THE PLANETʼS DENSEST EMBODIMENT of international cooperation lies in the heart of Geneva, in the few square miles around the lake. From the lakeshore, a brief walk through a park will bring a visitor to the Palace of Nations, built in the 1930s as the seat of the League of Nations, and now the United Nations’ office in the city. To the east, the World Trade Organization; to the north-west, the World Health Organization; an amble away, the headquarters of the Red Cross, the International Labour Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, among dozens of others. Also nearby is the InterContinental Hotel, where in November 2013, Iran agreed to dilute its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief—the first edition of the pact that President Donald Trump abandoned last year.
It’s entirely fitting that just down the road from the InterContinental is the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, which occupies a complex named Maison de la Paix, its six buildings arranged like strewn flower petals. The InterContinental is of particular interest to Thomas Biersteker, a political scientist at the Institute, who has made a career studying sanctions. Biersteker, an American who taught at Brown University until 2007, is prone to discussing the antics of nation-states in a tone of wry curiosity, as if relaying the activities of ant colonies in his backyard. He lives for part of the year in a house in the Swiss Alps, where he hosts so many discussions on his preferred topic that his colleagues call it the “Sanctions Chalet.” Typically, Biersteker’s case studies deal with bad actors: states gone rogue, dangerous leaders thumbing their noses at the world. Increasingly, though, these descriptions seem to fit not just autocracies flush with oil or tinpot dictatorships but also the United States of America.
Under Trump, America is in the business of actively creating or deepening threats to the world: capsizing the climate; pardoning U.S. soldiers and military contractors convicted of war crimes; supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, so that the kingdom can bombard Yemen. For a while, it looked as if Trump might attack North Korea; it’s still possible that he will start a war with Iran. In recently leaked memos, Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to the U.S., worried that Trump would wreck world trade. Along the way, his administration has trashed so many diplomatic rules and norms that the entire edifice of postwar multilateralism is at risk.
A low point was Mike Pompeo’s speech last December in Brussels, when he attacked the European Union, the UN, and every other kind of multilateralism that the U.S. once championed. “There was a stunned silence after the speech,” said Anthony Gardner, a former American ambassador to the EU, “and then he left right away without taking questions.”
Two years ago, Mary Robinson, a former UN special envoy on climate change, called the U.S. “a rogue state” for quitting the Paris accord. It’s common now for foreign policy professionals from America’s traditional allies to murmur brokenly about the “rules-based order,” as if they were standing at the bedside of a dear, dying friend.
Everyone on the front lines of foreign policy has stories to tell of chaos and breakdown. In one minor but telling exemplar of the genre, UN officials were shocked last summer when the U.S. abruptly decided to stop contributing $300 million—less than 0.6 percent of its foreign aid spend—to the Relief and Works Agency’s budget for Palestinian refugees. The agency began its work in 1949, to assist Palestinians who’d newly been rendered homeless; with successive generations, its beneficiaries have swelled to around 5.4 million, many of whom still live in or near refugee camps. “The U.S never had a problem with that number, until last year,” one UN official told me. “Then they made the argument that the funding should be pegged to the original number of some 800,000 refugees.” The U.S. refused to budge, despite multiple meetings, including one in mid-August that lasted 15 hours—so long that, after the building’s cafes shut at 5:30 p.m., delegates had to leave the premises altogether to find food. These gatherings rarely conclude without some sort of consensus, or at least some ambiguous language to project unanimity, the official said. But in this case, even that wasn’t an option; America’s dissent had to be recorded in a footnote before the meeting could move on.
A political scientist compared the present incarnation of the U.S. to “a large, powerful, overgrown child with a handgun. How do you deal with that?”
There are so many “egregious examples” of this kind, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Obama administration, told me. “To the point that our allies, European leaders, are looking elsewhere for solidarity.” A Canadian political scientist who advised her country during last year’s NAFTA renegotiations was sickened when Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum using a provision for national security considerations. “What that meant to Canadians was: We are a threat to the national security of the U.S.” She described Trump’s actions as “brutal” and “an enormous betrayal” and added: “There was a growing sense that we were foolish to believe in the trust between the two countries.”
This is an unfamiliar situation for everyone. David Sylvan, a political scientist and one of Biersteker’s colleagues, compared the present incarnation of the U.S. to “a large, powerful, overgrown child with a handgun. How do you deal with that?” The U.S. has never hesitated to make up the rules for itself, but after the end of World War II, it was largely cast as a hegemon maintaining a global order. Now, it is a hegemon that scorns that order. More and more, the world fears that Trump is only a symptom of a much deeper problem, said James Davis, an American political scientist at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. European politicians in particular, he said, worry that deep social trends in America—towards chauvinism, insularity and coercion—will keep blooming even after Trump leaves the White House. Other governments “aren’t going to be willing to deal with you on the same terms again,” Davis added. “They won’t trust the system. They’ll worry that in a few years, there will be another explosion.”
So the question is worth asking: How much longer will it be before the rest of the world thinks about punishing the U.S. for its misdemeanors? And how would they even go about disciplining a country as mighty as the United States?
On a rainy April day, in a conference room in one of the petals of the Maison de la Paix, Biersteker convened for me a roundtable of a dozen or so sanctions scholars: practitioners, academics, researchers, economists. Few of them agreed to be quoted by name. Some worked with multilateral institutions and were attending in their personal capacities; a couple were Iranian, and unwilling to be linked to criticism of the U.S. Together, they proposed scenarios in which America’s misbehavior might pose genuine threats to the world, and speculated about how the international community could respond with sanctions, in the very widest sense of that word.
Through the spring, I spoke to other experts as well, in Geneva, London, Hamburg, New York and Washington D.C. The world is changing, they all said. The American unipolar moment is ending. The economies of China and India will soon outgrow America’s. New networks of power, trade and wealth are emerging. Countries are forming alternative arrangements of finance that fall outside American influence. These developments will eventually leave the U.S. vulnerable to levers of pressure in a way it hasn’t been in the past. In the corridors of power in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, the idea of pushing these levers is beginning to sound less and less outlandish by the day.