United States and Multilateralism: A brief Summary on David P. Forsythe’s Distinguished Conference[2]

What is the future of multilateral organizations? On the 75th anniversary of the United Nations (UN), Professor Forsythe addressed this query by outlining the importance of the United States’ role on multilateral organizations. During the conference, he identified the emergence of narrow nationalism or populism as the existential threat to international organizations and multilateralism. However, for Prof. Forsythe there is still hope for a very much needed salvation of international organizations because nations understand the importance of multilateral cooperation. He builds up this argument, firstly, by explaining the US multilateral relations through history. Secondly, he presents the modification of US Foreign Policy since 2016 and, lastly, he narrows the risk of future multilateralism in three examples. Through his argument, he keeps optimism and affirms that “the game is not over” for international cooperation yet.

Since its formation, the UN was greatly supported by the US and the Truman’s administration. Multilateral cooperation was not seen as a bipartisan issue, the creation of the UN and the Brenton Woods Institutions was supported by Democrats and Republicans equally. However, multilateralism became partisan later. Under Ronald Regan’s administration, Republicans pushed back on international norms, cooperation, and human rights. For this reason, it is not a surprise that since 2016 the US has pursued an impulsive and unsystematic unilateralism, like Regan and Bush did in the past. Prof. Forsythe recognizes another issue; Donald Jr. Trump’s administration is an example of narrow nationalism that continuously presses the US to seek for a short-term advantage for itself in the sake of international cooperation. As he later argues, “the US today is not about multilateralism anymore is about unilateral advantage”.

The US is the most important member state on the UN; therefore, Prof. Forsythe argues that modifications in US Foreign Policy imply changes in multilateralist organizations as a whole. For this reason, he exemplifies three scenarios where actions taken by the current US administration have damaged multilateralism in first order issues. In this analysis, the US contested Chinese influence in Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). However, the current administration made the decision of walking away from the TPP, which Prof. Forsythe argues, is a colossal strategic mistake.

Second, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) allowed an intrusive inspection into Iran to ensure that it was not developing nuclear weapons. Even though many agencies confirmed Iran was complying to the deal, the US pulled out, allowing Iran to pursue nuclear arsenal and start an escalating conflict that threatens international security. Third, the US walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement. Through this decision, it stopped seeking a multilateral effort to acknowledge and deal with climate change and global warming.

What does this leave us with? In these scenarios the unilateral agenda followed by the US administration is visible. Nonetheless, unilateralism is not the only unwise decision made, while walking away from the agreements, the US was not putting up anything in place. These decisions were not strategic and have left escalating conflicts in place rather than solutions. A possible conflict with Iran and the impeachment trials and feeble foreign policy are the aftereffect of narrow nationalist policies.

Despite the menacing panorama, Prof. Forsythe considers that being optimistic is still in order. US-Saudi Arabia relations after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Yemen conflict and the recent threats to target Iran’s cultural sites, received backlash from Republicans as well as from other Trump supporters who pushed back against the administration decision. Prof. Forsythe explains that negative learning led to cooperation in the past, International Organizations flourished after World War I and II, and hopefully it will happen again. Nations understand the need of multilateral cooperation which will bring narrow nationalism to an end.

David P. Forsythe

Texto en inglés, María Fe Vallejo


[2] David P. Forsythe’s conference took place on, The 75th Anniversary of the United Nations- UN-. Distinguished Conference. Asociación del Ecuador para las Naciones Unidas- AENU-/ United Nations Association of Ecuador, member of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. Universidad San Francisco de Quito, January 20, 2020.