Within a span of a quarter-century, ancient rivalries and simmering tensions propelled the major nations of Europe into two devastating wars that eventually embroiled so many states that they became known as the first “world wars.”
At the end of the first of those conflicts — 100 years ago last month — the United States and other nations sought to create an international body through which they could mediate disputes and avoid future wars. The League of Nations didn’t work out, as nationalism once again trumped internationalism and the globe descended into World War II. Out of those ashes in 1945, the nations of the world tried again to create a series of international mechanisms to increase cooperation, enhance dialogue, seek solutions to global problems and reduce the chances of yet another all-consuming war. That effort has been, in the main, successful.
Which is why it is so troubling that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech in Brussels on Tuesday, questioned the value of international institutions, singling out for criticism the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States and the African Union, among others.
Multilateralism is rooted in the belief that the more connected are the nations of the world, the less likely they’ll be to turn their weapons on each other.
“International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated,” Pompeo said.
Eliminated? Really? Of course there are flaws in these institutions — big ones that occasionally lead to devastating outcomes. But surely the goal should be to strengthen these organizations and fix their problems, rather than to weaken or abandon them in favor of some ill-defined, narrow and parochial modern-day nationalism. Peacekeeping missions do indeed last far too long, as Pompeo charged, but that doesn’t mean they have been inconsequential in mitigating violence. Pompeo spoke dismissively of the work done by “bureaucrats” in the EU, asserting that Brexit is a warning that multilateralism has failed the people of Britain and other member states. But no — Brexit arose as part of an ominous global move toward nationalism; it is likely to be as detrimental for the people of the United Kingdom as it is for others in the EU.
Pompeo said, somewhat paradoxically, that President Trump, who has also criticized global institutions and multilateralism, “is returning the United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the world” by embracing an America First brand of nationalism. “He knows that nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.”
Yet the nations of the world will not progress or develop or democratize or resolve their disputes by backing away from regional efforts to seek negotiated solutions to their problems. From human rights to climate change to economic development, internationalism is a better, though admittedly imperfect, solution. Yes, the General Assembly sometimes wastes time; the U.N. Security Council’s structure, in which any of the five permanent members can veto an action, often renders it incapable of dealing with thorny issues. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have made wrong decisions over the years.
Yet anyone who has spent time with the dedicated staff of the U.N.’s World Food Program during a Sudanese famine, or with the troops who for years kept the peace on the Israeli-Lebanese border or with UNICEF in countries such as Iraq where children have been at grave risk knows that the international institutions built after World War II can, at their best, be extraordinary protectors of peace and advocates of prosperity and democracy.
Nationalism and mistrust propelled Europe and the rest of the world into war twice in the last century, and war has persisted on smaller scales since, notably with the Balkan conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, and that only ended with international intervention. That’s a past we dare not repeat. Multilateralism is rooted in the belief that the more connected are the nations of the world, the less likely they’ll be to turn their weapons on each other. That makes as much sense today as it did 70 years ago, when much of Europe lay in ruins.