President Trump went to Manhattan this past week to meet with world leaders at the annual U.N. General Assembly. In a speech that featured a threat to destroy North Korea, he also lambasted the international nuclear deal with Iran while sprinkling in praise for the United Nations’ ideals and some of its activities. But the address, and the reactions to it, reflected misperceptions about what multilateral organizations really do. Here are five of the most persistent errors.
One reliable American complaint about multilateralism is that global bodies allow the world to gang up on the United States. In January, the National Review published an article calling for the United States to leave the United Nations, which it described as “Ground Zero of the totalitarian Islamist-Leftist quest to eviscerate Western principles and individual liberty.” And Fox News claimed that U.N. members enjoy “tying the American giant down in order to raise themselves up.”
It’s true that, since the 1960s, the United States has sometimes struggled to get its way in Turtle Bay, particularly on issues such as conflict in the Middle East and the economic embargo of Cuba. But most U.N. General Assembly actions are adopted by consensus, and on those that require votes, the United States is often on the winning side . When Washington does lose, the consequences are minimal; these votes are only recommendations. The United States has veto power in the much more influential Security Council, which issues binding resolutions and selects secretaries general. What’s more, the United States can use its financial leverage as the U.N.’s largest contributor to get its way in many budgetary and staffing disputes.
In his U.N. speech, Trump blasted “unaccountable international tribunals,” drawing on a long tradition of American criticism of the international organization’s administrators. New York Times columnist David Brooks has described multilateralism as “meetings of unelected elites, of technocrats who make decisions in secret and who rely upon intentionally impenetrable language.”
Certainly, some officials receive their posts because of government sponsorship rather than merit, and some abuse their positions. One former U.N. secretary general even covered up his service for the Nazis during World War II.
But it’s not true that senior officials at international organizations are unaccountable. First, the once-opaque selection processes for multilateral leaders have become significantly more transparent in recent years, with candidates facing open questions from states, the media and other nongovernmental organizations. Once in office, these leaders often encounter stiff political pressure from key member states. And the threat of retaliation for bad behavior is not idle: In the Clinton years, the United States repeatedly vetoed the reappointment of Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali because of anger at how he was managing U.N. peacekeeping operations. Under the Obama administration, the United States blocked the reappointment of a World Trade Organization judge whose rulings it did not like. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has been careful about the situations she investigates, tiptoeing around several involving major powers and focusing mostly on African conflicts.
To listen to some speeches at the United Nations, you would think that unilateral ventures are doomed to fail. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed in his own U.N. address Tuesday that “there is nothing more effective than multilateralism in our current world because all our challenges are multilateral: war, terrorism, climate change, the digital economy.” And in a 2012 interview, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that one of her goals was to “anchor [American alliances] in multilateral institutional regional organizations so that they would be there for the long run.”
But the recent history of combating nuclear proliferation suggests that the most decisive efforts have been unilateral rather than multilateral. Israel nipped in the bud Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs through military strikes that were condemned internationally. By contrast, multilateral efforts to stop nuclear progress in North Korea and Iran have had limited success.
Moreover, nothing about having a multilateral blessing means a venture is likely to succeed. Many attributed the struggles of the U.S. war in Iraq to its lack of international backing. But it’s less often noted that troubled U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have enjoyed full U.N. approval and the involvement of NATO — to little avail. Multilateral support can be an advantage, but it’s only one factor among many.
This month, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark joined the chorus calling for the abolition of the Security Council veto, arguing that “the U.N. is failing in vital areas” in part because of structural constraints “like the veto.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also repeatedly slammed the veto, complaining that “the world cannot be given up to five permanent members’ initiative.”
But the use of the veto has significantly declined from the Cold War period. On average, there has been just over one veto per year since the Cold War ended, compared with three annually in the United Nations’ early years.
Restricting the veto would not lead to more effective or coherent U.N. operations. Imagine what would happen if the United Nations authorized an operation in Syria that China or Russia resolutely opposed: The result might be a crisis that could threaten the organization itself. Hints of that possibility arose during the United Nations’ Congo operation in the 1960s, which the Soviet Union came to oppose. The Soviets demanded that the U.N. secretary general be replaced by a three-person committee and refused to help pay for the operation, resulting in a financial crisis for the organization. Today’s U.N. operations have plenty of problems, but major powers seeking to undermine them is not among them.
Many worry that the Trump administration will end cooperation with other nations and destroy the liberal world order. Anne-Marie Slaughter has warned that Trump’s tenure could see “the end of the United Nations as a serious forum for global decisionmaking about peace and security.” Likewise, “U.S. President Donald Trump’s every instinct runs counter to the ideas that have underpinned the postwar international system,” says Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry.
Yet, so far, Trump has been much less destructive to multilateralism than feared. America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, has voted to reauthorize several peacekeeping missions while insisting on only modest changes to their mandates and composition. And, like all recent American envoys, she has worked through the Security Council to achieve resolutions against North Korea.
Administration threats to slash U.N. funding appear to be hollow. So far, the Trump team has not even abandoned the organization’s Human Rights Council, which it regularly derides because of the prominence there of human rights abusers such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia . (In fact, Haley and her team recently used that forum to spotlight abuses in Venezuela.) Meanwhile, the Trump administration is even championing a new initiative on women’s entrepreneurship through the World Bank. Administration officials still make threatening noises about the World Trade Organization, but thus far they have chosen to work through the WTO rather than seek to dismantle it.
Trump’s decisions to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris accords on climate change were blows to multilateralism. But Hillary Clinton’s similar opposition meant that the TPP was effectively dead before Trump took office. And the American withdrawal from the Paris accords was hardly devastating to global multilateralism — though the climate is another matter.