2021 International Affairs Essay Competition winners

2021 International Affairs Essay Competition winners

Read the entries from four UVA undergraduates

The Virginia Journal of International Affairs, the University of Virginia’s only undergraduate foreign affairs research journal, partnered with the Miller Center and the International Relations Organization to sponsor an undergraduate essay competition examining lessons from past presidencies and history in general to inform the debate on contemporary policy challenges in international relations. All UVA undergraduates were invited to participate and responded to the following prompt:

In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden stated that “America is back.” Should the future ofAmerica’s foreign policy be one that embraces multilateralism or should it take a more unilateral approach? Use historical examples or case studies from prior presidential administrations to make your argument about the present. 

Winner: Caitlin Tierney

American exceptionalism as asymmetric multilateralism

For four years, Trump’s unilateralist, protectionist, populist and “America First” policies shocked citizens of the United States and the world. After seeing the damage unilateralist foreign policy (especially when in the wrong hands) can cause, U.S. democrats long to return to the generally multilateral foreign policy approach that presidents have adhered to since WWII. Although a leader of many major international organizations, America’s unique position of arranging the post-WWII world order has created an asymmetric form of multilateralism that nominally is fully participatory and equal, but in fact gives favor to its founder. President Biden believes that “America is back” as the leader in the international field, but America cannot so easily return to this seat of preference and should assess that previous “American multilateralism” may verge closer to asymmetry or even partial unilateralism than the U.S. may be willing to admit.

President Biden simply claiming that “America is back” as a world leader is a hollow cry until actions follow. Fortunately, on day one of his term, Biden reentered key agreements such as the WHO, UNHRC, New START and Paris Agreement with more to follow. This gesture is important to signify an ideological change from the previous administration and agreement to multinational cooperation. The foundation of trust in the U.S., however, cracked with the election and actions of President Donald Trump, and, although Biden may be able to repair the rift, there will always be a weak spot of mistrust and uncertainty.


First runner-up: Robert McCoy

“America is back” isn’t enough: Keeping unilateralism from droning on

So far, President Biden’s assertions that “America is back” are proving honest. Undoing some of Trump’s unilateralist decisions, Biden has rejoined the Paris Climate agreement and United Nations Human Rights Council and halted the U.S.’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The Associated Press reported that Biden filling “his State Department with . . . veterans of the Obama administration” indicates a “desire to return to a more traditional foreign policy.” Many are relieved by this return to normalcy; Dr. Sana Vakil of Chatham House has said, “I’m quite optimistic about the gang getting back together again.”

But even the pre-Trump era of foreign policy Biden seems to be reviving was far from a halcyon period of multilateralism and adulation from the international community. In fact, a 2013 WIN/Gallup International poll conducted in 65 countries revealed the U.S. to be the international community’s “overwhelming choice…for the country that represents the greatest threat to peace in the world today.” A 2012 Pew Research Center poll of 20 countries found that, “[a]cross much of the globe, people continue to believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in world affairs.”


Second runner-up: Mithra Dhinakaran

“America is Back” as it should be

American multilateralism has swung on a pendulum since the birth of our nation. The question of whether to put America “first” or cooperate with other countries has always racked our foreign policy. From our involvement in foreign wars to our adoption of protectionist laws, the United States’ patterns of cooperation with global partners have had extraordinary ramifications on the whole world. While unilateralism has helped secure U.S. interests in some respects, multilateralism is the only way the current administration can effectively implement foreign policy in the modern globalized world. The future of America’s foreign policy should embrace multilateralism for several reasons. First, the U.S. is surrendering its share of global power and requires allies to support its policies. Second, the globalized economy compels political cooperation to reflect economic partnerships. Third, the U.S. must act in conjunction with other countries to tackle global issues.

First, while the U.S. may have been able to strongman other nations into acquiescence in the past, the U.S. no longer has the same political and economic capital. Similar to our experience with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, we face a rising superpower that seeks to assert its influence where the U.S. has fallen behind. If China succeeds in winning allies in the Global South, the U.S. will not be able to unilaterally challenge and overcome that influence. The U.S. should focus on strengthening ties with countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to build a stronger front. An example of the success of this strategy in the past is the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Honorable mention: Kirstin O'Donoghue

Recreating American foreign policy: Replacing unilateralist nationalism with inclusive multilateralism

President Biden assumed the presidency amidst several crises — the devastating COVID 19 pandemic, increasingly tense relations with China, and a persistent climate crisis. Each administration has confronted its own seemingly insurmountable challenges, and Biden’s predecessors have all left in their wakes mistakes and successes which defined the tenability of their approaches. Trump’s nationalism and America First doctrine wreaked havoc upon American foreign policy and have left foreign policy experts advocating for a return to American diplomacy and a restoration of our foreign policy. Though Biden’s election was a pivotal first step toward revitalizing American foreign policy and reforming our reputation on the global stage, Trump’s isolationist scars have not healed. Rather than a restoration, America is in desperate need of a newly constructed inclusive multilateral approach that involves historically suppressed actors from a variety of regions, civilian populations, and non-governmental organizations.

In making suggestions for Biden’s foreign policy approach, one must not fall prey to the myth that the United States before Trump was consistently a gregarious multilateral actor, sacrificing its domestic interests for the global good. Wilsonian multilateralism stood in stark contrast against Nixon’s unilateral retreat from Bretton Woods and Reagan’s termination of UNESCO. Obama’s retrenchment approach to foreign policy mirrored most closely those of Eisenhower and Nixon, which advocated a reduced commitment of U.S. resources and a greater share of the burden placed on allies. Any moral high ground that we possessed before Trump’s nationalist approach, even if this perception was founded upon shaky ground, we have lost.