With the exception of Hillary Clinton, few would have been more dismayed by Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential election than António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister who took over the UN Secretariat in January 2017. Other than starting a high profile job at the same time, the two share little in terms of personality or job description. Unpredictable, self-centered, and confrontational, Mr Trump wants to put “America first”; spent his first day in office picking fights with the media about the size of the crowds attending his inauguration; and even contradicted weather reports to highlight the supposedly preternatural nature of that event.
Compare this with the self-effacing, soft-spoken, and conciliatory Mr Guterres, who in his first day at work called global peace “our goal and guide”; extolled the virtues of international cooperation; and scolded a reporter for calling him “Excellency.” While Mr Trump spent his life on corporate jets and in gold-plated towers, Mr Guterres used to take time off to teach in Lisbon’s slums. In Trump and Guterres, the nemesis of tact and finesse meets the ultimate diplomat and humanitarian. Yet while the first was handed the nuclear codes of the world’s most powerful nation, the second was put in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy and given the daunting task of preventing global conflict.
Several developments—of which the US presidential election is the most significant—indicate that global order may be in the process of being undermined. Those developments include Mr Trump’s dismissal of NATO as “obsolete”; his eulogy of Brexit and his desire to see the EU breaking up; a protectionist approach to economic relations; a decision to build a “wall” with Mexico; an order denying entry to Muslims while welcoming people of “Christian origins”; and statements that “torture absolutely works” and that water-boarding doesn’t go far enough. This, in Mr Trump’s first week in office.
His approach to the UN seems just as abrasive. Mr Trump has complained of the “burdensome” US commitment to the UN, has announced a 40% reduction in contributions to international organizations, and is pondering a withdrawal from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as from the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In January 2017, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act was introduced to Congress with the aim of withdrawing the US from the UN, ending all financial contributions to it, and moving the UN Headquarters out of the US.
These are significant developments, but are they systemic? In many ways the US has been there before: for its presidents, America has always “come first”. Their multilateralism — even at its peak, with Clinton and Obama — has always been instrumental to US foreign policy and proposals to “get the US out of the UN and the UN out of the US” go back to the founding of the UN. Despite George Washington’s caveat to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” most of his successors have realized that, far from being a liability, global engagement is the most efficient way to protect (and to project) US interests. No nation benefits from the current international system more than the US — even Mr Trump’s new ambassador to the UN has conceded as much. Although the UN has changed since 1945, the US is still its most influential member and the former remains a “child” of the latter, though admittedly an increasingly rebellious one.
The ambiguity of US attitudes towards multilateral organizations is another element of continuity. On the one hand, US policymakers have long understood that multilateralism — whether of Clinton’s “assertive” variety or Bush Jr.’s “hard-headed” one — expands rather than constrains US interests. On the other, American hegemony has often made it tempting for Washington to act unilaterally. The result is that successive US administrations have been caught between a desire to alter the international order to mould it in the US’s image, and the recognition that one country— even the most powerful — cannot change it. That the current uni-polar system of international relations might be turning into a multi-polar one as a result of the rise of other powers is as significant as Mr Trump’s win. Great powers, like great empires, don’t like to decline and rarely do it in orderly fashion. Since war in the 21st century can well turn into a nuclear Armageddon, it is the convergence of these systemic factors, with Mr Trump’s short fuse and nuclear codes, that arguably represent the gravest threat to the current international system.
History has not been kind to Mr Guterres’ predecessors, and there is no reason to think that it will be kind to him. Mr Trump’s unique blend of inexperience, aggressiveness, and populism makes him a risk to the very system that the US has contributed to build. He won’t be able to change it alone, though judging from his first week in office, he can certainly undermine his country’s reputation around the world. Just as significant as Mr Trump, however, are the factors that elevated him in the first instance, including nationalism, white nativism, and xenophobia. The fact that these are also the factors which made Brexit possible is hardly a coincidence; they threaten the very values which Mr Guterres—a former High Commissioner for Refugees—is supposed to defend. In business one can afford to slam the door and walk away. International crises of the nuclear sort make that approach more difficult — and dangerous.
Featured image credit: United Nations Flag by Etereuti. Public Domain via Pixabay