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Trump got it wrong at the U.N. America can’t counteract China without global institutions.

Future international orders may look quite different.

- September 25, 2020

This week’s U.N. General Assembly was to be a celebration of the 75th birthday of the United Nations. Instead, with the world crippled by covid-19, the virtual summit represents the challenges before the U.N. system and the international order it represents.

As Mira Rapp-Hooper and I argue in our new book, “An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order,” those who want to advance international order in a post-pandemic world will need to realistically assess its successes and shortcomings. While President Trump’s U.N. speech this week called upon the institution to “focus on the real problems of the world,” he elided both the achievements of the post-World War II order the U.N. exemplifies and downplayed the future hurdles.

The United Nations has delivered greater stability, prosperity and freedom for many global citizens — even as it has fallen short of its founding ambitions

A central principle of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is skepticism of multilateral cooperation. Over the course of Trump’s term, the United States has withdrawn from U.N.-affiliated institutions including the World Health Organization, Human Rights Council and UNESCO, as well as international agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and Iran nuclear deal.

In his U.N. General Assembly remarks, Trump took up this theme, boasting of U.S.-brokered diplomatic achievements attained outside the U.N.’s auspices, accusing U.N. institutions of failing to stop the pandemic or address key human rights issues.

Many analysts would agree the United Nations has fallen short of its ambitions. At the founding of the United Nations, its charter pledged to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” Over time, the U.N. system expanded, establishing specialized agencies like the WHO and related organizations like the World Trade Organization.

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Seven decades later, the evidence suggests that the United Nations is part of a liberal international order that has delivered greater stability, prosperity and freedom for many global citizens. In 1945, for instance, fewer than 30 percent of the world’s nations were democratic — that number nearly doubled by 2020, with more than half of the world’s population now living in democratic countries.

Over a similar period, average global gross domestic product per capita skyrocketed from around $3,300 to more than $14,500, and global poverty saw a sharp decline. Security improvements have abetted these humanitarian gains: Studies show that democracies are less likely to go to war with one another, and dense economic ties between states have increased the costs of violent conflict while reducing its benefits.

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While the U.N. system is not solely responsible for these successes, U.N. peacekeeping operations have helped limit the violence and destruction wrought by civil wars, and the institution has mobilized collective action to uphold its foundational norm proscribing inter-state aggression. And the United Nations provides the basis for international human rights treaties and a global forum for publicizing violations.

The U.N.’s problems predate covid-19 and will outlast this pandemic

This week, Trump criticized the United Nations, saying it was focusing on the wrong problems, arguing that its inattention to human rights has made it less effective. To be sure, as veto-wielding Security Council members, China and Russia have stymied U.N. action, whether in condemning China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang or the Bashar al-Assad regime’s abuses in Syria.

In focusing on human rights, Trump’s speech bypassed broader challenges, like the U.N. system’s failure to keep pace with geopolitical change. The permanent membership of the Security Council no longer represents geopolitical realities — it includes the United Kingdom but excludes India. The novel coronavirus crisis, meanwhile, has revealed the WHO’s inability to compel countries to cooperate.

And the multilateral arena lags behind the pace of technological change. Despite the growth of cross-border data flows and digital services like Zoom or telemedicine, the WTO lacks a framework for digital trade. The commercial, political and military dimensions of cyberspace remain largely ungoverned, along with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Despite the proliferation of national and commercial space programs — exemplified by the United Arab Emirates’ mission to Mars and SpaceX’s successful launch of NASA astronauts — the international Outer Space Treaty is more than 50 years old.

The United Nations has always been a venue for great power competition

Trump described the WHO as “virtually controlled by” Beijing, calling on the United Nations to “hold China accountable for their actions” on covid-19. On issues ranging from global trade to public health, the Trump administration has proved willing to withdraw from institutions it sees as favoring other countries.

Withdrawing from the WHO would hurt global security — and global respect for the U.S.

Many analysts would agree that China seeks to expand its influence in the U.N. system. But the United Nations has always been a site of great power competition. Where U.S. and Chinese interests clash, participation in the United Nations can provide Washington with opportunities to lead like-minded global coalitions to oppose Chinese efforts to remake international norms, laws and regimes in Beijing’s favor.

At the same time, participation in the United Nations can help mitigate the costs of great power competition. Where Washington and Beijing can find common ground on issues such as global health, climate change and nonproliferation, the United Nations will remain a critical venue for cooperation.

The future of international order will not resemble the past

For much of the post-Cold War period, the United States stood alone as the world’s uncontested superpower and enjoyed considerable latitude for unilateralism. While the United States retains the world’s mightiest military, as Trump argued in his speech, China’s rise means that America no longer enjoys unrivaled military and economic primacy.

International relations scholarship suggests that international orders — which are often forged in the wake of warfare — generally reflect the underlying distributions of power and priorities of leading nations. A decline in American power may also mark the end of the U.S. ability to craft order unilaterally and universally according to its liberal preferences.

Multilateral institutions will probably remain essential, however. As the United States and China engage in competitive order-building, they will probably construct regional, global and functional organizations that reflect issue-specific convergences of power and interests. Although a legacy institution like the United Nations will endure, its relevance probably will diminish as great powers turn to narrower multilateral arrangements among like-minded partners.

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Rebecca Lissner is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of “An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order” (Yale University Press, 2020). The views expressed here are her own.