America’s foreign policy: what lies ahead for multilateralism?

In recent years, the US government has taken a hostile attitude towards the multilateral system it helped create and sustain decades. Among other actions, the Trump administration announced it was leaving the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, and the WHO. US officials also distanced themselves from the United Nations and abstained from participating in the Paris Peace Forum’s first two editions. On the occasion of the third edition of the Forum, this high-level panel discussed the future of US foreign policy and what the elections of November 3 portend for the future of multilateralism.

Author: Sciences Po student Johannes Ludwig summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: America and multilateralism: Back to the Golden Age?

Date: 12 November 2020

The election of President Joe Biden has spurred hope for the revival of multilateralism on both sides of the Atlantic. Does the Biden Administration represent a return “back to the Golden Age” of multilateralism, or will the future of multilateralism look fundamentally different from the status quo ante?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America think and action tank, underlined that the future of American foreign policy principles depends by and large on President Biden’s performance at home. A return to multilateralism can only succeed if it corresponds to a “renewal at home”. She was echoed by Martín Abregú, Vice President for International Programs at the Ford Foundation, who warned that US domestic and foreign policies are strongly interrelated. “America needs to put its own house in order if it wants to lead abroad”, he said, “The best America can do for the world is to become a more just and equal country.” Foreign policy must be in line with the interests of the middle class.

Even though President Biden has already started to re-engage with the world, the effects of the Trump Administration on multilateralism will be long-lasting. Stewart Patrick, Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, joined his colleague in this careful assessment. While there are definitely “grounds for hope”, Trumpism will undoubtedly survive the Presidency of Trump. The high approval rates for Trump at the time of the election have illustrated that Democrats and Republicans are strongly divided about America’s role in the world and “live on different planets”. The success of President Biden’s return to multilateralism will thus depend on his capacity to build bipartisan consensus – even more so in an era that is shaped by a global pandemic.

Thomas Gomart, session moderator and Director of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, questioned whether the United States could still rely on its moral authority abroad. Abregú stressed that the design of future American leadership will look fundamentally different from the past. In contrast to the notion of American exceptionalism or to former President Barack Obama’s position of “leading from behind”, America will have to “lead from the center”. The paradigm of leadership from the center implies the inclusion of civil society and other actors in multilateral frameworks on the one hand. On the other, America must internalize the fact that it is one among many political hubs and economic powerhouses. Slaughter added that America has always had two choices: “leading by the example of its power or by the power of its example”. Now is the time to choose the latter and become a humble and self-critical leader, she stressed. Patrick echoed his fellow panelist in underlining the importance of “less hubris and greater humility”. The main challenge for the Biden Administration is to “make America decent again” –both in domestic and foreign performances. He added that the future design of multilateralism would be shaped by the transition “from an American monologue to a dialogue with the world”. In the face of the questionable domestic human rights performance, Biden’s international focus on democracy, rather than on human rights reflects this new humility. However, the question remained how long it will take for multilateralism to become genuinely universal rather than a concert system of different blocs.

Finally, the panelists agreed that there is no global definition of multilateralism. While Slaughter explained that, from a Chinese perspective, multilateralism is seen as a tool for the government to increase its global influence, Martín Abregú underlined that multilateralism could also be an end in itself that is strongly linked to the respect for human rights and democracy. “America”, he reminded, “is not just a place – it’s also an idea!” Regarding the European position, Slaughter criticized American policymakers for having long overlooked the importance of Europe in the country’s relations with China. A stable transatlantic partnership is key to addressing global challenges and especially the rise of China. She explained that from the US perspective: “before we look West, we should look East!”

By Johannes Ludwig

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