Somewhere in a safely guarded desk in the White House or locked in a vault in a conservative think tank in Washington there is a list. The list has two columns. Paris climate change agreement: Check. Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP): Check. Nuclear treaty with Iran: Check. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Check. North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): Check. United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC): Check. Breast-feeding World Health Organization (WHO): Check.
Breast feeding? In a continuation of its policy of “creative destruction” of multilateralism, the United States tried to torpedo a resolution to encourage breast-feeding at the recent World Health Organization Assembly. The resolution itself seemed non-controversial: Mother’s milk is healthier for children. Countries should try to minimize marketing of substitutes, a position backed by scientific research.
Similar to President Trump’s Monday’s tweet that women need access to formulas because of malnutrition, the United States sought to limit the wording of the resolution, an obvious move to favor multinational companies in the $70 billion baby formula business. Having failed to persuade by reasoning, the United States threatened Ecuador, who had initiated the resolution, with severe trade restrictions and withholding military aid. Ecuador gave in, but the resolution finally passed despite U.S. objections.
“We were shocked because we didn’t understand how such a small matter like breast-feeding could provoke such a dramatic response,” an Ecuadorian official was quoted as saying.
She shouldn’t have been shocked. She obviously hadn’t seen the list. As an article in The New York Times noted of the U.S. activities: “The delegations actions in Geneva are in keeping with the tactics of an administration that has been upending alliances and long-standing practices across a range of multilateral organizations…”
The leader of the Geneva’s Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre bemoaned; “…if you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?”
A very good question. How long is the list? How far will the Trump administration go in undercutting multilateralism and the United States leadership of the post-World War II international system?
Another answer to the question will be forthcoming with President Trump’s upcoming visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels. Is NATO also on the list? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the foundation of trans-Atlantic security since 1949. Originally designed to counter the Soviet Union, it remains the military backbone of cooperation between 29 North American and European countries.
The alliance’s system of collective defence is defined by Article 5 of its founding Washington Treaty. The Article says: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
President Trump has grumbled about the organization. He called it “obsolete,” during the 2016 campaign. Like a school mom, he recently wrote to several member countries reminding their leaders of their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence spending.
Trump’s visit to Brussels will be mostly a drop by, largely ceremonial with little substance expected. NATO leaders are obviously worried about negative surprises such as Trump’s post-Singapore announcement of the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea without previous consultation. The U.S. president will find it most difficult to assuage fears of continuing U.S. disengagement. The catastrophic G7 summit will be hovering over the NATO visit.
Most importantly, after Brussels Trump will be meeting President Putin in Helsinki. It is difficult to imagine that he will give a resounding encouragement to NATO before he meets with the Russian President. As with the Singapore summit and G7 meetings, it is most likely that President Trump will continue to downplay traditional multilateral alliances in favor of face-to-face negotiations with traditional opponents. His policy of “creative destruction” of multilateralism in favor of personal meetings has been consistent.
Does all of this sound discouraging for the future of multilateralism and international Geneva? The answer is obviously yes. How discouraging? If only we could see the entire list to anticipate how far he will go.