Op-Ed
Kiron Skinner 

Director of Policy Planning 
Wall Street Journal
December 11, 2018


Does the European Union place the interests of its people above those of its bureaucrats? One audience member reflexively shouted “Yes!” when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked the question during his speech to the German Marshall Fund in Brussels last week. That knee-jerk reaction to an honest question illustrates the uphill battle the Trump administration faces as it tries to restore a corroded international order. The administration’s efforts won’t be popular with defenders of the status quo, but systems don’t reform themselves.

Consistent with the postwar tradition of American global leadership, President Trump is now reasserting the role of the nation-state in a free and open order, with the goal of making institutions more effective and accountable. Mr. Pompeo’s remarks came on the sidelines of last week’s meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, one of the many international bodies the U.S. helped create after World War II to promote security, economic growth and cooperation among like-minded states. Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank are in the same category.

This web of institutions and agreements historically has served the U.S. and its allies well. It was a bulwark against communism and terrorism. It limited interstate conflict and decreased the likelihood of war between great powers. It also helped lift millions out of poverty while impeding the rise of totalitarianism and promoting democracy, prosperity, human rights and freedom.

But this free and open order has gradually begun to fail the world in several ways. Flawed doctrines have taken hold: Multilateralism is an end in itself; the more treaties we sign, the safer we are; the more bureaucracy we have, the better the job gets done. International institutions have steadily encroached on the rights of sovereign nations. Witness how the International Criminal Court is considering investigating American military personnel when the U.S. is not even subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

At the same time, authoritarian regimes have regularly exploited the order for their own ends. Some of the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers, such as Cuba and Venezuela, sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council. China enjoys the benefits of membership in the World Trade Organization while systematically deploying unfair trade practices to protect its domestic market. Iran has used its windfall from the 2015 nuclear deal to support terrorism and other malign activities. Russia has flagrantly violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing and deploying prohibited missiles that target Europe. Should responsible nations abide these abuses?

With the international order under siege from actors that would remake it in their own illiberal image, the Trump administration is acting to preserve a just, transparent and free world of sovereign states. This project will require the cooperation of democracies around the world.

President Trump knows nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests. When institutions fail to support the sovereign interests of their members, those members must reform them, lawfully cease to participate in them, or eliminate them entirely.

The North American Free Trade Agreement needed to be updated to better serve the American worker, so the U.S. negotiated a new deal. The Paris climate agreement would have enriched polluters while hurting American wages, so the U.S. is leaving it. Moscow has serially violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, so the U.S. declared Russia in material breach and gave notice that we will suspend our obligations in the agreement in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance. When it comes to treaties, words must mean something, and obligations must be implemented and enforced.

The Trump administration isn’t rejecting multilateralism outright. It is embracing multilateralism that works. Look at the historic success of the multinational pressure campaign against North Korea, which was spearheaded by a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Two weeks ago, the Group of 20 nations agreed that the WTO needs reform. And the U.S. is working to refocus the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on policies that promote economic prosperity. President Trump will never reject the idea of strength in numbers—provided that the goals serve America’s interests and reflect our values.

Reforming the international order takes courage, but we will press on in the same gutsy spirit of those who first set its foundations in 1945. A well-functioning free and open order is a return to common sense, and a renewed display of American leadership on a global scale.


This writing constitutes a “work of the United States Government” as that term is defined under Federal copyright law, and first appeared in published form as an op-ed in the December 11, 2018 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Department of State

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