Let's start where the stakes are highest: climate change. During the Bush years, European politicians distinguished themselves from the United States by expressing their unshakable commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. Not stellar, but clearly a case where the EU's breakup with the United States carried tangible benefits for the planet.
Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced. Where Kyoto set clear and binding targets for emission reductions, the US plan would have each country decide how much to cut, then submit its plans to international monitoring (with nothing but wishful thinking to ensure that this all keeps the planet's temperature below catastrophic levels). And where Kyoto put the burden of responsibility squarely on the rich countries that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same.
These kinds of weak proposals were not altogether surprising coming from the United States. What was shocking was the sudden unity of the rich world around this plan--including many countries that had previously sung the praises of Kyoto. And there were more betrayals: the EU, which had indicated it would spend $19 billion to $35 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, came to Bangkok with a much lower offer, one more in line with the US pledge of... nothing. Oxfam's Antonio Hill summed up the negotiations like this: "When the starting gun fired, it became a race to the bottom, with rich countries weakening existing commitments under the international framework."
This isn't the first time a much-celebrated return to the negotiating table has resulted in overturned tables, with hard-won international laws and conventions scattered on the floor. The United States played a similar role at the UN conference on racism in Geneva in April. After extracting all sorts of deletions from the negotiating text--no references to Israel or the Palestinians, nothing on slavery reparations, etc.--the Obama administration decided to boycott anyway, pointing to the fact that the new text "re- affirms" the document adopted in 2001 in Durban, South Africa.
It was a flimsy excuse, but there was some kind of logic to it, since the United States had never signed the original 2001 document. What made no sense was the wave of copycat withdrawals from around the rich world. Within forty-eight hours of the US announcement Italy, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland had pulled out. Unlike the United States, these governments had all signed the 2001 declaration, so they had no reason to object to a document that reaffirmed it. It didn't matter. As with the climate change negotiations, lining up behind Obama, with his impeccable reputation, was an easy way to avoid burdensome international obligations and look progressive at the same time--a service the United States was never able to provide during the Bush years.
The United States has had a similarly corrupting influence as a new member of the UN Human Rights Council. Its first big test was Judge Richard Goldstone's courageous report on Israel's Gaza onslaught, which found that war crimes had been committed by both the Israeli army and Hamas. Rather than prove its commitment to international law, the United States used its clout to smear the report as "deeply flawed" and to strong-arm the Palestinian Authority into withdrawing a supportive resolution. (The PA, which faced a furious backlash at home for caving in to US pressure, may introduce a new version.)
And then there are the G-20 summits, Obama's highest-profile multilateral engagements. When one was held in London in April, it seemed for a moment that there might be some kind of coordinated attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers. Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments. But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead for countries to come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best--much like its reckless climate-change plan. Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session to have his picture taken with Obama.
Of course, Obama has made some good moves on the world stage--not siding with the coup government in Honduras, supporting a UN Women's Agency... But a clear pattern has emerged: in areas where other wealthy nations were teetering between principled action and negligence, US interventions have tilted them toward negligence. If this is the new era of multilateralism, it is no prize.