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U.S. Foreign Policy: Multilateralism or Unilateralism?

This pop-up case is part of the series: Election 2020


At the start of a new presidential term in 2021, the president must decide whether to prioritize a multilateral or unilateral approach to foreign policy over the next four years.

Students will understand the pros and cons of multilateral and unilateral approaches to foreign policy.

The Situation

Since the end of World War II, the United States has charted a course of increasing multilateralism, expanding its involvement and leadership in an array of international initiatives, such as the United Nations, designed to tackle global issues. The United States has also participated in specialized groups, including security organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), global health institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and climate treaties such as the Paris Agreement. During this period of increasing multilateralism, the United States has prospered, becoming the world’s largest economy and ultimately prevailing in the Cold War. In recent years, the United States has led cooperation on a growing number of borderless challenges, such as climate change. Yet the merits of multilateralism have come up for debate in recent years. Some policymakers have argued that the United States should pursue a path of unilateralism, prioritizing its own interests and withdrawing from international involvement. Prominently, the Donald J. Trump administration has embraced unilateralism, criticizing institutions such as NATO and announcing the United States’ withdrawal from others, such as the WHO and the Paris Agreement.

Many policymakers argue that multilateralism protects U.S. interests. Institutions such as the United Nations promote global stability as a forum in which countries can generate global standards of behavior and coordinate action. Moreover, these policymakers argue cooperation is essential to manage a growing number of global issues, such as infectious diseases or climate change, that cannot be confined within national borders. Multilateralism can also bolster U.S. and global security. Maintaining alliances guarantees the support of partners in a conflict, and the threat of U.S. involvement deters potential conflict. Multilateral involvement requires an investment of U.S. resources, but the costs constitute a small share of U.S. spending and can entail outsize benefits. U.S. multilateral leadership allows Washington to influence the issues on an organization’s agenda and how resources are used. Without U.S. multilateral leadership, some analysts predict that other countries, such as China, will take over the United States’ leading role and act against U.S. interests.

Critics counter that the United States should prioritize its own interests and focus its energy and resources on domestic challenges. Some policymakers argue that multilateralism has led the United States to act against its own interests, including by unnecessarily intervening in foreign conflicts or adopting economic policies that, although beneficial to global trade, harm U.S. workers. Global standards and requirements for collective action can also limit national sovereignty. Global carbon emissions standards, for instance, increase costs for U.S. industries. Moreover, as the world’s largest economy, the United States often bears the largest share of the cost of multilateral efforts, and some critics feel that the price is too high and other economies do not bear a fair share of the burden. In 2019, the United States provided nearly 15 percent of the WHO’s funding. China—the world’s second-largest economy—accounted for just over 1 percent. Others argue that since the compromises required to reach an international agreement can dilute the strength of multilateral action, the United States could achieve more robust results alone. Policymakers will need to carefully weigh these drawbacks against the benefits of multilateral action when considering the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Decision Point: Set in January 2021

The first State of the Union address of a new presidential term is approaching. The address, given at the beginning of each year, is a way to lay out an administration’s agenda to the American people and a chance to signal to U.S. allies what type of approach the administration will take to foreign policy. Accordingly, the president has called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to advise on this administration’s approach to foreign policy. Although each foreign policy challenge the administration will face will inevitably require a combination of unilateral and multilateral policy options, the president has asked NSC members to deliberate on whether U.S. foreign policy should largely embrace multilateralism or unilateralism.

NSC members should consider the following options:

  • Prioritize Multilateralism, embracing cooperation with other countries and international institutions in pursuit of common goals. This option carries the cost of continuing to commit U.S. resources to international efforts and potentially sacrificing a degree of national autonomy.

  • Prioritize Unilateralism, isolating from international institutions and agreements and prioritizing bilateral international cooperation when it serves U.S. interests. This option risks increasing instability in the world and weakening U.S. influence and ability to combat global challenges.

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