Over the past year, the United States of America has ramped up its attempts at a slow strangulation of key international organizations. These moves are worrying many political commentators as they witness the inability of institutions, like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, to operate properly in their roles as facilitators of deliberation and diplomacy.
The rate at which the U.S. is currently breaching international norms could see the end of the rules-based system that we currently enjoy. The latest incident arose earlier this week when the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, first threatened the other members of the UN, and later, walked out on negotiations with Palestine. The UNGA almost unanimously voted for a non-binding resolution condemning the U.S. for its acceptance of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Out of 193 states, 128 voted against the U.S.’s ultra vires actions, including some of the USA’s closest allies like France, Germany, the UK and Japan. Only 9 countries supported the U.S., those being tiny island states that are heavily dependent on the U.S. for foreign aid and security. The U.S.A. threatened to cut foreign aid to any country that voted against them: a move that has been called brutish and an insult to the very purpose of the UN.
When addressing the UN after the resolution results were announced, Nikki Haley said “ we have a legitimate expectation that our goodwill is recognized and respected when a nation is singled out and attacked in this organization, that nation is disrespected…the U.S.A. will remember this day, we will remember it when we are once again called upon to contribute the world’s largest contribution to the UN… and we will remember it when so many countries come calling on us as they so often do to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit, but this vote will make a difference on how the U.S.A. looks at the UN and how we look at countries who disrespect us in the UN, this vote will be remembered.”
Most states saw the move as a form of blackmail. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations later tweeted in response, “what makes (the) Trump admin think it can act unilaterally on Jerusalem and threaten other governments and the UN when the U.S.A. is criticized, and then expect those very nations to work with the U.S. at the UN to pressure North Korea or Iran?” Additionally, the former head of the C.I.A. commented, saying that the Trump administration’s actions “shows that (Donald Trump) expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone – qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats,” and Java Zarif noted “a resounding global NO to Trump regime’s thuggish intimidation at #UN.” Finally, a spokeswoman for NBC news aptly stated that “aid is a tool for foreign policy and they (the Trump administration) have made it an ugly, dirty and nasty transaction.”
While the threats by the U.S. are only words, they carry symbolic weight in the world of international relations. By threatening to cut off humanitarian aid to countries which disagree with it, over a non-binding resolution (which is really just a slap on the hand for the U.S. with no real consequences) the U.S. is undermining the fundamental purpose of the UN as a forum where countries can gather together to discuss, critique, and make joint decisions on what behaviour is acceptable and what is not in the world, to uphold some kind of legal framework for countries to work under to ensure peace and stability. It is where any country, no matter its size or power, can be held accountable for breaching international law and human rights. In the author’s view, the move by the U.S. is emblematic of President Trump’s response to any kind of criticism. As one of the largest international players, a burden it must accept is that in making controversial foreign policy decisions, it must be open to critique and willing to hear the voice of other countries in the UN to ensure that the most peaceful approach is pursued. To insist on blind loyalty and threaten to cut ties demonstrates the U.S. is exercising power but not accepting responsibility.
While the move was obviously brutish on the world stage, it is one that is representative of the U.S.A.’s general approach in undermining the ability and credibility of the very institutions that vow to hold those who abuse power and human rights accountable. The world depends on multilateral organizations, co-operation, discussion and ties that bind countries to one another through trade and diplomacy so that violence and war is not a viable option. However, the U.S. has openly threatened and criticized NATO, a move that has seen a major fissure in the relations between the collective security states. The U.S. also pulled out of the TPPA, which was set to be the world’s largest multilateral trade agreement.
Another, and increasingly worrying, move by the U.S. is happening out of the media spotlight within the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO’s appellate body consists of 7 judges; it acts essentially as the Supreme Court of World Trade. The UN has often been accused of being toothless and further, criticized for an inability to punish countries that breach international standards. However, the WTO’s appellate body does frequently hear cases, make judgements, and impose mandatory financial punishments. Hurting a state’s economy is one of the most effective tools for ensuring states toe the line in terms of international law and agreements. However, since last year, the U.S. has been vetoing the appointment of three new judges, effectively reducing what is supposed to be a seven-strong appellate body. As judges’ terms expire, by September 2018, four seats will be vacant, leaving three judges. This is the bare minimum required to hear a case. If one judge must excuse himself or herself for a legal reason, for example, not being the judge in a case that involves their own country, the international system of rules and order will break down.
The United States and China are set to have an appeal come before the body in September. One of the remaining judges is from China and will be required to step down. Consequently, the case will not be heard. The former chief of the WTO says that the U.S. is actively trying to wreck the international system. It stands to benefit from operating in a lawless international system, where there are no rules to hold bullies accountable.
Peace is possible through diplomacy, but we must take note of what the U.S.A. is currently orchestrating, and speak out before we lose our voice.