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International Institutions Still Matter to the US

With less preponderance and facing a more complex world, the United States must exercise power with as well as over others, and use its soft power to attract their cooperation. To do that, the US will have to rediscover the importance of the institutions Donald Trump's administration abandoned.

CAMBRIDGE – Donald Trump may have despised international institutions, but his presidency has reminded the world of the importance of effective and resilient ones. In the 2016 election, Trump campaigned on the argument that the post-1945 multilateral institutions had let other countries benefit at American expense. His populist appeal rested on far more than foreign policy, of course, but Trump successfully linked domestic resentments to foreign policy by blaming economic problems on “bad” trade deals with countries like Mexico and China and on immigrants competing for jobs. The post-1945 liberal international order was cast as a villain.

As I show in my book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, American presidents were never perfect institutional liberals. Dwight Eisenhower’s support of covert action in Iran and Guatemala, and John F. Kennedy’s in Cuba, were inconsistent with a strict reading of the UN Charter. Richard Nixon broke the rules of the Bretton Woods economic institutions and levied tariffs against our allies in 1971. Ronald Reagan ignored an International Court of Justice ruling that found his administration’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors illegal. Bill Clinton bombed Serbia without a Security Council resolution.

Nonetheless, prior to 2016, American presidents in most instances supported international institutions and sought their extension, whether it was the Non-Proliferation Treaty under Lyndon Johnson; arms control agreements under Nixon; the Rio de Janeiro agreement on climate change under George H.W. Bush; the World Trade Organization and the Missile Technology Control Regime under Clinton; or the Paris climate agreement under Barack Obama.

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