in Iraq, especially from 2003 onwards, neo-conservatism was in the minority in the Republican Party when G.W. Bush’s second term ended. To the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was added the accusation of having contributed to the emergence of Daesh, particularly in Iraq.
Further down the line, Obama’s foreign policy has undoubtedly improved the position of the United States vis-à-vis its European allies and succeeded in getting the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) through the Senate.
Despite the false impression of an unpredictable presidency spread by the mainstream media, President Donald Trump was fully committed to destabilizing multilateralism in order to render it ineffective: “My foreign policy will always put the interests of Americans and America’s security above all else. “America First” will be the major theme of my administration. […]. Americans need to know that we will put the American people first, before trade, before immigration, before foreign policy. […] We will not abandon this country, or its people, to the sirens of globalism” (Donald Trump, excerpt from his speech delivered on April 27, 2016).
His strategy, implemented through targeted political and financial measures, aimed at disrupting useless multilateral bodies. It included, among others, the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Treaty, the announcement of U.S. disengagement from the Paris climate agreement (COP 21), the threat to destroy the North Korean regime in the event of war, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the ultimatum to Europeans to toughen Iran nuclear deal, as well as the decisions to stop funding the WHO and to leave UNESCO.
Unfortunately, since the election of President Biden, the impression has prevailed that multilateralism is once again the preferred American instrument for running world affairs. Subsequently, the U.S. has increased its support for the UN, including the WHO, is now considering rejoining UNESCO, and is using multilateral institutions and treaties more opportunistically at the expense of American sovereignty.
Selective multilateralism, relying on the United Nations when it supported U.S. decisions and ignoring it when it did not, was deeply embedded in U.S. foreign policy. Not anymore. President Biden is working full speed to restore America’s political and financial support for the corrupt UN, instead of protecting U.S. security and national interests as the normal overriding rationale for presidential choices.
One reason for the failure of multilateralism to take root in American foreign policy in the 1990s was the power imbalance that characterized that era. The collapse of the Soviet Union was interpreted as proof of the superiority of liberal capitalism over authoritarian socialism. Some saw in the end of the opposition that had weighed on almost the entire world for almost four and a half decades a true “end of history”.
The same naive belief is now being displayed by the Biden administration. Let us hope that this administration does not outlast its first term and that after him, U.S. policymakers will again understand President Trump’s legitimate reluctance to have his freedom of action constrained by multilateral obligations. The world is safer when the United States is in a position of overwhelming sovereign strength. This is certainly not something that President Biden can guarantee to the American people and the citizens of the free world.