27 December 2018

The Year in Multilateralism: Three Trends and One Surprise Stand Out in 2018

Richard Gowan

What happened in the multilateral system in 2018? Looking back over the year, it is possible to identify three strategic trends and a last-minute political surprise that may resonate in the future.

The big trends in multilateralism included a hardening of the Trump administration’s opposition to international cooperation, a concomitant increase in China’s efforts to influence bodies like the United Nations, and worrying signs of European splits over the value of internationalism. The surprise was an unexpected, and arguably almost accidental, revitalization of humanitarian politics over Yemen.

Let’s start with the trends. By the end of 2017, it was clear that the U.S. had taken an anti-internationalist turn under President Donald Trump. Yet, while Trump had already renounced the Paris climate change deal, his administration’s attacks on globalism were curiously haphazard. Many leading members of his team, including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, seemed quietly determined to limit the harm to multilateral institutions.

The influential Haley, as I noted in January, seemed uncertain as to whether she should be “a force for moderation on the margins of the Trump administration” or a “hardliner in lock-step with Trump on the need to talk and act tough on many security issues.” In the end, she never had to make a decisive choice one way or another. Trump shook up his foreign policy team in the first quarter of 2018, replacing McMaster with the inveterate U.N. critic John R. Bolton and selecting the hawkish Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. Those picks ensured the administration would shift toward a firmer unilateralist line, and Haley subsequently tendered her resignation, effective early next year.

With the new foreign policy team in place, the U.S. disowned the Iranian nuclear deal, left the U.N. Human Rights Council, ratcheted up its criticisms of the International Criminal Court—a long-standing bugbear for Bolton—and even threatened to quit the venerable Universal Postal Union. You know that an administration really hates international cooperation when it is ready to expend political capital on the price of stamps.

Most of these decisions clearly bear Bolton’s imprimatur. The national security adviser is the worst enemy the U.N. could have, because perhaps the only thing that exceeds his hatred of the organization is his knowledge of how it works. In all likelihood, the White House will continue to target the U.N. system’s vulnerabilities with disturbing astuteness. 

The more it does so, the more it will create political space for China to bid for leadership. Beijing has been working to boost its influence in the U.N. for some years and redoubled these efforts in 2017 to take advantage of global doubts about the Trump presidency. It ramped up these efforts further in 2018, lobbying developing countries and European states in New York and Geneva to build closer ties. While Russia continues to stir up trouble in the Security Council, U.N. diplomats and officials broadly agree that China’s growing clout is the far more important trend.

This is both a source of hope and trepidation. While China objects to established U.N. norms on issues like human rights, it is crucial to any progress in the fight against climate change. And at a moment when the U.S. appears set on stoking economic and political tensions with Beijing, it is reassuring that the Chinese still want to work through multilateral bodies, not undercut them.

If there are lots of reasons to worry about the trajectory of multilateralism, there are still occasional moments for optimism.

Beijing’s path to multilateral influence is not uncomplicated, however. Many smaller powers worry about replacing their loyalties to the U.S. with diplomatic dependence on China. This should benefit the European bloc, which has long trumpeted its commitment to “effective multilateralism” as part of its political brand and can now offer itself as an alternative to both the U.S. and China at the U.N. While Brexit may briefly upset European diplomacy in New York, as the British have shaped a lot of their partners’ thinking on issues like development, the EU can still emerge from the current turmoil as a leading defender of global cooperation.

But just as the Europeans see this political opportunity opening, internal bickering is hampering their ability to grasp it. A well-intentioned U.N. effort to forge a new Global Compact on Migration—formally endorsed in Marrakech, Morocco, last week—highlighted the EU’s divisions over multilateral diplomacy. Internationalists such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel loudly welcomed the pact, but nationalists such as the leaders of Hungary and Poland have refused to back it. The Belgian and Estonian governments publicly split over the agreement, and over 5,000 right-wing protesters attacked EU buildings in Brussels this weekend to protest the Marrakech conference.

This unpleasant process may lead to exaggerated concerns about Europe’s commitment to multilateralism. As I have recently noted, there are positive signs that EU members of the Security Council are consolidating and coordinating their diplomacy better. But the migration story has highlighted that even traditional friends of the U.N. cannot be totally relied upon.

If there are lots of reasons to worry about the trajectory of multilateralism, there are still occasional moments for optimism. The most notable of these has been a recent outpouring of concern over the war in Yemen, an atrocious crisis that most international leaders and large swaths of the general public have ignored for some years. The Yemeni situation, along with the Syrian bloodbath, have seemed to signal the end of the “humanitarian imperative” in global politics, as governments of all types have failed to confront Saudi Arabia over the human costs of its intervention.

Yet the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October has unleashed a wave of criticism of Riyadh and heightened scrutiny over its involvement in the Yemeni war in particular.

Last week, the U.S. Senate called on the White House to cease its support for the Saudi campaign, while U.N. talks in Sweden made unexpected progress toward ending the violence. It is just possible that humanitarian arguments still have some capacity to shape multilateral affairs.

That may be the best news coming out of 2018 for those who care about international institutions. Those who worry about how multilateral diplomacy will fare in 2019 should look out for the next edition of this column on New Year’s Eve, which will foretell events in the year ahead

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