The Consequences of America’s Inconsistent Approach to Multilateralism

By Joony Moon

The Trump Administration has made it no secret that it is not a fan of multilateral organizations — or international cooperation in general, for that matter — often suggesting that the U.S. pays more than its fair share for the operating costs of the United Nations and the World Bank, among others. President Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, cut funding for USAID, and recently appointed John Bolton, an outspoken critic of multilateral institutions, as his National Security Advisor. These actions, as well as other policies along the same vein, represent the U.S., long the world’s largest and most reliable foreign aid donor, recusing itself from pre-existing commitments and signaling to the world that it cannot be counted on in times where it is needed the most.

In some ways, President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is not entirely off-base — multilateral institutions are well-known for their inefficiencies and bureaucratic processes, and interested parties have long raised questions about foreign aid’s purpose and efficacy. Since aid money is fungible, the money countries and organizations receive can often end up supporting less-productive activities, in some cases even perpetuating authoritarian regimes. That being said, for many developing countries and nonprofit organizations, U.S. foreign aid money has been a key source of funding, and sudden losses to that important funding stream can have severe consequences to former recipients. Last year when President Trump reinstated the “global gag rule,” a Reagan-era rule that bans international NGOs with U.S. funding from providing abortions or offering family planning information, the Dutch government stepped up to launch the She Decides fund with support from Slovenia, Iceland, and private philanthropies to plug those funding holes. Though the fund launched with $190 million in resources, it is still a far cry from the $600 million expected to be lost from U.S. aid as a result of the rule.

Beyond the potentially devastating impact cuts to foreign aid can have on some developing countries’ governments and NGOs around the world, the distancing of U.S. foreign aid policy from other international efforts is one way America has actively ceded some of its global influence. Part of this kerfuffle is related to how the U.S. perceives the growing threat of China as a global leader. Though the U.S. just this week approved a $13 billion capital increase for the World Bank, the Trump administration initially resisted the capital hike. The U.S. eventually agreed once the multilateral lender adjusted lending rules to make it more costly for larger emerging markets like China to borrow money. Even so, this agreement is expected to boost China’s shareholding as a percentage of the bank. The trend of China emerging as a global leader in foreign aid (and American resistance) has been a notable development in recent years, evidenced by the creation of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2016 and the U.S.’s refusal to join the regional bank. While the U.S.’s refusal could be seen as a sign of protest against the Chinese, it also excluded the U.S. from decisions made by the AIIB, which figures to be an influential funder the Asia-Pacific region for the perceivable future.

Finally, U.S. disengagement with international institutions essentially means that it no longer wants to play by the rules the rest of the world has agreed to. Backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrates to the global community that the U.S., the world’s largest economy and its second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is unwilling to do its part — the one it had just agreed on a couple years prior. How could we expect other countries to abide by their agreements if a so-called “global leader” chooses to renege on its commitments? The same rings true for American non-participation in the International Criminal Court (ICC) — how can we expect to keep authoritarian dictators accountable to international criminal laws if the U.S. itself will not allow itself to be subject under the same rules?

Though it is only natural for any country to revise its strategies with respect to foreign policy over time, the approaches taken by the U.S. have created an uncertainty about what the world can expect from the world’s largest foreign aid donor. Given the U.S.’s important role in the success of multilateral institutions and development assistance, it should ensure that any reductions in its funding are implemented through a gradual process and that it supports a transition process for former recipients of those funds. Additionally, it is essential that the U.S. walks the walk when it comes to international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement and the ICC. These agreements exist because global participation is necessary to protect human beings in the most essential ways. America cannot continue to free ride simply on the good will of others and not do our part. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in his speech to the Congress this week, “The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism. [It is] the one now who has to help preserve and reinvent it.”

Joony Moon is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and Senior Editor for the Berkeley Public Policy Journal. Most recently before attending Goldman, he worked as an Analyst at the Skoll Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on supporting leading social entrepreneurs around the world.