What happened in the multilateral system in 2018? Looking back over the year, it is possible to identify three strategic trends and a last-minute political surprise that may resonate in the future.
The big trends in multilateralism included a hardening of the Trump administration’s opposition to international cooperation, a concomitant increase in China’s efforts to influence bodies like the United Nations, and worrying signs of European splits over the value of internationalism. The surprise was an unexpected, and arguably almost accidental, revitalization of humanitarian politics over Yemen.
Let’s start with the trends. By the end of 2017, it was clear that the U.S. had taken an anti-internationalist turn under President Donald Trump. Yet, while Trump had already renounced the Paris climate change deal, his administration’s attacks on globalism were curiously haphazard. Many leading members of his team, including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, seemed quietly determined to limit the harm to multilateral institutions.