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The United States: Adrift Between Sovereignty & Multilateralism

It’s that time of the year. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session is underway with 193 member-states attending to discuss a wide range of topics regarding multilateral interests and international cooperation. For the United States, the 73rd UNGA session begins after a year of controversial actions. Washington has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council, refused to sign a global migration agreement, moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, nixed its obligations to the Iranian nuclear deal and vehemently criticized the work of the International Criminal Court. The United States wants to use its historical leadership to reform the United Nations internally, but these arm-twisting tactics are futile in the current global environment.

The annual UNGA session entails a week of diplomatic shuttling from inside U.N. headquarters to events on the sidelines, with the aim of having as many diplomatic engagements as possible. Heads of states use UNGA for “targeting engagements” to reinforce bilateral priorities and multilateral interests in an atmosphere of diplomatic “speed-dating.” Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department said it will focus on five key policy priorities during UNGA 2018: non-proliferation; humanitarian assistance and food security; peace and security; counterterrorism; and U.N. reform.

Multilateralism vs. National Sovereignty

Under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, thwarted the Iranian nuclear deal, redesigned the terms of NAFTA, and dismissed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a business investment among the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim nations — as a way to illustrate that national interests supersede multilateral collective action. At the United Nations, Trump reinforced the importance of national sovereignty over international agreements in order to justify a limited U.S. footprint in multilateral affairs, especially since he believes the costs do not justify the dividends. Leading allies, such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union, are using the opportunity to express their disapproval of America’s decision to shun multilateralism by convening their own meeting to address the leadership vacuum Washington is leaving.  

Continuing Pressure on Iran

Last year, Trump identified North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a “menace” to the world; similarly, the Trump team is sustaining pressure on Iran while calling on talks to have the upper hand at the negotiating table. U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook, who leads the Iran Action Group at the State Department, spoke lucidly on weakening Iran’s geopolitical leverage by undermining the political economy of the Islamic Republic. Stating that Iran views its activities in Lebanon as a playbook for the region, Hook said, “(Iran) wants to ‘Lebanonize’ Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.” Washington not only wants to dismantle any possible nuclear option for Iran; it also wants to roll back Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Trump inevitably used the international stage of UNGA to vociferously condemn Iran’s activities in the broader Middle East and to increase international pressure on Tehran. Hook’s Iran Action Group was established to coordinate policies and thereby institute an integrated global economic pressure that can help counter the disproportionate rise in Iran’s regional position in the past 15 years.

Tensions with China

Trump is continuing to tighten the screws on Chinese President Xi Jinping, but so far, Xi has resisted making a compromise. In August, Trump signed new legislation that strengthens the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a system through which potential corporate acquisitions are screened and vetted for national security implications. In addition to implementing a second round of $200 billion tariffs against Chinese products, Washington is targeting Beijing’s military technological capabilities and technology transfers presented by China’s military-civilian fusion strategy. In an annual report to Congress submitted by the Pentagon last month, the Defense Department highlights how the Chinese are turning deploying their wealth in order to realize their aim of becoming a major military power and how their expanding international economic and political influence represents a threat.

Palestinian Aid

The United States slashed financial assistance to the U.N. Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees, anticipating that the move would force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to participate in U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israel. This week, in response, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres will supervise a closed-door meeting with foreign ministers from Germany, Japan, Jordan, Sweden, Turkey, and the European Union to identify ways to close the $185 million gap in funding. With the closing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington, D.C., the United States is trying to pressure the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table, with the encouragement of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Other Concerns for the U.N.

As the United States pays more attention to counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and global security, various U.N. offices are having high-level meetings on human rights, gender rights, peacekeeping operations, peace processes, global health and disease prevention, digital cooperation and governance, world hunger, and providing adequate education in conflict zones. For instance, with several humanitarian crises around the globe — Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees, South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, to name a few — the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs is hosting a global funding and emergency response meeting. Moreover, Guterres is hosting a high-level meeting with tech magnates and philanthropists Melinda Gates and Jack Ma on using data analytics to prevent, prepare for, and effectively respond to humanitarian emergencies.

It is a paradox for the United States to preach the gospel of national sovereignty over multilateralism at the world’s largest multilateral gathering. The United States was one of the pioneers of the United Nations’ architecture and a founder of more than three dozen multilateral institutions that have functioned for more than 70 years. Although the administration’s identification of five key concerns helps Washington pursue its agenda during a diplomatic frenzy, focusing its agenda so much on security issues diminishes the U.S. role in other critical areas where it was once considered a global leader.

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Vice President of Development and Strategy at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He Tweets at @qbhuda.The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.