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Foreign Policy

The US Unilateralist Swerve: Where Will It End?

May 08, 2019
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The United States’ unilateralist strategy has emerged under very special historical circumstances, and is now exerting a growing impact on the world order and the livelihood of people worldwide.

First, it is necessary to understand the circumstances and the environment that produced this US unilateralist strategy. The strategy is not merely an impulsive action on the part of policy-makers or the result of President Donald Trump’s peculiar personal temperament. Its formation has deep-rooted social, economic and political causes on the domestic side, as well as specific international dimensions.

The US has been the only superpower in the world since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the most advanced capitalist country in economic, financial, science and technology fields since the end of World War II in 1945. In the assessment of many of its policy-makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and mainstream think tanks, the US possesses the best political systems and the best social and economic structures — the US also holds the universal values of justice and democracy, and the present international order was formulated under US leadership. The US has veto powers and other unique strengths, playing a dominant role in many key international organizations, such as the UN Security Council, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and NATO. The US dollar is the world’s most frequently used reserve currency. The US also has a unique military presence in the world, operating some 800 military bases and logistical facilities out of its sovereign territory and beyond. It has abundant policy tools available, and frequently employs sanctions against a growing number of sovereign countries such as Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia and others. It holds that it is the sole leader of the world, and any change in the international order and global governance should be made under US leadership. However, the US assessment does not wholly accord with the rapidly-changing realities of today’s world. The fast rise of newly-emerged economies and numerous developing countries has begun to put cracks in America’s ability to totally control world affairs — the US is now not powerful enough to fully contain new developments as it had once succeeded in holding down the Soviet Union, and in preventing German and Japanese economic expansion from threatening its Number One economic position in the world over the last several decades. Only on rare occasions has any single country or group of countries taken the initiative to retaliate against the US for some dispute. Under such circumstances, it is only natural that the US has to try every means possible to pursue its own path on major world issues when it cannot compel others to adopt resolutions favorable to the US.

Second, the US unilateralist strategy is closely associated with the resurgence of nationalism in the US under the doctrine of “America First” in its dealings with the outside world. This shift is the result of a misjudged assessment of the losses the US has suffered from economic globalization. As America is itself the largest beneficiary of globalization, it appears untenable to claim that the US-led world system has greatly damaged the US national interest. It cannot be denied that it is American selfishness that has driven the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord. The US withdrawal tells the world that America has gone so far as to shirk already promised, duty-bound international obligations for the sake of its changed energy development strategy.

Third, development under America’s capitalist free-market system have produced great social divisions that cannot be easily closed. As a result, some of the old political and social problems which urgently need to be resolved or alleviated have been dragged on with no reasonable solution in sight. Sharp political disputes between the Republicans and the Democrats often lead to partial or total government shutdowns, damaging the prestige and credibility of the US federal government. Racial discrimination and immigration policy differences have been creating new divides. The widening gap between the rich and the poor has been exacerbating existing social divisions which have become more and more associated with many election-related foreign policy issues. Different trade and military policies tend to benefit different groups of voters. As the party in power makes new policies to benefit its core voters, the party not in office often takes action to change or block those policies. As a result, many of the policy differences between the two major political parties are exerting a growing impact on US foreign policy. The recent unusual policy changes towards the Middles East, among other regions, could be considered as typical examples of this phenomenon. US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement, its official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — the region seized by Israel from Syria after the Six-Day War in 1967 — and the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as increased arms sales to the region which account for about half of all US arms sales in the world in recent years, could all in essence be boiled down to policy changes towards Iran and Israel. US attitudes towards these two countries have a direct impact on Jewish-American voters. Notably, voting records show that in fiercely-contested swing states like Ohio and Florida, Jewish-American voters might play a decisive role in elections. This kind of interaction between foreign policy changes and the voting intentions of different groups might partly explain why the US would rather offend the international community by violating international agreements and offering more favors to Israel.

The fourth, the US unilateralist strategy has been one of the major causes of world economic uncertainty and stagnation. Decreasing international trade and investment has largely been the result of the tariff wars launched by the US against a number of countries, and unreasonable restrictions on investment in the US under the pretext of national security concerns. The international strategic balance is in danger of collapse as the US is trying to gain the upper hand over Russia in their nuclear arms race by abandoning its previous commitments on nuclear disarmament. Global peace and stability have been harmed, in the Middle East in particular, as tension between US and Iran is growing — meanwhile the normal functioning of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Settlement has been disrupted by US moves.

At the same time, amid strong international opposition to US unilateralism, more and more actions have been taken by other countries to defend multilateralism. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement didn’t stop the other 11 remaining countries from continuing their trade cooperation under the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The proposal by Germany, France, Canada and Japan to form a multilateral alliance to deal with climate change and other global challenges, which is expected to be officially put into action in September 2019, could be taken as a sign of their clear-cut opposition to US unilateralism. Of course, the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the most influential multilateral endeavor for international cooperation in the world. Over the past 6 years, 126 countries and 29 international organizations have signed cooperation agreements of various kinds under the BRI framework. The trade volume between China and other participating countries has surpassed $6 trillion, and 82 industrial parks have been established, creating some 300,000 local jobs. The BRI is playing an increasingly important role in enhancing multilateralism, as it has become a key driver of global productivity, world economic growth and common development.

The US is the only superpower in the world, and it believes that its dominance in world affairs would continue and that no other country could surpass it in comprehensive national power in the near future. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect that the US would change course and give up its unilateralist strategy any time soon. But it cannot go too far down the road of monopolizing control over world affairs due to the unpopularity of unilateralism in other parts of the world, and domestic diversity of opinion on vital world issues. With the joint efforts of all countries that favor multilateralism, global multilateral cooperation will continue to gain momentum and gradually prevail over unilateralism in international affairs in the days to come.

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