US president’s erratic and unilateral behaviour on the international level is putting the current system of global governance at high risk.
In reaction to a recent toxic gas attack, US president Donald Trump bombed the Syrian al-Shayrat Air Base in an effort to deter Syrian president al-Assad from further use of such gas. The impetus for this US air strike was, apparently, the images of civilian casualties, particularly of dead children, which Trump saw on TV. While images of Syrian children in the past had not moved him to reconsider his Executive Order banning all Syrian refugees from entering the US, in this instance these «beautiful babies» moved him to launch the attack. His propensity for getting his information and intelligence from television is well-documented, as is his inclination to react often emotionally and hyperbolically. However, whereas previously he would have resorted to Twitter to express himself, this time he employed 59 Tomahawk missiles. More surprising than this show of force, was the reaction of certain heads of other States. While Iran and Russia condemned the aggression against another State as a breach of international law (that appears rather cynical, given the Russian involvement in the enduring conflict in the Ukraine, and especially the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula), other governments, e.g. Germany, reacted in either an understanding, or, even, like the UK or Israel, in an affirmative manner.
Principally, less surprising was Trump’s act despite having declared on earlier occasions his desire to keep the US out of the Syrian conflict except from the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Admittedly, the actual firing of the missiles might have been unforeseen. Yet, while his predecessor, Barack Obama, was often accused of «Paralysis by Analysis», the current US president acts the opposite way. Spontaneity, thoughtlessness, and hence, unpredictability, together with a lack of consistency and unilateralism of the presidential conduct – always according to the mantra «America first» – increasingly become the norm, while jeopardizing the complex and over the course of 70 years set up construct of global governance.
This pattern of behaviour (or lack thereof) by the US president can be witnessed in various fields as example regarding global security. Thus, Trump once called NATO «obsolete», startling especially the allies in Europe which face an increasingly self-confident and aggressive Russia in the East. In addition, Trump threatened initially to quit the security alliances in South East Asia, particularly with South Korea and Japan. At the same time, he rattles the sabre against North-Korea – again single-handedly. Also «the Donald» does not want to have anything to do with the joint global effort to at least slow down climate change: With the promise to bring back jobs in the coal industry, he declared to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Besides, already in 2012, he tweeted «The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive». Also, worth mentioning are arrangements to facilitate global trade. As one of his first official acts, president Trump revoked the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Regarding NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump also zigzagged during his presidential campaign, announcing to terminate NAFTA (and even planned to do this during his first 100-day rally in Pennsylvania), when in fact he just recently revealed that he actually does not want to do so, but rather renegotiate.
This erratic, self-centred, and unilateral demeanour, however, is poisonous for an effective global governance guided by commonly established rules (i.e. public international law), with which the international community aims to tackle global challenges. But this can only work through coordination and cooperation among all actors, relying on predictable, reliable and participatory behaviour. Of course, it would be naive to believe that every State does not put its own interest first. At the same time, there seems to be – at least to a certain extent – a common understanding of global governance rewarding all for cooperative behaviour. Making Trump’s course of action even more insidious is the fact that since the end of World War II, the US were assigned the role of the «leader of the free world». Should the US now bid adieu to this role by becoming an unreliable and uncooperative actor, which observes the rules only when convenient, severe difficulties would arise for global governance. On one hand, other large, powerful States, such as China, Russia, but also Brazil or India, could model themselves on the US conduct and increasingly act in a unilateral manner while ignoring international law. Eventually, this could lead to some kind of dangerous «multipolar unilateralism». At the same time, it is conceivable that smaller States, bewildered by this American unsteadiness, turn away from the US, and to other (regional) powers, what, in turn, enables them to enlarge and enforce their «spheres of influence», ultimately establishing a multipolar world order characterized by a renewed bloc formation.
Even if these scenarios would not be imminent, just a tendency in this direction would be unfavourable for any actor. It is for this reason that other governments must respond with neither appreciation nor approval of Trump’s erratic and unilateral acts. Rather they should remind Donald Trump of the importance of cooperative and lawful conduct, and this way endeavour to (re-)include the US into the system of global governance – for the good of all.
Daniel Högger is foraus Senior Policy Fellow and head of programme «Global Governance».
Alissa Palumbo Högger is an attorney from New York, teaching and researching at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Law.