As the U.S. presidential election of 2020 approaches unpredictably, people around the world wonder if the United States would continue its current foreign policy reiterated by the Trump administration over the past years. If so, whether the United States would return to its so-called unilateralism with the theme of “America first” policy or not? This is a tough question related to the globalized international community and particularly in view of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 to the world. Accordingly, how to defend multilateralism effectively will be one of the main challenges to all the countries of the world.
As a matter of fact, the debate between unilateralism and multilateralism is not a new issue. Two decades ago, Joseph Nye put it, there are three main approaches in terms of the global governance: isolationism, unilateralism, multilateralism. The first one persists in public opinion, but it is not a major strategic option for American foreign policy. Given this, the main battle lines are drawn between two kinds of internationalists, those who advocate unilateralism and those who prefer multilateral tactics. Politically and ideologically, some unilateralists advocate an assertive “damn-the-torpedo-approach” to promote American values, calling for multipolar moment into a unipolar era by all means. In brief, unilateralists hold that American intentions are good and its hegemony is benevolent. In contrast, pro-multilateralism groups have argued that since the beginning of the 20 century, America has risen to world power and then acted as the world leader. As Teddy Roosevelt advised that the United States should speak softly but carry a big stick. Due to the overarching power possessed by America, it is necessary for the U.S. to work with other nations on global issues in a multilateral manner whenever possible. For sure, multilateralism involves costs, but in a long run and in a larger picture, they are outweighed by the benefits. In a word, action to shape multilateralism now is a good investment for the future of the United States. No doubt, even some of the multilateral advocates put it that “not all multilateral arrangements are good or in America’s interests, and the United States should occasionally use unilateral tactics in certain areas or on some issues.”
In light of the previous argument, it is fair to say that “multilateralism is not under threat in most of the world. It is under threat because of the United States,” as economist Jeffrey Sachs remarked at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on February 5, 2020. As a prominent scholar and also a seasoned advisor to multinational corporations and foreign governments, Sachs believes that the U.S. was the predominant economic and technological power in the world for decades. Yet, with the emerging powers or regional economic blocs, this is no longer the case. For sure, the United States is still the most powerful country economically, technologically, and in particular militarily. But the prospect is that the EU is not only a larger market but also intends to be a responsible “civilian power” globally in the 21st century. Meanwhile, China is a comparable market and equally a determined rising power in an overall terms. In addition, it is a blunder to ignore the military power of Russia and the technological weight of Japan.
Turning to the domestic issue, Sachs frankly said that the U.S. by far is the most powerful military country in the world; and, no doubt, it has 6,000 nuclear warheads, 800 military bases around the world, let alone the U.S. have been evolved in 14 shooting wars right now. But it learns war after war that the military eventually can solve no political problems. He admitted that “the U.S. is a problem. It has been a far more significant problem with Donald Trump.” No matter if he may or may not be the President after November of 2020, the question is that the U.S. has become exactly more complicated for the world since 2017. For example, the United States has blocked every multilateral initiative in recent years. It is the only country pulling out the Paris Climate Agreement. It is the only country that pulled out the JCPOA Agreement with Iran. Moreover, Sachs openly recognized that the so-called trade war between China-U.S. is a fake or a joke. It is essentially a U.S. trade war on China. In doing so, Sachs is seen as an honest and respectful scholar with wide popularity across the EU and China as well.
Unlike the Trump administration or many other scholars if you like to call them as scholars, Sachs deemed that the U.S. attack on China is an unpremeditated and even not unitary in the United States. Due to the fact that China’s rising technological capacity such as Huawei and ZTE, the unilateralists in the U.S. policy-making began to realize that China is gaining massive technological capability in artificial intelligence and other security related areas. Because China’s talented youths are so huge with the great potentials, such as each year’s well-trained PhDs in the fields of sciences and technologies, the United States makes all efforts to maintain its solo hegemony which is itself at odds with the principle of the balance of power. As Sachs argued that historically there is no monopoly of knowledge, there is no monopoly of talent. This is driving U.S. strategists crazy because its grand strategy is based on primacy rather than shared responsibilities with other major powers or multilateral organizations.
It is self-evident that Sachs is a scholar but his vision is far-reaching and much more inspiring than any pundits in the U.S. He is a truly patriotic American but never be unilateralist. He argued that there is no U.S. primary, European primary or Asian primacy and likes. It is just fantasy of unilateralists who ignore the age of globalization and that is not how the world works anymore in the new century. Looking at what the Trump administration had done internationally, it has dismembered the WTO and abandoned the WHO. Accordingly, the U.S. has arbitrarily manipulated the exchange rate. Another case is that in January 2020 when Iraq requested the U.S. military forces out, the U.S. Treasury Department warned that it would confiscate Iraqi foreign exchange reserves at the New York Federal Bank, if Bagdad persists in pushing the U.S. troops out.“This is a complete violation of every international rule and this is also a reflection of an imperial power in decline,” as Sachs observed.
It is true that for many reasons the world can’t stop America’s hegemony even though it is a dangerous power or country. Yet, the nations over the world need to realize that it is beneficial to them to work together to promote the Paris Climate Agreement along with the G20 summits. In addition, the world needs to strengthen the role of the United Nations and other multilateral organizations such as IMF, the World Bank, WTO and currently the WHO. At the present time, the world should also be confident in China and other emerging powers. As Sachs put it, Trump and his team don’t have a majority backing at home and abroad as well. There is no attack on multilateralism as a policy that he could discern anywhere when traveling. But it is true that there is a fear of the United States and its irrational president in the White House today.
Looking into the future, we can see that although the world faces the multiple problems now, it is not in a dire time of multilateralism. Yet, the key problem is that if each country backs down one by one, then the bully from the unilateralism gets the way. Fortunately, the EU openly supports multilateralism, China has reiterated its resolve to defend the world order in line with the multilateralism and democratic global governance. Russia and Japan along with many other countries all over the world reject any arrogant claim of the “new Rome” or the title like the sole superpower. Meanwhile, since the United States is the indispensable nation in reconstructing the world order, the world always welcomes a powerful and responsible U.S. as one of the key players rather than a “new Rome” in the world affairs.
In sum, perhaps a Chinese saying serves a motto for the global village: “harmony with no uniformity”. This is not only the consensus of the international community or society but also a coordinated move forward to a shared future of community.
*Xie Hongyan & Jia Yumei are currently studying International Relations at School of International & Public Affairs, Jilin University. Meanwhile they are research assistants to the national security & development projects.