Sep 26, 2020 - World

A hinge moment for America's role in the world

Photo illustration of President Donald Trump in front of a rearranged American flag showing disconnected stripes and random lone stars.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

The world may be living through the last gasps of America First — or just getting a taste of what's to come.

Why it matters: President Trump's message at this week's virtual UN General Assembly was short and relatively simple: global institutions like the World Health Organization are weak and beholden to China; international agreements like the Iran deal or Paris climate accord are "one-sided"; and the U.S. has accomplished more by going its own way.

  • "I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first," he declared.
  • Between the lines: The "U.S.-led" system that's governed international relations for 75 years has been shaken by four years of Trump, and many existing agreements and institutions would not survive a second Trump term. 

The other side: Joe Biden has vowed to put the global order back together again. His view, expressed this week by his top foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken, is that “the world just doesn’t organize itself" and America remains the country best positioned to do the organizing.

  • Speaking on the "Intelligence Matters" podcast, Blinken added, “If Joe Biden’s elected on Nov. 3, I think a lot of people will see the last four years as an aberration."

French President Emmanuel Macron sounded a different tone in his long and impassioned UN address.

  • The current period of uncertainty, he warned, "is not a parenthesis that is opening and will then close."
  • "There will be no miracle cure to the destructuring of the modern order," Macron lamented. Later he added: "The world as it is today cannot come down to simple rivalry between China and the United States."
Photo illustration of Emmanuel Macron putting his fist together in front of a deconstructed French flag
Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Getty Images photos: Thierry Monasse/Contributor

France and Germany convened a summit of 60 countries on Friday to debate the future of that global order, and Macron insisted in his speech that Europe's voice within it be forceful and independent from America's.

Yes, but: The world is in crisis now. The devastation wrought by the pandemic won't wait for an American election, let alone for a new global order to take shape. This year's General Assembly was another opportunity missed for any coherent global action on those fronts.

  • "I'm disappointed," Madeleine Albright, the former UN ambassador and secretary of state tells Axios. "Am I surprised? No."
  • "Given the kind of atmosphere that is out there by virtue of America's lack of interest — more than lack of interest, undermining — of an international system, it's hard."

"It felt like a 'sink or swim' UNGA where each powerful country was speaking for itself," David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and a former U.K. foreign secretary, tells Axios.

  • "This notion that countries that are struggling are on their own, I thought, came through quite strongly this week."

The big picture: With the virus raging and America declining to step forward, the vulnerabilities of the global system have become glaringly apparent.

  • "The middle-sized powers have been preoccupied with their domestic situations, and obviously the big superpowers are fencing with each other," Miliband says.
Illustration of podium with microphone in front of deconstructed Chinese flag
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Speaking shortly after Trump, China's Xi Jinping offered a stark contrast by claiming China would go carbon neutral by 2060, pledging additional funding for the WHO, and offering the chiding advice that "major countries should act like major countries."

  • Xi called for a "new type of international relations" that would ensure the "peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us."
  • Between the lines: That new system would presumably adapt itself to China's growing clout and define many of the values Xi lauded very differently.

What to watch: Albright contends that the U.S. can still project the kind of influence in global institutions that it did during her tenure in the 1990s, but "it requires a kind of diplomacy that is in many ways built on day-to-day relationships — putting ourselves in another country's shoes."

  • "Another four years of this, and it really is going to be increasingly difficult to persuade anybody that we are going to be dependable partners," she says.
  • "After a while, I think people will say, 'If you don't want to be a partner, then go do your thing and we'll do ours.'"

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