Unilateralism is a Knife to the Throat of Global Order

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By Moshi Israel

The international system, best represented by the body of the United Nations and enforced by its Charter is testament to how unity builds strong relationships. The international community runs on relationships among states and a relationship is by default based on mutual respect and cooperation. Therefore, any overtly individualistic and unilateral decisions by one partner only serve to antagonize the relationship because such random actions betray trust. It is obvious that not all countries are economically or socially on the same footing, but the UN charter emphasizes the equality of all sovereign states under international law.

The United States being the sole hegemon after the collapse of the Soviet Union has become the very embodiment of unilateralism in a world best served by a multipolar order. Most of the US’ unilateral actions stem from a short-term strategic desire for self-preservation as the only hegemon on the global stage, a status increasingly being challenged by countries like China. Unfortunately, the relentless desire by the US to be ‘the man’ has placed the entire global system in a choke hold with the United States holding a knife to its throat. The international system is trapped under a hostage situation and the US is not willing to relinquish her grip because that would result in surrendering a huge amount of leverage that leaves her weak and exposed. In other words, the US is also held hostage by its own ambitions which threatens global security and international law.

Realistically, every superpower has had the tendency to act unilaterally to achieve its own interests. From the Roman empire up to the British empire and now the United States. What is unique about the US is the fact that there is an international system in place that is a direct consequence of countries going rogue and acting solely on their interests regardless of how the pursuit thereof affects all others who must share the world with them. The current international system based on the equality and sovereignty of states exists as a lesson learned about the past and as an attempt to never again repeat the evils of the two World Wars. The United States has used its economic and military might to pursue its interests and punish perceived enemies. From the unilateral intervention in Iraq, against protests from the UN to Unilateral sanctions on Iran, Libya, Syria and unsanctioned regime changes in Africa and Latin America. There seems to be no end to the pursuit of American interests.

Charles W. Maynes, a lifelong American Diplomat identified four major reasons why there is concern towards American Unilateralism. First is its lack of restraint. This is mainly because of the military and economic reach of the United States. The US rarely consults its allies or takes into account their interests when going on a unilateral rampage. A good example is the recent position Europe was placed in due to the US’ grudge with Russia in Ukraine. Nothing that is happening in Ukraine benefits any European nation, but the US has gone all in, making sure Russia is defeated in Ukraine no matter the cost to the continent.

Second reason Maynes identifies as a source of concern for US unilateralism is its growing sweep. When the US acts against a country, everyone else is expected to fall in line. And the number of countries targeted have been increasing over the years. The sweeping sanctions over Iran, Cuba, Syria don’t end with them but also punish those that would collaborate with sanctioned regimes. Today the US and allies have placed sanctions on Russia that have thrown global markets in turmoil. Additionally, Donald Trump’s personal trade war with China left collateral damage around the globe.

Another source of concern for US unilateralism is its intrusive character. Maynes employs the example of Jimmy Carter, who after being elected president set a doctrine that no states should consider their human rights record an internal matter. This would be fine if it did not have the potential of being used as pretext to start meddling in other state’s internal affairs. Case in point is Libya, where on pretext of the Responsibility to Protect norm, the United States and NATO overthrew the Ghaddafi Regime. The consequences of this intervention are still being felt across Libya.

The final cause of concern regarding US unilateralism is it’s a historical thrust. This has to do with the US’ indifference to history or historical context. As the US aims to achieve its interests no matter the cost, it spits on history in the long run. The US forgets or does not care that the current multipolar world exists as evidence that Unilateralism does not work. Eventually, someone will stand up. Germany and Japan as allies of the US should serve as examples of the consequences of pursuing one’s interests at the expense of everyone else’s.

It is not a coincidence that China, Russia, Iran are only getting closer because they see the United States as a common threat. Slowly, African nations are looking to the east and away from the west because they are tired of being bullied. How long before the allies in Europe decide that the US has gone too far?  Will the United States keep listening to its most extreme policy pundits and bureaucrats such as former National Security Advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Zbigniew Brzezinski? who in his book on geostrategy encouraged an imperialistic geostrategy whose purpose is “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.” Or will the US change course and adapt a more cooperative foreign policy based on mutual respect and win-win partnership?  As things stand, Washington is dancing to Brzezinski’s tune and the world wants to change the music.

The Writer is a Research Fellow at DWC



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