The dilemma of the US foreign policy: multilateralism or unilateralism?

Georges Ugeux
10 min readJan 3, 2022

In a previous blog, Biden I is not Obama III I was cautioning the new Administration one year ago that it is a moment of opportunity where countries can believe that the United States can lead, but in a more collaborative manner — America needs to show it can be trusted. It is from that position that the U.S. will rebuild the alliances that are needed to deal with China: it is more a power-sharing that an exclusive right to take initiatives.

What strikes after one year, is the ambivalence of the Administration towards the rest of the world. Many observers are asking : the US talk the talk, but do they walk the walk? What are the principles that define the US diplomacy?

1. The return of multilateralism

While there have been clear signs of a return to multilateralism from the White House, it was generally confined to restoring commitments broken by Donald Trump and the nationalist drive of the Republican Party. The Paris Climate Alliance and the World Health Organization were accompanied by a normalization of the multilateral relationships of the United States with the United Nations.

There is no doubt that the Joe Biden has taken bold initiatives aiming tom restore multilateral cooperation in a number of fields. It is a refreshing and useful redirection of US diplomacy.

The World Trade Organization

The Biden Administration officially supports the WTO.

However, Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization and a former EU trade commissioner, expressed the general feeling : “I think what has happened since a year roughly — at least since [the U.S.] started talking a bit about trade — and what Katherine Tai , the US Trade Representative, has been doing, is all talk and no walk,” he told POLITICO. “If you look at where they have moved, so far, zero concrete moves.”

The W.T.O. Appellate body, the final stop in the organization’s system for settling trade disputes, has been defunct since 2019, when the Trump administration refused to appoint new judges. Katherine Tai said that the Appellate body had long ceased to function as its designers intended and the reality of the institution today does not match the ambition of its goals. It is however the cornerstone of multilateral trade negotiations.

The World Health Organization

The rupture of the relationship with the WHO was a desperate attempt of Donald Trump and his administration to hide their denial of the Coronavirus and the refusal to take preventive measures.

Someone had to be blamed : he announced that the U.S. would halt its funding of the World Health Organization and pull out of the agency, accusing it of protecting China as the coronavirus pandemic took off. The move has alarmed health experts, who say the decision will undermine efforts to improve the health of people around the world.

In one of his first acts as president, Biden signed letters retracting his predecessor’s decision to withdraw from WHO. He also appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, to represent the United States on the world body’s executive committee.

The Paris Agreement and climate change

On January 20, on his first day in office, President Biden signed the instrument to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement. Per the terms of the Agreement, the United States officially becomes a Party again immediately.

During the Glasgow United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or “COP26,” the United States’ approach to climate change was on full display, with the Biden-Harris administration formally announcing or launching numerous new commitments, partnerships and initiatives. This includes noteworthy public-private partnerships that offer opportunities for companies to build close relationships with the federal government, share innovative approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation, and unlock new business and/or investment ventures in emerging markets.

The commitment of the Biden administration cannot be doubted, and it applies both domestically and internationally.

The Minimum Corporate Tax Deal

The White House took the bold initiative to propose a global revision of the corporate income tax aiming, among others, to the largest companies who do not pay income tax of any significance. The biggest win in the global minimum tax deal is a return to multilateralism. It is a unique initiative to put an end to the suicidal competition policies of Nations that are responsible for the eruption of an obscene level of sovereign indebtedness due to the abysmal reduction of the contribution of corporate income tax in the OECD.

On the expense side, there is no sign of frugality in the US Defense budget that consumes the necessary resources for other policies and amounts to $ 760 billion.

For multilateralism to be credible, the Biden administration will need to reconsolidate a U.S. political consensus on global engagement and persuade foreign partners of America’s global staying power.

2. Unilateral initiatives are embarrassing America’s allies

Recent initiatives have put the allies of the United States in an embarrassing situation. They were certainly justified in their content, but the execution could have been better. Does the administration look for consensus or to impose its leadership? The debate is open and the message from the White House is, at best, confusing.

Iran as a failure of US diplomacy

Does the American public opinion know that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord reached between Iran and several world powers (US, EU, China and Russia) Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

Even the Democrats were not fully on Board. The JCPOA was never approved by Congress. Hillary Clinton, in a denial of her precious statements, promoted “American exceptionalism” and advocated for the U.S. to act as a leader in world affairs. She supported the Iran nuclear deal but took a “distrust and verify” approach to its enforcement.

This was a unique opportunity that Donald Trump sabotaged. In a unilateral move, the Biden Administration did not rejoin the multilateral agreement because Iran is at the table and developing its nuclear program. Yes, the US could be at the table and use other tools to make sure that they are advancing their own objectives. Is there going to be a dramatic exit from Vienna? It does not seem excluded.

Biden met with the leaders of Germany, France, and Britain in October “to touch base on where things stand right now with respect to trying to resume negotiations for a return to the JCPOA,”. It was too late not to throw Iran’s elections in the arms of the Revolutionary Guard.

However, the White House stated that consensus is back: we have a united front in Vienna, for the most part. And our partners around the world are also making clear to the Iranians that the only way for Iran to get out of the economic straitjacket that it’s in is through a return to commitments of the nuclear deal.

The Beijing Olympic Games

When Washington announced that they would not send officials to the Games. As the New York Times put it the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, a move that was quickly followed by Australia, Britain and Canada. Diplomacy is by its nature byzantine, and sometimes secretive as well. We’ll try to get to the bottom of what it all means. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, cited “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China.

There is absolutely no disagreement among US allies that the treatment of the Uighurs is reprehensible and most countries have expressed one way or another their profound disagreement to that inhumane situation. The EU will have a ban on import goods produced by prisoners and camp inmates — a step up from her trade commissioner’s preference for a less restrictive “due diligence” scheme. This is of major importance to China as it would be likely to target goods from the western region of Xinjiang, where there is a large-scale crackdown against the Muslim minorities.

Was it truly impossible for the White House to coordinate that initiative not to force its allies to take a position, not on the substance, but on the nature of the initiative? Now, every nation is facing a binary choice: follow the United States or no.

European countries are currently divided over whether to join US President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The episode underscores yet again that when it comes to dealing with China, Europe and the United States truly are an ocean apart, write Robert Williams and Moritz Rudolf in Syndicate.

Once again, consensus will be critical to curb China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Ukraine and NATO

It is not particularly surprising that countries that have a common border and/or proximity to Ukraine and Russia do have a direct stake in the outcome of the threat of an attack by Russia on Ukraine. “The European Council reiterates its full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” EU leaders stated, “Any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures coordinated with partners.”

As in the phase of the Crimea annexation, the United States reached out immediately by threatening Russia with economic reprisal. As the New York Times puts it :Mr. Biden hopes to have more influence over Mr. Putin through an explicit threat to take more punishing economic action than Mr. Obama did after the annexation of Crimea, and Mr. Putin’s subsequent instigation of a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has since left as many as 13,000 people dead

There was no divergence on the substance, but it might have been if the US and the EU had coordinated their actions and come with a common statement that would have carried more weight.

Is the Biden administration using the cold war playbook by handling bilateral negotiations with Russia, ignoring the fact that it is first and foremost threatening Europe and its NATO allies?

The departure from Afghanistan and the coalition

Being right is not always right.

There was no way the United States could stay and expect to win the Afghan occupation. Here again, the unilateral move was brutal and ignored that it is the United States that forced countries to become part of the coalition.

Putting an end to it and exposing the forces of the Allies is raising questions that require an answer if the United States want to ever embark allies or NATO again into one of its wars. Redefine the notion of consensus is critical and urgent.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged defeat after he and other Group of Seven leaders failed to persuade President Joe Biden to delay the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The G-7 leaders held a virtual meeting on Tuesday amid growing doubts that the U.S. and other Western allies will be able to safely evacuate all of their citizens and Afghan allies by month’s end.

Taiwan and Japan

The same applies to the threat by the Chinese leader Xi JinPing to annex Taiwan as part of One China. The West did not stop the annexation of Hong Kong. Letting China annex Taiwan would be the end of the influence of the Western World on Asia.

Japan and Korea have the most to lose. In this case, the Biden Administration was forthcoming and the two countries acted together. Japanese and US armed forces have drawn up a draft plan for a joint operation for a possible Taiwan emergency, Japan’s Kyodo news agency has reported, amid increased tensions between the island and China. Under the plan, the US marine corps would set up temporary bases on the Nansei island chain stretching from Kyushu — one of the four main islands of Japan — to Taiwan at the initial stage of a Taiwan emergency and would deploy troops.

Meanwhile, the newly established trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United States and the UK, on submarines has sparked fierce criticism and widespread concerns over the impact it will have on regional security in the Asia-Pacific and global non-proliferation. It also broke the status of Australia as a non-nuclear power.

Will the United States require South Korea to basically treat China as a common enemy, and to explicitly include things like the deployment of CFC bases and the destruction of strategic Chinese military targets in the operational plan and as a focus of exercises?

3. A new Modus Operandi

The multilateral initiatives of this first year of the Biden administration are a perfect demonstration how the United States gain in prestige, trust and leadership when it accepts to coordinate its actions with its allies.

There is no doubt that the United States are, in international relations , well-wishers. Words, however, are not sufficient as long as the Republican Party continues to act in a Trumpist way. As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “hell is paved with good intentions”: it is the actions that will solidify partnerships and alliances.

The unilateral moves inevitably raise the question of the US commitment to multilateralism.

Donald Trump demonstrated that the President of the United States can unilaterally renegade Treaties . It has shaken the confidence of its allies. It is not being weak than to lead sometimes from behind and support allies rather than putting them in front of the “fait accompli”.

Yes, the United States is back to lead, but the modus operandi needs to adjust. “This is our time. A moment for transformation. An era to re-ignite multilateralism. An age of possibilities,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his keynote address to the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

More can be done, in everybody’s interest, and definitely to consolidate the leadership of the United States of America. However, whatever those disagreements might be, the world welcomes back the United States to the table of multilateralism and negotiations.



Georges Ugeux

CEO at Galileo Global Advisors and Adjunct professor Columbia Law School.