The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded this year’s peace prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) for its "efforts to combat hunger" and its "contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas." The Committee described WFP as "a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict." WFP, a United Nations agency, represents the best of the international community and its collective action to create a more hopeful world. For generations, the United States was WFP’s largest donor, providing funding and food from the heartland. This Nobel Prize is a distinct nod to America as well.
In contrast, President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE remains isolated at the White House with COVID-19. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, 213,000 Americans have died of the virus; the economy has collapsed; and the nation is now besieged by militias, protests, riots, and a rising murder rate.
In the disastrous first presidential debate, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE summed it up best: “under this president, we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent.”
A quarantined, isolated, and angry president is emblematic of America’s place in the world today. We are not America first, we are America alone.
And the situation can worsen.
America faces real cyber threats and military competition from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The coronavirus pandemic has shaken our nation. Yet, there will be more public health crises. Climate change is a real and growing threat to the homeland — fires in the West, hurricanes in the South, and floods in the Midwest. The range of threats facing America are complex, multifaceted, and indefinite. This is not the time for our country to stand alone, isolated from our neighbors, friends, and allies.
Simply stated, President Trump’s go-it-alone strategy makes us less safe.
Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a United Nations committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. For generations, the United States was the first among nations at the United Nations. Decades after its founding, the United Nations is in need of serious reform. The Security Council is broken, and the General Assembly irrelevant.
Despite WFP’s Nobel Prize for peace, many of the United Nations’ specialized agencies are political, bloated, bureaucratic, and unable to innovate. President Trump is correct that the United Nations needs change, but he is wrong to walk away from the institution, its founding principles, and its ongoing relevance to global challenges.
Why is President Trump’s vision for America wrong?
Just watch China. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that as the Trump administration stepped back from many parts of the multilateral order established after World War II, China has emerged a chief beneficiary, intensifying a methodical, decades-long campaign. At the United Nations, China is actively elevating its civil servants to the helm of various UN agencies. Beijing sees the United Nations as a platform to advance its national interests and shape policies that will govern global trade, commerce, and transport in the decades ahead.
The United States has walked away from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, giving China a free pass to shield itself from international scrutiny after imprisoning Uyghur citizens in concentration camps.
The Trump Administration also quit the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic. The ensuing vacuum will benefit our competitors, as the United States will no longer have influence to shape the priorities and budget of the world’s only global public health agency.
The same is true for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, an obsolete behemoth of an agency that nevertheless provides life-saving assistance and a moderating influence to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. When America left UNRWA, it lost its historic right to nominate the agency’s leadership and to drive needed reforms.
Roosevelt established the United Nations under U.S. leadership because he understood that American values, leadership and influence was good for the world and for our country.
The free world also faces rising Russian authoritarianism and Chinese military expansionism.
Despite these threats, President Trump has actively undermined our European allies, calling into question the very value and purpose of the transatlantic alliance. It is, obviously, legitimate that Donald Trump, like Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCutting through the noise of COVID risk: Real-life consequences of oversimplification Russia-Ukraine conflict threatens U.S. prestige Appeasement doesn't work as American foreign policy MORE before him, demands that our European allies meet the 2 percent GDP defense spending threshold for appropriate burden sharing. But it is also important to acknowledge that NATO only ever invoked Article 5, the mutual defense provision, to aid the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. NATO has kept the peace in Europe since 1949, through the challenges of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union. With an adversarial Russia today, NATO is an unparalleled force multiplier of American power that aligns the United States with Europe.
America not only needs a strong NATO, it also must invigorate its Indo-Pacific alliances to confront a rising China. The Xi Jinping government continues to provoke skirmishes with the Indian military along a land border high in the Himalayas. The Beijing government has suppressed freedoms in Hong Kong in an unrelenting crackdown against pro-democracy activists. An unfettered China will likely make a play for Taiwan.
In addition to our European allies, the United States shares democratic values with India, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. A substantial deepening of alliances in Asia would strengthen America and highlight the weakness of the Chinese authoritarian state. American partners — democratic, free, technologically advanced, and increasingly strong — provide a necessary check against China’s expansionist ambitions.
Finally, the world faces the known, predictable, and massive threat of climate change, which will catalyze adversaries, re-organize global power structures, and propel a new set of economic winners and losers. In the homeland, the economic cost and human toll of more frequent and catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires, floods and drought is immense and will only increase.
Climate change by definition requires collective action. Barack Obama built a global consensus to keep the rise of global temperature below the 2 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels through the Paris Climate Agreement. The Paris Accord was not the answer to climate change, but it was a platform to assert American leadership, technology, and influence in the development of a more robust pathway to mitigate climate effects. In pulling back American global leadership, Trump has ceded market and scientific opportunity to China while the world seeks to solve an existential threat.
The risks ahead, from great power competition to pandemics and climate change, have deeply stressed the international order. Our competitors, Russia and China, do not have alliances, instead they have transactional, short-term, and valueless national relationships.
But America is historically unique.
For decades, the United States has built values-based global alliances precisely because we championed democracy, freedom, liberty, human rights, and open markets.
WFP was founded and championed by the United States for nearly six decades and reflects the values of a pre-Trump America. Today’s Nobel Prize reflects generations of American leadership.
American multilateralism cemented military and diplomatic power, benefited our nation, and drove sustained peace and prosperity across the world. This international order is structurally distinct from the pre-World War II era which was marked by adversarial state competition, vast inequality, slow economic growth, and uncontrolled wars. If the United States breaks its multilateral alliances in a second Trump administration, our country will irreparably lose its unique competitive advantages, risk our security and prosperity, and harm our next generation.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.