Coauthored with Anne Shannon, former intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
After President Donald J. Trump’s election last fall, many experts predicted that 2017 would be a tumultuous year for international cooperation. During his campaign, Trump promised to “make America great again” by renegotiating or renouncing “bad” and “unfair” international agreements, and questioned the value of international institutions. Since January, Trump’s “America First” policies have seen the United States abdicate its global leadership role. Yet contrary to expectations, multilateral cooperation on pressing issues like climate change and migration has continued, as other states have stepped up to lead. Despite all the tumult, the world has recorded several important achievements for multilateralism alongside the setbacks.
Trump’s largest blow to international cooperation came in June when he announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Early reactions suggested that other countries might respond in kind, reneging on their commitments and stalling overall progress on environmental governance. Nevertheless, this November’s climate conference in Bonn, aimed at finalizing aspects of the Paris Agreement, was a success. Participating states secured additional funding for climate initiatives and agreed to several objectives in the fields of agriculture, indigenous rights, and gender equality in climate governance.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made combatting climate change a signature policy, hosted a separate global climate conference this December, raising additional funds to meet Paris commitments. And while the Trump administration signaled its intent to abandon the agreement, many U.S. states, cities, and companies have stepped into the void, pledging commitments of their own. The successes in Bonn and Paris, combined with near-unanimous international support for the Paris Accords, indicate that multilateral cooperation on climate change will continue without U.S. leadership, even if the politics look challenging.
Trump’s protectionist campaign positions suggested that global trade would take a beating in 2017. Experts warned of trade wars, predicting that a downward spiral of tit-for-tat measures could strangle economic growth. In fact, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), global trade in goods and services increased, growing 4.2 percent in 2017, almost twice the growth registered in 2016. Despite Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), neither deal is dead yet. The remaining TPP members revived the idea of trans-pacific trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership (APEC) summit in November, making significant progress without the United States toward what is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Even as extreme U.S. demands stall NAFTA renegotiations, U.S. public support for NAFTA increased in 2017, pressuring the Trump administration not to withdraw from the agreement. While the United States has abdicated global trade leadership, the European Union (EU) has made progress on several important agreements of its own, notably one with Japan, encompassing countries that account for over 30 percent of the world’s GDP. The EU-Japan agreement will reduce the ability of the United States to set world product standards and other regulations—disadvantaging U.S. exports in the process. In exercising his America First strategy, President Trump could actually hurt U.S. businesses. Reinforcing this possibility was the disappointing December WTO ministerial meeting in Argentina, in which parties failed to reach any significant multilateral deals.
Trump has continually and publicly expressed negative opinions about immigrants, particularly (although not exclusively) illegal ones. He demands a wall between the United States and Mexico and has signed several executive orders attempting to halt refugee admissions, as well as ban immigrants from various Muslim-majority countries. Nevertheless, international efforts to cooperate on migration issues have continued, notwithstanding certain setbacks.
In December, Mexico held multilateral negotiations toward a Global Compact on Migration, despite the United States withdrawal from the negotiating process. In November, the African Union-European Union summit saw both blocs condemn the situation of migrants in Libya and pledge to work toward a joint migration task force. All is not rosy, of course. According to Amnesty International and other groups, EU governments remain complicit in the Libyan migrant crisis. Elsewhere, Australia closed a refugee camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, while Bangladesh and Brazil struggled to accommodate influxes of refugees across their borders.
Despite Trump’s decision not to recertify the “terrible” Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains alive. Europe strongly condemned Trump’s decision, and along with China and Russia, pledged to remain committed to the JCPOA as long as Iran complies, even if the United States backs out. Were such a breakdown between the United States and other permanent UN Security Council members (as well as Germany) to occur, the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran could well disappear as European, Chinese, and Russian firms deepen business ties with Iran. The continued success of the JCPOA is also vital for the prospects of a peaceful resolution of tensions with North Korea. Indeed, some argue that the JCPOA could be a blueprint for a similar agreement with North Korea. By contrast, the United States would lose any negotiating credibility with North Korea if the Trump administration pulls out of the Iran agreement.
Global governance has held ground in 2017 in other, less publicized, ways. The IMF and the World Bank, unlike other multilateral institutions, have largely escaped Trump’s criticism. Although several senior administration officials have long histories of disliking the IMF and World Bank, savvy diplomacy by Jim Yong Kim and Christine Lagarde seems to have placated the Trump administration so far.
President Trump has also backpedaled on some of his criticisms of international alliances and organizations. After repeatedly calling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obsolete on the campaign trail, Trump deemed NATO “no longer obsolete” in April after meeting Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Trump also toned down his rhetoric on the United Nations. In April he called the organization “unfair” and an “underperformer;” in September the president tweeted that the “United Nations has tremendous potential.” (Whether this rapprochement will withstand the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the unilateral U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital remains to be seen.)
America First’s Future
Looking forward to 2018, it is difficult to predict how Trump’s America First agenda will affect global governance, particularly with a notoriously unpredictable president. It is possible that Trump will continue to renege on some campaign promises. Moreover, midterm elections in November could severely cripple his ability to pass nationalist-minded legislation. Still, he retains significant leeway, should he choose to use it, to undermine NAFTA, the JCPOA, and other international agreements through executive action.
Regardless of the president’s choices, his actions cannot overturn a fundamental contemporary reality—namely, that transnational challenges require global solutions. The lesson of 2017 is that other states are willing to step forward to fill some of the leadership roles vacated by the United States. In pulling back from international cooperation, Trump is forfeiting the United States’ historically important role in shaping international norms and multilateral policies. Nations that are willing to pick up the slack, whether under authoritarian regimes (like China) or democratic leadership (like France), will shape international rules and institutions to conform to their own priorities, not necessarily American ones. And they will not be eager to give up their new-found influence if and when the United States decides it wants the reins of global influence back.