Opinion & Review: Why Multilateralism Isn’t the Solution in the New Cold War
By Kavya Nivarthy
In a recent extended research paper, I argued that the global community is presently seeing a shift away from the post-World War II globalist world order – one backed by free trade agreements, which opened the economies of small, emerging nations, and multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and of course United Nations, which allowed diplomacy among world powers.
The focus of my paper was Singapore: the small and trade-reliant city-state, which presently ranks among the highest globally in GDP per capita, is undoubtedly threatened by growing trade protectionism and nations like the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, India, and China straying away from the globalist tide of the past.
A factor in Singapore’s recent struggle has been the “New Cold War” environment between the United States and China, a phenomenon fueled by both trade protectionism and the present issues with multilateralism. The modern threat posed by China is economic and tech-based at its core, and a focused American response must steer clear of the growing corruption in multilateral organizations.
China’s recent exponential economic growth is paramount to assessing its power. Like Lenin, who introduced market forces via the 1921 New Economic Policy when engineering Russian communism, Xi Jinping’s initial free market reforms along with state control and ownership have given rise to modern, “neocommunist” China.
Crucially, what makes China neocommunist is the duality of its Marxist-Leninist state control with China’s surveillance state and grasp of technology. Domestically, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) utilizes over 200 million facial-recognition cameras to surveil and enforce pro-government behavior, as well as policing platforms that streamline citizen location, facial, social media, health, and mobile phone information. China’s modern surveillance state has enabled the CCP to inhibit opposition, namely that from online dissenters and Hong Kong protestors, and Xi to enforce a level of state conformity that Mao and his communist predecessors couldn’t.
Image source: Business Insider
More threatening to the global community, though, are the gross human rights abuses that have been supported by China’s authoritarianism and surveillance. Most notably, the CCP has subjected more than 1 million ethnic minority Muslim Uighurs to “re-education camps,” where reports indicate that Uighurs are subject to ideological indoctrination and intense surveillance, organ harvesting, forced labor in factories of globally notable brands like Nike, Apple, and Samsung, and women to sexual abuse and forced sterilization in an attempt to slash the Uighur population.
Tied to the Uighur internment is China’s crusade for economic supremacy – the Xinjiang region in which Uighurs are detained is the largest home to a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: coal and natural gas reserves, where Uighurs are forced to work.
Despite growing pressure from the West, China has repeatedly denied and defended their actions on this matter. In a recent interview with the BBC, Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaming rejected the existence of Uighur camps when shown drone footage of blindfolded and shaven-headed Uighurs being forcibly lined up and led into trains.
American leadership on this front is crucial. Unfortunately, the multilateral bureaucracies built for this purpose – of fighting human rights abuses, unfair economic practices, and global affronts to freedom, peace, and democracy – have failed their causes and, in fact, have only enabled China’s offenses to continue.
Perhaps most indicative of hypocrisy is the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States withdrew from in 2018. Aside from the fact that the nations sitting on the Human Rights Council) are some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Cuba, and of course, China, their interests are in fact protected by their status on the Council. The UNHRC has failed to pass any resolution condemning horrific records on religious persecution, suppression of democracy, and crushing political dissent.
Despite this, the United States continues to be the leader in both UN and UN Peacekeeping funding.
Image source: HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website. <iframe width="800" height="600" src="https://cdn.howmuch.net/articles/UN-Budget-RGB-7-0b55.png"></iframe>
Many argue that this corruption does not warrant an American rejection of multilateralism as a solution. Shouldn’t the US stay around to reform multilateral organizations rather than stray away? The answer is of course, but this has been tried, and the unfortunate truth is that less powerful UN states, economically and geopolitically bound to China, are afraid to publicly denounce China’s violations. Take, for example, the 37 countries whose UN Ambassadors last year signed a letter praising China’s human rights record, citing “happiness” and “security” in the Xinjiang region. Among the signatories were other human rights abusers, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar, Syria, and North Korea.
Furthermore, I would accept the multilateral solution if it were the only solution. On the contrary, the inherently economic and tech-based nature of the new conflict only make a “unilateral” response (or at least a response independent from multilateral bureaucracy) more reasonable. As former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley notes in her recent book, With All Due Respect, multilateralism alone is neither good nor bad; it is simply a means to an end. As it stands now, multilateralism does not meet that “end.”
This is not a call for the US to leave the United Nations entirely – a platform for nations to convene and cooperate is still necessary – but rather to suggest that multilateralism is not the avenue for the US to address the present conflict.
So what does an American response look like?
Internationally, the United States can enact sanctions as an economic tool, as well as support states like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Already, bipartisan legislation has called for an end to American imports of Uighur slave-labor produced goods, and on the Hong Kong front, has sanctioned trade and visa issuances should Hong Kong’s autonomy and its protestors’ freedom be threatened. The United States has already engaged in arms sales to Taiwan, assisting the state where it is unequipped, and growing talks of a bilateral US-Taiwan free trade agreement should be seriously considered. Recent talks between Singapore and the US on maintaining stability and sovereignty of Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea are also reassuring. Such bilateral alliances will bolster the American response while avoiding corrupt multilateralism.
Domestically, national security threats like TikTok can be addressed just that way – domestically. The recent talks regarding Microsoft’s acquisition of the app would be a win for both TikTok-obsessed teens (and the rapidly growing platform) and the security of the American people, whose private data would be permanently transferred to the United States.
I must add that a “unilateral” approach need not imply a more aggressive approach. While the US might defensively counter China’s regional military buildup, any type of armed conflict with China is incredibly undesirable. Aside from the argument that the past war-hawkish consensus of America’s political establishment has largely failed, the US should recognize that an armed conflict will result in inevitable American losses (given China’s growing regional dominance) and is unsuited for the economic nature of the conflict.
Also, some foreign policy hawks espouse the belief that the United States should actively spread “democracy” and “American ideals” abroad. But as former Singapore MP and foreign policy expert George Yeo shared with me, China does not seek to spread their culture across the world – what he called the “insular” nature of Chinese culture. Whether Americans ever fully accept this or not, the American approach should be targeted, avoiding excessive interventionism. In terms of spreading American ideals, American actions should speak for themselves – if the United States stands up to gross human rights abuses, violation of international law, and the suppression of democracy and freedom, its values should be evident.