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Foreign Policy

Life without the U.S.?

Aug 26, 2020
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor, National Niigata University in Japan

The United States sent official notification to the UN secretary-general in early July that it will withdraw from the World Health Organization in July 2022. Recent years have seen the U.S. withdraw from an array of international organizations and agreements, notably from UNESCO, the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. It has also threatened to terminate its membership in the World Trade Organization.

Understandably, the anti-multilateralism rhetoric and actions by the U.S., the sole superpower and erstwhile standard-bearer of multilateralism is worrisome. But at its root, U.S. confidence stems from the fact an absence of U.S. leadership will render international cooperation impossible. I believe that an international order free of the United States is inconceivable.

The international community needs to engage with the pro-multilateralism cohort. It needs to display some strategic patience in the hope a new administration after the presidential election in November will return the U.S. to the fold. In the meantime, it must have a fallback plan and brace itself for a period of U.S.-free multilateralism, and convey a message to the U.S. that a tentative U.S.-free multilateralism will not derail the current international order. This is not anti-U.S., but a tactic for bringing the U.S. back to the course of multilateralism, and a way to stabilize and upgrade the international order.

In a globalized world, any country that attempts to reject multilateralism will only end up isolating itself. Unlike the situation during the Cold War era, countries today have their interests intertwined horizontally in a network, having evolved from vertical connections before.

Take the WTO as an example: Since 2017, the U.S. has blocked appointments to the WTO appellate body, causing it to cease functioning in December last year, as its membership fell below the required quorum of three. This year, the incumbent director-general resigned just before his term expired. In the aftermath, in April, 20 strong countries, including the European Union, China and Canada held discussions seeking an alternative plan for the current appellate body. While the organization is not perfect, its appellate body is the de facto supreme court for trade disputes; hence its prolonged dysfunction creates long-term legal limbo, which cuts against the interests of the international community.

Former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said that a WTO without the U.S. was better than none at all. This may sound a bit desperate, but it brings home the anxiety and sense of urgency. While bilateral trade treaties are on the rise, including the U.S.-Japan bilateral trade agreement signed in 2019, it represents only modest trade liberalization and can hardly meet the real demands of Japan as a major trading power.

What’s more, Japan is concerned that excessive trade agreements will jeopardize the authority of the multilateral trading system it relies upon. Therefore, as horizontal connections are growing, the international community’s discussions of a multilateral governance blueprint are informed by national interests and the stability of the global economic order. It is simply untenable for any country to reject multilateralism. 

In a globalized era, rejecting multilateralism will cost a country its ability to influence and set new standards. For example, take emerging tech areas such as AI and 5G, with the active engagement of Huawei in the setting of standards. The company has made its presence felt. But in May last year, the U.S. put Huawei on its entity list, which not only outlaws export transactions with Huawei by U.S. companies, but also blocks engagement by U.S. companies with Huawei in setting industrial standards.

Such new standards are “rigid demands.” Without the participation of a core player like Huawei, it is hard to make relevant explorations on standards. The U.S. was the pacesetter in standards governing the internet, a status that thrived on the back of multilateralism. If U.S. companies are left out of the standard-setting discussions, U.S. economic interests and soft power will be eroded.    

In a globalized era, with the diversity of international cooperation partners, partnerships across countries will not falter simply because an individual country (or a handful of them) opts to turn away from multilateralism. For instance, from January to June this year, ASEAN has grown to be China’s top trading partner, followed by the EU. The U.S. fell to third place. This reflects to a large extent the deepening regionalism in multilateralism, including the Belt and Road Initiative, enabling countries in the Asia-Pacific region to get more deeply involved in global production chains and the global economic system.

Despite the China-U.S. tensions, cooperation in the business sector bucks the trend and is making solid progress without much fanfare. For example, in May Intel announced investments in businesses in the semiconductor, electronics and bio science sectors. Qualcomm made investments in three Chinese telecommunication companies in June. These deals show that the American business sector is conscious of being leapfrogged by peers from other countries if they choose to stay on the sideline.

The U.S. initiated, championed and practiced global multilateralism in the postwar era. The UN, WTO and IMF are all the result of the creative thinking process and global strategy of the U.S.

The U.S. will certainly play an indispensable role in developing the international order of the future, but a temporary period of multilateral cooperation without it is bound to develop before the common goals of the international community are achieved. 

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