A world without US leadership is an uncertain prospect

Sunday, October 15, 2017

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When a country is a single superpower it can impose its will in all situations and in all international organisations, as the United States of America has done since the end of World War II in 1945.

In the last decade there has been a relative decline in American dominance as the world moves to a diffusion of power as a bi-polar world or a polycentric world. In this context, the once-dominant power has to try harder while avoiding imperial overstretch.

The US is passing through a period of isolationism under the moniker of “America First”. It has withdrawn from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and other bilateral arrangements, all of which have alienated its key allies.

We are particularly sad to see the withdrawal from UNESCO which was founded in November 1947 with 37 members, and now has 195 members and 10 associates operating from headquarters in Paris. It has offices in several countries, including Jamaica.

UNESCO is a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), whose objective is to build peace and development by promoting international cooperation in education, science, and culture. UNESCO has become famous for preserving heritage sites and historic monuments.

The US withdrawal will become effective at the end of December 2018, and until then it will remain a full member. The US will then establish an observer mission. The reasons for withdrawal as stated by the US, are “…mounting arrears, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO”.

While the latest US withdrawal is a manifestation of President Donald Trump's “America First” policy, it is not the whole story. The US has had reservations about the agency from 1974 when Congress suspended its contribution after the membership decided to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The US rejoined but withdrew again in 1984 during the presidency of George W Bush. It withdrew funding in 2011 to protest against Palestinian membership of the UN under the Barack Obama Administration. Thereafter, arrears began to accumulate, which now amount to US$500 million.

US withdrawal raises many questions. First, UNESCO will continue without the US and Israel, so what did the US achieve except diminishing its influence? Second, if the US rejoins UNESCO, will it regain the kind of influence it had previously? Third, should the world learn to get along without the US, which has been the dominant country and the largest financial contributor? Fourth, will China fill the vacuum and, if so, what does that portend for the future?

The Trump Administration's strong preference for bilateral rather than multilateral diplomacy means that global governance in the immediate future will be without US leadership which, at best, is an uncertain proposition.




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