A Trumpian international order?
As multilateralism gives way to an aggressive US unilateralism, the world is witnessing the emergence of a bipolar international world order led by China
By: Hassan Aslam Shad
Today, world order is increasingly chaotic, universal values are being eroded and the rule of law is being undermined.
The above statement by the United Nations (UN) Secretary General during his speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 25th September sums up the ominous future faced by the international rule of law.
President Donald Trump’s speech at the UNGA when he proclaimed the US’s rejection of the ideology of globalism has left the world aghast. In what started as drawing attention to the unprecedented success of his administration —amidst chuckle from international dignitaries—crossed over into positioning US sovereignty and national interest as supreme over and above the US’s global commitments. Before September 25, the world had not witnessed such blatant disregard of the global world order by a leader of the world’s largest superpower. Themes of international rule of law painstakingly woven together in the fabric of globalism were ripped apart at the very podium of the UNGA where they ought to have been upheld.
Has the International order been Trumped?
Perhaps, not yet.
President Trump will have his plate full if he is to undo the entire gamut of globalism and the international rule of law underpinning the global international framework.
The crafting of the international rule of law, embedded in the global world order, started after World War II. The objective was to avoid another global war through a framework of multilateral cooperation between countries.
The result was the establishment of the multilateral UN in 1945. What followed was a mushrooming of several multilateral treaties between countries.
Interestingly, the United States was at the forefront of these developments. The road to international cooperation was not without its twists and turns. Negotiating bilateral treaties required painful compromises that were not always forthcoming. There were failures and disappointments. But the system — with all its flaws and weaknesses — worked, albeit imperfectly. The international system today boasts hundreds of multilateral treaties covering public and private international law across the entire spectrum of state relations. The international system also disappointed — and miserably failed — on many fronts. There have been several conflicts that caused thousands of deaths. And there continue to remain burning international disputes that threaten global peace. However, critics of international law who saw it as a utopian aspiration would agree, that even a rogue state with a questionable track record of compliance with international law, was compelled to show compliance, to avoid the reputational loss of being termed a violator. While the US is hardly the only violator of international law, recent events indicate that the US has indeed taken upon itself to undo; all the hard work in the setting up of this multilateral framework.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2002, and the pretext carved for it was the first in-your-face, breach in the wall of international multilateralism. An unsanctioned war that led to the deaths of millions of Iraqis and the destruction of the entire country was criticised globally. Yet, there was hope that this was an exception and the result of a post 9/11 hysteria. Sadly, the world continues to be proven wrong as the US continues to engage in violations such as unlawful drone attacks and threatening to wage war against other countries. Two recent events have taken US defiance to unprecedented levels: the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA). The first represents a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which requires a country — US in this case — to locate its embassy on the territory of a host state, Jerusalem does not constitute “de jure” territory of Israel. This has caused irreparable damage to the US’s perception in the Muslim World. The US decision has been challenged by Palestine at the International Court of Justice. This could be strategically aimed at generating broader international condemnation of the US, and at least pocketing some sort of a moral victory.
Second, US withdrawal from the JCOPA has had an immense strategic and economic fall-out for the world at large. However, on the same day of Trump’s address, the remaining signatories to the JCOPA announced that they would set up a payment method, to allow businesses to continue trading with Iran as US sanctions loom on the horizon. While the EU’s resolve to set up a functioning bilateral framework, to somehow save the JCPOA has so far been unsuccessful, the mere fact the EU and Iran wish to keep JCOPA alive indicates that major powers plus Iran will not succumb easily to US unilateralism.
While the US is indeed centrally positioned in the global world order, the tectonic plates are already shifting underneath, and new paradigms of power can be seen emerging on the horizon. As multilateralism gives way to an aggressive US unilateralism, the world is witnessing the emergence of a bipolar international world order led by China. The new bipolar world order being carved by China is an intelligent ‘reform from within’, as the international rule of law, is reimagined by China through the imprint of its One Belt One Road Initiative. New strategic alliances will likely emerge in the near future as China provides counterweight to US clout. It has been argued that China sees international law as an important instrument, in the toolbox of international diplomacy, and that it will leverage international law, to strengthen its soft power and influence. This approach may sell better in a world tired of seeing an aggressor calling the shots.
The current US attitude towards globalism could be the ‘new normal’ that leads to a further reordering of the multilateral paradigm, or emergence of a new global world order. International law may not have been Trumped as yet. We will need to wait and watch.