Elephants in the Room
Trump’s Globalism Is a Caricature of Multilateralism
When it comes to international cooperation, the White House is repeating the mistakes of the past.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump opened his speech to the United Nations General Assembly with a glance backward, citing the seven decades of history through which the organization has passed. He went on to call for a retreat from the multilateral institutions the United States created after World War II and a return to crude nationalism—embodying the philosopher George Santayana’s warning, often dismissed as an old saw, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
From his “America First” campaign slogan, borrowed from U.S. isolationists of the 1930s, to his aggressive pursuit of tariffs—which recall the Smoot-Hawley Act, the set of protectionist policies that economists say greatly exacerbated the Great Depression—Trump’s path to the future appears to consist mostly of moving backward.
“The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots,” Trump told the General Assembly. This echoed his remarks to the U.N. a year earlier: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” But patriotism is not a doctrine, and his words seemed intended to erase the patriotism of the enlightened U.S. realists who shaped global economic and political institutions in the aftermath of World War II—an order that was created to avoid repeating the economic disaster of the Depression and the devastation of World War II, in which an estimated 60 million people died.
The president’s understanding of history is premised on a false contradiction: Contrary to what Trump says, one can create and support cooperative institutions and coalitions in order to protect and advance U.S. interests, without sacrificing patriotism. There was nothing unpatriotic about the creation and empowerment of NATO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, which gave primacy to the U.S. dollar, leveraged U.S. financial aid, and brought 70 years of prosperity and security.
There is no such thing as globalism, let alone a globalist ideology. The term, as deployed by Trump and his administration, is a stand-in for the idea that multilateralism, any global governance, leads to an unaccountable world government that could override the nation-state. Trump has described it as a “threat to sovereignty.” He is partly right, in the sense that every treaty and international law limits sovereignty to some extent. This starts with foreign embassies: The French Embassy in Washington, for instance, is sovereign French territory, replacing U.S. sovereignty over that real estate. But likewise, the U.S. Embassy in Paris replaces a bit of French sovereignty. Every treaty, whether on trade or arms control, cedes some freedom of action to achieve codified rules and norms that advance U.S. economic or security interests.
What Trump calls globalism is a caricature of the ideas behind multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the IMF. Such organizations reflect a pooling of sovereignty to advance each participating nation’s interests. They do not supersede government at the national level. They are organized, funded, and run directly by participating nations, not the other way around. In a 2018 speech in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relied on a similarly cartoonish perspective, arguing, “Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself.” But it is and has always been a means to an end, for practitioners on both sides of the aisle. Similarly, international law restricts U.S. freedom of action—but treaties restrict all signatories equally. That is the point of rules and norms.
Trump and Pompeo have a point with regard to the need to reform and update many international institutions, from the WTO to the Universal Postal Union (UPU), to reflect new realities. For instance, China’s economy has grown to the point that the WTO should no longer designate it a developing country, which allows it to maintain high trade barriers. But that is not an argument for dismissing them.
The administration argues that Trump’s transactional, America First approach seeks to rally “the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order.” But to date, Trump appears more like a one-man wrecking crew, eroding the global order. For instance, he used a national security exemption in U.S. trade law intended for emergencies to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies including Canada and Japan—even though 70 percent of U.S. steel is produced domestically.
Beyond shredding trade rules, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the admittedly outdated Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has left vacuums, as has the weakening of international institutions. What’s missing is careful thought about what should replace them. One good example is the WTO, which Trump has threatened to leave, though the United States has won the overwhelming majority of its cases filed there. Most recently, the United States won a WTO case against Airbus, which allowed Washington to impose $7.5 billion in tariffs on EU goods. Major U.S. allies, including the European Union and Japan, agree with many of Trump’s complaints. But whether the United States will exit or roll up its sleeves and negotiate reform is unclear.
One encouraging sign is the recent use of U.S. power to leverage reform of the UPU. Trump claimed legitimately that China and others were paying less for parcels and thus, in this age of e-commerce, had an unfair advantage. Threatening to quit got everyone’s attention, and the United States was able to negotiate reforms. Whether that is a one-off exception or an indication that the administration is serious about updating flawed institutions remains an open question.
At the end of the day, Trump has a cynical worldview. This was best explicated in a 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed written by H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn, then-Trump’s national security advisor and National Economic Council director, respectively. They laid out their view that “the world is not a ‘global community,’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. … Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
One doesn’t need to pedestalize a global community to see that there are countless common global problems that require collective action, from great-power competition to climate change to endangered oceans to nuclear proliferation to ungoverned technologies like artificial intelligence. No nation can face these challenges individually. The need for sustained institutional cooperation is no threat to sovereignty and may be essential to avoid a repeat of the 1930s.