International politics has a bigger impact on the United Nations than vice versa, even if sometimes a Secretary-General, agency head, or field mission can influence independently the world beyond meeting rooms. This reality is essential: to understand the UN is to understand comparative state foreign policies. (1)
It should come as no surprise that crucial changes in the orientation of powerful states and their foreign policies from about 2016 created a different and critical new context. Foremost was the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, the UK decision to leave the European Union (EU). The Economist pointed in November 2016 to "new nationalisms," and in March 2019 Foreign Affairs headlined the same popular discontent toward domestic and foreign policies. (2) We know the results of the old nationalisms, and the contemporary version is almost as ugly. A prominent feature of the new foreign policies is the virulent antipathy toward multilateral arrangements and globalization.
This essay parses what has changed at the UN as a result of these national changes, what has not, and what is likely to happen. The UN's most basic features will remain the same, especially for high politics, but significant alterations will continue in the socioeconomic arena. Leading powers, especially the United States, appear to be sending mixed messages about multilateral regimes, proceeding with a combination of intuitive design and impulsive muddling: intergovernmental organizations are downgraded, going it alone is elevated, and various international arrangements are revised or abandoned. If not checked, the result will be a more unstable world order. We focus on Washington not because it has a monopoly on the new nationalisms, but because it can make a difficult situation worse.
2 Origins of the New Nationalisms
Events manifest around 2016 were brewing for some time, grounded in economic and social disarray. Economically, the view erupted that national ruling elites--popularized by "1 percent"--monopolized benefits; the bulk of society had not properly benefited from growth. In particular, the middle class, blue-collar workers, and the working poor had stagnant or declining incomes and mobility. Beginning in late 2018, for example, violent riots wracked France; the "yellow vests" resented elite comfort and working-class sacrifice. Growing economic inequality and restlessness in the United States reflected measures of economic inequality akin to those in the 1890s, the "Gilded Age" of robber barons. Capital moved abroad to increase the profit margin of owners while jobs evaporated at home. Tax cuts for the wealthiest did not significantly trickle down to the "99 percent."
A second critique was more social or cultural; racial tensions and xenophobia were as important as economics in understanding the 2016 sea change. The view surfaced that old national orders were changing in undesirable ways. Across Western democracies, a common sentiment arose: older versions of society were good and featured domination by whites who were nominally Christian. Significant parts of society rejected the rise of "the Other," whether Muslims in France, Catholic Hispanics in the United States, or large numbers of refugees anywhere. In Denmark in particular, refugees were portrayed as seeking benefits without paying taxes. In the United States, racial minorities were perceived to receive special attention and protections, whereas the white middle and working classes were falling behind but expected to rely on "rugged individualism." National populist pluralities found multiculturalism offensive; resentment against the free movement of foreign workers certainly fueled Brexit.
Similar social forces propelled national populism in non-Western and quasidemocracies. Vladimir Putin consolidated his rule by pledging to counter the collapse of the Soviet Union and restore Russia to greatness. He flexed Russia's muscles with meddling in eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, deep involvement in Syria in 2015, and interference in numerous Western electoral processes. In Turkey, Recep Yayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014--after a constitutional change cemented almost unlimited power. Perhaps the closest referents for Trumpism in the non-Western democratic world were the elections of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and 2019 and of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018. Both men could well be mistaken as drafters of the playbook of Donald Trump, or borrowers of pages from it. They too whipped up nationalist fervor against the Other, attacking the excesses of globalism and modernity, pinning blame on elites and the establishment. The list goes on with both Western and non-Western examples--for instance, Viktor Orban's Hungary and Rodrigo Roa Duterte's Philippines.
Right-wing populism, resurgent jingoism, or new nationalisms attacked existing economic, social, and political institutions and norms, but multilateralism constituted a special bete noire. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations fell readily into...