Multilateralism 101

Over the last two weeks at the United Nations, the Donald J. Trump Administration has once again succeeded in setting the public agenda, and in setting its own metric of success. True, there were gasps of horror at Pres. Trump’s threats against North Korea and of amusement at his invention of the country ‘Nambia’. But the bar of expectations was set so low that well-informed opinion columnists argued that the damage to multilateralism was not in fact as bad as might have been feared. Worse, they seemed to accept the Trump Administration’s definition of multilateralism, which amounts to no more than issue-by-issue cooperation among sovereign states in pursuit of their separate national interests.

For example, David Bosco in The Washington Post argued that the fact that Ambassador Nikki Haley was using the UN Security Council to secure resolutions against North Korea, and had re-authorized peacekeeping missions, showed that the Administration was modestly multilateralist.

This is wrong. The Trump Administration’s foreign policy does not even cross the threshold of collective security. It has is no conception of a rule-bound international order, no conception of cooperation in pursuit of global public goods.

In these circumstances, the burden of leadership of a multilateral world order falls upon the European Union and the global South, including Africa—the continent with a remarkable history of support for multilateralism, and much to gain from it. The starting point for this defense is recognizing what has been gained from the last seventy years of multilateralism, and how much will be recklessly cast aside if the UN goes the way of Trump’s ‘garrison America’, the U.K. government’s Brexidiocy or Putin’s cynical mischief-making.

In a month’s time, the African Union holds its annual mediators’ retreat to discuss multilateralism. I am hoping that it may give the kind of resounding affirmation of multilateralism that is so sorely needed.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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