Dispensing With the Indispensable Nation? Multilateralism minus One in the Trump Era.

Author:Fehl, Caroline
Position:Report
 
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1 Introduction

US president Donald Trump has repeatedly characterized his approach to the world as "America first." What this means for the multilateral global order was already apparent in his nomination speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016: "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with the respect that we deserve." (1) In his 2017 and 2018 speeches at the UN General Assembly, he vowed to "defend America's interests above all else" (2) and "choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination." (3) His repeated warnings that the United States would "no longer be taken advantage of" (4) illustrate that Trump perceives international politics in narrow "transactional" terms, (5) governed by a zero-sum logic. One country's gain comes at the loss of another country, with few possibilities of mutual benefit. This sentiment runs counter to the logic of multilateral institutions, which are intended to foster cooperation by providing benefits to all participants.

Two years into Trump's presidency, it is evident that he has sought to put his rhetoric into practice by reversing key multilateral achievements of his predecessors. Under Trump, the United States has withdrawn from climate and trade agreements, multilateral arms control initiatives and UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); it has cut down funding for UN peacekeeping and UN agencies dealing with Palestinian refugees, population control, and global warming; and it has threatened key multilateral organizations including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). During his first year in office, Trump made foreign policy headlines with declarations of intent, but did not always follow up on his unilateral statements with actual policies. However, since John Bolton was appointed as national security adviser, the pace of treaty withdrawals has picked up and the unilateral direction of the administration is no longer in doubt. For the rest of the world, this has posed increasingly difficult problems. (6) US hegemony and support for multilateral institutions used to be a cornerstone of the international order. As the most influential country retreats from or even undermines global institutions, other governments that have an interest in maintaining and advancing the multilateral agenda have been facing hard questions: What, if anything, can and should be done to accommodate Washington's concerns and keep it engaged in multilateral fora? Failing a compromise, how effective are global institutions without US participation? What are the political costs of cooperating without or even against the United States? Who can fill the leadership vacuum left by the United States?

In this article, we analyze the prospects and limitations of advancing global governance in the Trump era through a "multilateralism minus one." (7) To assess the effectiveness and political feasibility of this approach, we compare the present situation to earlier periods of US opposition to multilateral cooperation. Despite Trump's unusual presidency, US governments questioning multilateral institutions are nothing new--and neither are doubts about the United States' ability to exert effective leadership in the face of global power shifts. International relations (IR) scholars have debated the possibility of "nonhegemonic cooperation" since the 1980s. This literature provides some clues about the circumstances under which a multilateralism minus one can be successful.

In Section 2, we therefore review earlier research on nonhegemonic cooperation, situating the scholarly debate in the historical context of repeated ups and downs in the US commitment to the multilateral order. Rather than subjecting the propositions in this literature to a new test, we use its findings to derive key factors that have helped or hindered nonhegemonic cooperation in past instances. In Section 3, we use these factors as analytical guidance in evaluating both the political feasibility and the likely effectiveness of ongoing and potential nonhegemonic cooperation initiatives in the Trump era, compared to earlier historical periods. We focus on three key issue areas of global governance where the Trump administration's challenge to multilateral frameworks has been particularly critical: arms control, climate change, and trade.

Our analysis suggests that, despite some variation across policy areas, the prospects for "cooperating without America" (8) have generally improved. New actors such as emerging powers from the BRICS club and China in particular, (9) as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have acquired stakes and influence in multilateral negotiations. At the same time, many countries are turning to minilateral, informal, and ad hoc arrangements, which are increasingly replacing universal, formal, legally binding commitments. Both developments are heightening flexibility among participants and enabling new constellations of like-minded actors to cooperate on global issues. And yet, the task of managing the resulting fragmentation of the global order and the fluidity of new coalitions are increasing the demands on political leadership, suggesting that nonhegemonic cooperation will be neither easy to orchestrate nor necessarily successful.

2 IR Theory and the Question of Nonhegemonic Cooperation

2.1 The Debate in Historical Context

The US relationship with the global multilateral order has long been ambivalent. (10) After World War II, the United States took the leadership in setting up the institutional pillars of the present multilateral order: the United Nations, the Bretton Woods regime, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and (within its sphere of influence) NATO. (11) Following this phase of hegemonic institution building, global power shifts and repeated phases of US disengagement cast doubt on the United States' willingness and ability to exert multilateral leadership--and prompted IR scholars to discuss under what conditions states might cooperate in the absence of an order-creating hegemon.

Reflecting the postwar experience, scholarly thinking was initially dominated by "hegemonic stability theory," which attributed the creation and maintenance of a liberal (economic) order to US hegemony. (12) This changed when, in the 1970s, contemporaries began to observe signs of US economic decline while postwar economic regimes remained relatively stable. IR scholars now argued that institutionalized cooperation could outlast the decline of a hegemon, and that coalitions of middle powers might even create new institutions. (13) In this period, arguably the greatest disruption of the postwar multilateral system came in the field of monetary governance with President Richard Nixon's 1971 decision to give up on the US dollar's convertibility to gold. The decision was taken after the US role of guaranteeing the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates came increasingly under strain due to falling US shares of global economic output and growing US budget and balance of payments deficits. (14) It thus was the perceived US weakness in the 1970s, rather than the unilateralist turn of US foreign policy that would follow under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, which triggered the first IR discussion of nonhegemonic cooperation. Reagan engaged in unilateral interventions, questioned multilateral arms control, withheld US dues to the UN, and withdrew from UNESCO. (15) Yet he also accepted new multilateral commitments such as the UN Convention against Torture.

The early debate about nonhegemonic cooperation ended with the United States' economic and military resurgence late in the Cold War, which exposed the "myth of lost hegemony" (16) and led to the proclamation of a "unipolar moment" after the Cold War had ended. (17) Both President George H.W Bush and his successor Bill Clinton used the new US preponderance to reinvigorate the United States' commitment to existing multilateral institutions and to contribute to a new wave of institution building that produced, inter alia, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the WTO. This new multilateral turn led IR scholars to draw comparisons between US hegemony in the postwar and post-Cold War periods. (18) The analogy turned out to be short-lived, however.

Under pressure from bureaucratic infighting and a unilateralist Congress, the Clinton administration became reluctant to enter ambitious new agreements, most notably the ICC and the Ottawa Convention on antipersonnel landmines. (19) When both treaties were concluded over US objections, observers heralded the beginning of a "non-hegemonic diplomacy." (20) The successive embrace of aggressive unilateralism under George W. Bush intensified the debate. Agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol continued without US support whereas others, such as the proposed verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, were dropped in the face of US opposition. These developments prompted fresh analyses of the conditions under which nonhegemonic cooperation is feasible and effective. (21) Thus, the second IR debate about nonhegemonic cooperation evolved against the background of a unilateral United States that appeared to be bursting in strength rather than declining.

President Barack Obama reembraced multilateralism, although strong domestic opposition denied him some achievements. He led his country into the Paris Agreement on climate change, but at the price of making the latter less binding. While his administration cooperated with the ICC, the prospect of the United States formallyjoining the...

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