U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo questioned whether many pillars of international trade and diplomacy are still relevant as he singled out China, Iran and Russia on Tuesday for violating treaties and multistate agreements.
Pompeo told an audience of diplomats and foreign military officials that the Trump administration will not accept such transgressions and is acting to reform institutions that have formed the basis of the post-World War II global order. He said a lack of American and European leadership over the last 30 years had contributed to the malaise.
"After the Cold War ended, we allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode: It failed us, and it failed you," he said in a speech to the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
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The speech drew polite applause from the audience in Brussels but also sharp criticism from some quarters. It showed a "a stunning disregard for the lessons of history" said Daniel Baer, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
"Secretary Pompeo seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of international politics," he said. "The United States has effectively used multilateralism to build a freer, fairer, more stable world order."
Pompeo lamented that conventional wisdom had concluded that "the more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are" and "the more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done."
He said organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are no longer doing the jobs they were created to do and are in dire need of change.
He also challenged the validity of the International Criminal Court and suggested the World Trade Organization is not upholding its own rules as they relate to China. Russia, he said, is violating key arms control treaties and undermining the sovereignty of its neighbors, while Iran is flouting U.N. Security Council resolutions. China, Iran and Russia all deny the charges, which the U.S. makes frequently.
"International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated," Pompeo said. "When treaties are broken, the violators must be confronted, and the treaties must be fixed or discarded. Words should mean something."
The secretary spoke before formally warning Russia it has 60 days to start complying with a landmark nuclear missile treaty or the U.S. will abandon the pact, raising concern about Europe's future security.
The Trump administration has been accused by friends and foes alike of attacking the international order with its unilateral approach to many issues. It has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the U.N.'s top human rights and educational agencies and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Pacific Rim nations.
But Pompeo rejected that criticism and said the U.S. under President Donald Trump would restore its leadership by calling out countries that have exploited loopholes and weaknesses in these institutions as well as the unwillingness of the West to take action for their own gain. And, he argued that Trump is forging change necessary to preserve the liberal order.
"Under President Trump, we are not abandoning international leadership or our friends in the international system," he said. "We are acting to preserve, protect and advance an open, just, transparent and free world of sovereign states. This project will require actual, not pretend, restoration of the liberal order among nations."
Pompeo was in Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. He called on the allies to work together "to strengthen what is already the greatest military alliance in history."
NATO will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year, and Pompeo announced that he would host an event to commemorate that in Washington in April.
Pompeo's remarks were delivered to an organization named for one of his predecessors, George Marshall, the secretary of state who championed the reconstruction of post-war Europe and the creation of the rules-based system that Trump is now questioning.