from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Tilting at Straw Men: Secretary Pompeo’s Ridiculous Brussels Speech

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a conference of the German Marshall Fund of the United States on "Reforming the Rules-Based International Order" in Brussels, Belgium, December 4, 2018. Yves Herman/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took aim at the European Union and United Nations during a speech in Brussels, offering a disjointed rejoinder to straw man internationalism. 

December 4, 2018

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a conference of the German Marshall Fund of the United States on "Reforming the Rules-Based International Order" in Brussels, Belgium, December 4, 2018. Yves Herman/REUTERS
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Speaking in Brussels today, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unwittingly underscored why nobody takes the United States seriously on the international stage. In a disingenuous speech at the German Marshall Fund, Pompeo depicted the transactional and hypernationalist Trump administration as “rallying the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order.” He did so while launching gratuitous attacks on the European Union, United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—pillars of the existing postwar order the United States did so much to create. He remained silent, naturally, on the body blows that the current administration has delivered to its erstwhile allies and partners, and to the institutions that once upon a time permitted the United States to legitimate rather than squander its international leadership. 

In Pompeo’s telling, Donald J. Trump is simply seeking a return to the world that former Secretary of State George Marshall helped to create. In the decades after 1945, the United States “underwrote new institutions” and “entered into treaties to codify Western values of freedom and human rights.” So doing, the United States “won the Cold War” and—thanks to the late President George H. W. Bush, “we won the peace” that followed. “This is the type of leadership that President Trump is boldly reasserting.”

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That leadership is needed because the United States “allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode” once the bipolar conflict ended. “Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself,” Pompeo explained. “The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.” What is needed is a multilateralism that once again places the nation-state front and center.

Leave aside for the moment that nobody actually believes what Pompeo alleges: that multilateralism should be an end in itself; that paper commitments are credible absent implementation, verification, and enforcement; or that the yardstick of success is how many bureaucrats get hired. What sensible people do believe is that multilateral cooperation is often (though not always) the best way for nations to advance their interests in an interconnected world of complicated problems. Working with others is typically superior to unilateralism, since going it alone leaves the United States with the choice of trying to do everything itself (with uncertain results) or doing nothing. Multilateralism also provides far more bang for the buck than President Trump’s favored approach to diplomacy, bilateralism.

Much of Pompeo’s address was a selective and tendentious critique of international institutions that depicts them as invariably antithetical to national sovereignty. Sure, he conceded, the European Union has “delivered a great deal of prosperity to the continent.” But it has since gone badly off track, as the “political wake-up call” of Brexit showed. All this raised a question in his mind: “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats and Brussels?”

The answer, as one listener shouted out, is “Yes!” The secretary, like many U.S. conservative critics of European integration, is unaware that EU member states continue to hold the lion’s share of power in the bloc, which remains more intergovernmental than supranational. Pompeo seems equally unaware of how disastrously Brexit is playing out. With each passing day, the costs of this catastrophic, self-inflicted wound are clearer. In its quest for complete policy autonomy—on ostensible “sovereignty” grounds—the United Kingdom will likely have to accept, as the price for EU market access, an entire body of law and regulations that it will have no say in shaping. So much for advancing British sovereignty.

Pompeo similarly mischaracterizes the World Bank and IMF as having gone badly off track. “Today, these institutions often counsel countries who have mismanaged their economic affairs to impose austerity measures that inhibit growth and crowd out private sector actors.” This is an odd, hybrid critique. It combines a shopworn, leftist criticism from the 1990s—that the international financial institutions (IFIs) punish poor countries with structural adjustment programs—with the conservative accusation that the IFIs are socialist, big-government behemoths. Both are ridiculous caricatures. They ignore how much soul-searching the IFIs have done since the 1990s, as well as how focused they are on nurturing an enabling institutional environment for the private sector in partner countries.

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Pompeo also aims his blunderbuss at the United Nations. He complains that the United Nations' “peacekeeping missions drag on for decades, no closer to peace,” ignoring the indispensable role that blue helmets play in preventing atrocities, as well as a recent Government Accountability Office report documenting how cost-effective such operations are compared to U.S. troops. Similarly, Pompeo claims, “The UN’s climate-related treaties are viewed by some nations simply as a vehicle to redistribute wealth”—an accusation that is both unsubstantiated and ignores the urgent need to mobilize global climate financing to save the planet.

Bizarrely, Pompeo also turns his sights on the Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU), for alleged shortcomings. Has the OAS, he asks, done enough “to promote its four pillars of democracy, human rights, security, and economic development?” Um, no. Could that have something to do with the lack of U.S. leadership in the Americas on democracy and human rights? Yes. Might it have helped if the Trump administration had filled the position of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs before October 15 of this year? Probably.

Equally puzzling is Pompeo’s single line riff on the AU. “In Africa, does the African Union advance the mutual interest of its nation-state members?” Presumably the answer is yes, or its members would be headed for the door. The AU continues to struggle in financing its budget, but it has made great strides since its founding in 2002 to better advance security, stability, and good governance on the continent.

“International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated,” Pompeo declared. Sounds reasonable. But where is this “free world” of which the secretary speaks, and what standing does the United States today have to defend, much less reform it? In the two years since he took office, Donald Trump has never expressed any interest in defending the international order, much less “returning [the United States] to its traditional, central leadership role in the world,” as Pompeo claims. Indeed, the phrase “U.S. leadership” has rarely escaped Trump’s lips, and he has gone out of his way to alienate longstanding Western allies and partners in venues from NATO to the G7.

When he looks at the world, the president cares only about what’s in it for the United States (and, naturally, for him). That cynicism explains the president’s deafening silence on human rights violations and indeed his readiness to cozy up to strongmen and killers from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte to Mohammed bin Salman to too many more to list. Given Trump’s authoritarian sympathies and instincts, Pompeo’s warnings about “Orwellian human rights violations” in China and “suppressed opposition voices” in Russia ring hollow.

“The central question that we face,” Pompeo asked in Brussels, “is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today—does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?” The answer, of course, is not as well as it should, and not for nearly enough of them. But if the secretary is seeking to identify impediments to a better functioning multilateral system, he can look to his left in his next Cabinet meeting.

“Principled realism” is the label Pompeo has given Trump’s foreign policy. Alas, it betrays few principles and its connection to reality is tenuous. The president has abandoned any pursuit of universal values, and his single-minded obsession to “reassert our sovereignty” (as Pompeo characterizes it) is actually depriving the United States of joining with others to build the prosperous, secure, and sustainable world that Americans want.

“Bad actors have exploited our lack of leadership for their own gain,” the secretary of state declared in Belgium. “This is the poisoned fruit of American retreat.” How true. Pompeo’s next sentence—“President Trump is determined to reverse that”—was less persuasive.

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