International Policy Digest

Rick Bajornas
World News /22 Oct 2020
10.22.20

United Nations at 75: The Case for a Return to Multilateralism

For the past seventy-five years, multilateralism – where nation-states act cooperatively through global institutions or regional and military alliances such as NATO to solve global problems – has served the world quite well. The creation of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II has withstood the test of time and remains as vital today, especially amid a global pandemic, as it did since its founding in 1945.

Speaking at the UN Conference in San Francisco on June 26, 1945, President Harry S. Truman stated the following: “We must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” No remark has been more prescient and relevant. As one ponders what has occurred over the course of the last four years where the world’s leader, the United States, has vacated its role on the world stage and adopted an approach running counter to the principles of multilateralism, President Truman’s statement of doing “…always as we please” rings loudly.

This “America First,” or as some have cited “America Alone” approach, has witnessed the U.S. withdrawing from numerous global agreements and turning its back on the world. The central tenet of this approach is that the U.S. cedes too much of its sovereignty to other countries in the world when it participates and belongs to international treaties and organizations.

The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Open Skies Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and, more recently, the withdrawal from the World Health Organization. All of these decisions have weakened the United States.

The decision to withdraw from the WHO at a time of a global health crisis is extremely shortsighted. The U.S. became a member of the WHO in 1948 and has been its top funder. Though withdrawal does not formally take effect until July 6, 2021, the optics of this decision are poor.

On October 24th, the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the UN’s founding. The day called UN Day raises awareness of the global body’s successes through the years. Its principal mission of maintaining international peace and security and achieving international cooperation have been at the core of the liberal international order established following World War II. For the better part of the UN’s history, the U.S. has been at the helm of this international order and looked to for leadership on many of the key global issues confronting the world.

But, unfortunately, the U.S. has stepped away from its global responsibilities commencing in 2016. This decision by the current administration has been regrettable. With the U.S. relinquishing its global role, other actors have stepped in to fill this vacuum such as China and Russia. In his recent UN General Assembly speech, the U.S. president eviscerated China for COVID-19 and for contaminating the global environment while praising his administration’s international achievements.

In a time where a global pandemic is sweeping the globe, and coronavirus cases have seen exponential growth, the president could have utilized his platform to laud the UN for its work and the leadership role it has taken in a time of extreme uncertainty. He decided otherwise keeping with his populist message.

In June 2020, the UN released a detailed report titled, “United Nations Comprehensive Response to COVID-19: Saving Lives, Protecting Societies, Recovering Better,” outlining its plan to combat the coronavirus. The world body has taken a leadership role in seeking to eradicate this deadly virus. Moreover, more than 170 nations have joined COVAX, a consortium that is working on vaccine development and to make certain that once one comes out that it is shared equitably across the world making sure everyone has access to it. The unfortunate part of this story is that the U.S. has decided not to join which amounts to another rebuff to multilateralism.

Multilateralism, especially during a global health crisis, is more important now than ever as nations need to cooperate and share information on all matters, particularly best practices as it pertains to COVID. As the U.S. has refrained from its global leadership role, the world must look elsewhere for guiding it through a dark period in history.