Over the past month there has been a running debate among pundits over the implications of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate change accord. For some, this is the United States abdicating its leadership role in the world. For others, it is simply a reprise of the early days of the George W. Bush administration. Well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration rejected membership in the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. So is the Trump administration really doing anything new?
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts already weighed in on this question earlier this month. Today, however, it is worth coming at this from a slightly different angle. U.S. withdrawals from multilateral arrangements are not completely new; what is new is that over the past year, other countries have been doing it as well.
Consider, for example, Venezuela’s recent behavior at an Organization of American States meeting earlier this week. According to BuzzFeed’s Karla Zabludovsky:
Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez said Venezuela will not recognize any pact made by the OAS’s members during their general assembly meeting in Cancún, Mexico, issuing a warning to her counterparts across the region.
“I call on those who remain in this organization to remember that they have to take care of the durability of their own institutions if they don’t want the same thing that happened to Venezuela to happen to them,” said Rodríguez before picking up her belongings from the table and leaving.
The dramatic retreat was not surprising. Rodríguez announced Venezuela’s exit from the 34-nation OAS entirely earlier this year after many of its members, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, voiced their concern over the country’s descent into chaos.
Yes, Venezuela announced a few months ago that it is leaving the OAS. In related news, the International Criminal Court is also at risk of hemorrhaging members. Back in February, the African Union passed a nonbinding resolution calling for all members to withdraw because of complaints about the ICC’s excessive focus on that continent. This resolution turned out to have less impact than it sounds. That said, Burundi did withdraw. South Africa tried to but was thwarted by its Supreme Court. This all comes on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal from the ICC in November of last year.
Oh, and in case you forgot, the United Kingdom is scheduled to withdraw from the European Union by 2019.
There have been treaty withdrawals in the past, like North Korea’s 2003 decision to exit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. By and large, however, state exit from international treaties has been a pretty rare event. The collapse of existing international organizations, like the League of Nations or the Warsaw Pact, is even rarer. In the postwar era, international institutions have been sticky. To be sure, there have been some rollicking debates in international relations about whether states comply with the treaties that they sign. That is very different from countries just shrugging their shoulders and saying “I quit.”
Most international agreements do have codified withdrawal clauses, however. International law scholar Laurence Helfer suggests that there’s a pretty good reason for this:
The wide variation in the design and use of termination, denunciation, and withdrawal clauses suggests that States pay close attention to the conditions and contours of exit, both when they negotiate international agreements and when they evaluate the costs and benefits of continuing to comply with those agreements over time. To many commentators anxious to demonstrate that States obey international law, the pervasiveness of these exit options is not something to be advertised, let alone celebrated. For risk-averse governments, however, exit clauses are a rational response to a world plagued by uncertainty, one in which States negotiate commitments with imperfect information about the future and the preferences of other treaty parties.
Other countries were starting to exit international agreements before Trump was sworn in as president. Let me suggest, however, that the U.S. treaty withdrawals could exacerbate this trend going forward. When the most powerful actor in the world sends a signal that exiting agreements is perfectly respectable, other countries might be encouraged to follow.
We are in a moment when key U.S. policymakers are saying things out loud like “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage” and concluding, “rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” If this is the message sent by the superpower behind the current set of global governance structures, then other countries will be less willing to bind their own hands in international agreements.
Earlier this month I suggested that the Trump administration would have a hard time demonstrating leadership. It is possible, however, I underestimated one area where the administration really can lead; it may trigger a reversal of multilateralism. For many reasons, this administration does not like multilateral arrangements. Neither do many other countries. Trump might give them the cover to exit.