Skip to main content

by Mikael Barfod

President Donald Trump is systematically pulling the United States out of its multilateral commitments in the UN and elsewhere. His nomination to head the World Bank further demonstrates his opposition to multilateralism. Other countries are worried about the future of the rules-based international order. Could the European Union play a role in filling the multilateral vacuum left by the United States?

 The League of Nations was based on democratic values. It was the first US attempt to set up a peace-preserving world order after World War I. The League failed in the 1930s, when it was unable to defend its founding principles against the Realpolitik of the Axis powers.

The United Nations charter, like the League of Nations, was heavily influenced by a US sense of international order and democracy and committed to multilateralism. By giving the major powers a permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council, with less powerful countries elected on a rotational basis, the UN was built with checks and balances meant to ensure that multilateralism would survive. When Realpolitik returned during the Cold War, multilateralism was weakened substantially. After the Cold War, multilateralism again suffered attacks from countries jittery about the universality of human rights, fearing international interference in domestic matters.

Yet even as the concept of globalization has been challenged, most countries have been happy to participate in the work of UN internal bodies and contribute to the progress made within their respective mandates. Controversies have abounded, including Palestine and Israel within the UN’s Human Rights Council, lack of US support for the International Law of the Sea (since 1994), and the International Criminal Court (since 2002).

Science increasingly claims that that we will hardly survive on this planet unless we can agree on a set of common solutions to its main problems. Mankind has basically got its back against the wall when it comes to climate, energy, water and other resources, pandemics, pollution, regulation of technology, numerous socio-economic challenges such as growing inequality and migration. Without multilateral organizations seeking global solutions, it will be almost impossible for the countries of the world to find common solutions to international or planet-wide problems, which no country can handle on its own.

Donald Trump entered the international scene in 2017. His electoral promise of “America First” is now supported by a philosophy that “national sovereignty rules”. He sees international relations not as sustained international cooperation for mutual benefit but rather as a zero-sum game.

Mr Trump has threatened Europe, China, and other countries with trade wars and has shown little concern for human right abuses by authoritarian regimes around the world. He has also shown contempt and disregard for the institutions and principles of both NATO and the EU. He has directed US withdrawal from a host of multilateral institutions and programmes, including:

  • The Paris climate deal
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • UN female reproduction programmes
  • The Iran nuclear deal
  • The UN Global Compact for Migration.
  • The Universal Postal Union (UPU) (dating from 1874)

Trump has also cut back US aid to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and support to the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. There will probably be more to come.

The UN founding fathers started during the chaos of World War II to rebuild multilateralism into the shape of the UN. But today, who can effectively replace a USA withdrawing from its multilateral commitments? There is in my opinion only one actor that can aspire to fill the vacuum currently left by the US, the European Union. There are several reasons why:

  1. The EU is committed to effective multilateralism. Support for the UN remains a cornerstone of European Union policy. The Union’s unwavering political support of the UN is an expression of its commitment to effective multilateralism.
  2. The EU is the only fully participant non-state actor in the UN.
  3. The EU is the largest financial contributor to the UN. Collectively, the European Union and its Member States remain by far the largest financial contributor to the UN, providing 30% of all contributions to the budget and 31% of peace-keeping activities in addition to substantial contributions towards voluntary funding.
  4. The EU supports the UN reform agenda. The European Union has actively supported UN reform with the idea that the UN should be better equipped to face such modern threats as irregular conflicts, global pandemics, climate etc. The reform debate, which is still ongoing, shows a clear tendency towards regional/sub-regional representation to boost the legitimacy of the UN and provide broader input to the organization. Some may object that the European Union has been hampered by the lack of a common position among EU Member States on the future of the UN Security Council (UNSC), where two member-states, UK and France, currently have permanent seats and one, Germany, is desperate to get one. There is an obvious solution: the European Union is the best choice for representing its member states on the UNSC and the European region in accordance with well-defined coordination procedures.

For all its flaws, the UN remains a representative, legitimate, and global structure, uniquely suited to serve as a forum for mitigating the world’s problems. The European Union understands this and, due to its self-interest, is likely to continue exerting significant pressure on the UN to reform. The European Union could in turn be trusted to encourage the US to return to its traditional international role in the future. The EU might have its own internal squabbles at times. But which other international actor could aspire to keep multilateralism on track when we need it the most?End.


Mikael Barfod is Danish and lives in Copenhagen. He is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Huddersfield (UK). He worked for the UN for five years and the EU External services for 30 years, most recently as EU Ambassador. He has served in Africa, Asia, Caribbean and Europe.


Comments are closed.