Since the advent of the Trump administration, large numbers of Americans have been aghast at its narrow nationalist approach to world affairs. But many of them are also uneasy about the alternative championed by the foreign policy Establishment.
The Trump “America First” approach has largely dispensed with American-led alliances of the past and, instead, emphasized U.S. “deals” with powerful, often authoritarian regimes, threats of unleashing military power against smaller, weaker countries, and the abandonment of treaties and pretenses about defending human rights. To undergird this policy, Trump has secured major increases in U.S. military spending, scrapped the Obama administration’s efforts at nuclear arms control and disarmament, and blocked refugees from entering the United States.
Appalled, the U.S. foreign policy Establishment has fought back―lambasting Trump for eroding America’s alliances and undermining U.S. world “leadership.” But that Establishment’s own foreign policy, conducted over the previous decades, was characterized by U.S.-dominated military alliances, soaring Pentagon budgets, and numerous wars. Indeed, since World War II, the United States has been almost continuously at war. Moreover, its regime change operations have numbered in the dozens, with some of the most notorious occurring in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, Chile, and Iraq.
Trump’s nationalist approach has its roots in the original foreign policy of the United States. George Washington’s farewell address of 1796 warned of “entangling alliances,” and the new nation generally did avoid them right up until 1917.
This go-it-alone approach―facilitated by the two oceans separating the United States from wars in Europe, Africa, and Asia―was broken by America’s military alliance with other nations during World War I. Although a brief retreat into nationalism occurred in the aftermath of that bloody conflict, American entry into the Second World War cemented an alliance approach. Remaining more or less firm through wars and assorted global crises, it has characterized U.S. foreign policy right up to the arrival of the Trump administration.
However, at the same time that the nationalist and alliance approaches dominated U.S. foreign policy, there emerged a third alternative: global governance.
It started with 19th century peace organizations that championed the development of an international organization that could resolve conflicts among nations short of war. By the early twentieth century, even many government officials began to toy with the idea of creating a global authority, and Woodrow Wilson insisted on making a League of Nations a part of the World War I peace settlement at Versailles.
When the Second World War convinced statesmen and millions of people around the world that the League had been too weak to prevent fascist aggression and the murderous, worldwide conflict that ensued, the victorious Allies created a somewhat more powerful successor to foster international peace and security: the United Nations.
Even so, during the following years, the U.S. government―like the governments of the other great powers―while giving lip service to the United Nations, slipped back into a more traditional approach of ignoring the will of the world organization when its decisions ran contrary to what they considered “the national interest.”
And this remains the key factor undermining effective global governance. Despite Washington’s treaty commitment to have the United Nations handle issues of international peace and security, as well as vital humanitarian ones, the U.S. government has repeatedly chosen to fall back upon the nationalist and alliance approaches to world affairs. Or, to put it another way, the United States (like the other great powers) has been unwilling to let the United Nations do the job it is supposed to do, and which needs to be done.
Certainly, tackling that job is more imperative than ever before. We live in a far more dangerous world than in the late 19th century, when the first serious plans to create an effective world governance system were discussed. Today, conventional war has more potential for mass destruction than at any time in world history, while nuclear war is capable of annihilating virtually all life on earth.
Furthermore, we live in a far more interconnected world, which faces problems that can only be effectively addressed by international action. No single nation, or small group of nations, can solve problems like climate change, environmental destruction, refugee resettlement, exploitation by multinational corporations, terrorism, and world poverty. These are global problems that require global solutions.
Fortunately, global governance remains remarkably popular among Americans.
An October 2017 poll of U.S. voters found that 79 percent of respondents declared their support for continuing the existence of the United Nations. This represented an increase in support since 2009, when 69 percent said the world organization was necessary. In addition, 88 percent of U.S. respondents (including 80 percent of Republicans) affirmed that it was important for the United States to play an active role in the United Nations.
Furthermore, many Americans favor expanding the power of the United Nations. In a 2008 poll, 79 percent of U.S. respondents said that “strengthening the United Nations” should be an important U.S. foreign policy goal. Only 21 percent disagreed. In fact, American support for a stronger United Nations was very consistent over the preceding three decades, with roughly eight out of ten respondents favoring it.
Although polling on this issue has almost entirely disappeared since 2008, a November 2013 Pew survey continued to find that 79 percent of American respondents gave strengthening the United Nations either a top priority or some priority as a goal for U.S. foreign policy.
Consequently, people searching for an alternative to the nationalist and military alliance-driven approaches of the past would do well to consider strengthened global governance. It’s a foreign policy that has enormous potential for addressing current world problems, as well as substantial public support.
[This is an abbreviated version of an article published by Foreign Policy in Focus on July 31, 2018.]