President Obama’s two terms of office were marked by the search for consensus in International Relations. This yielded major diplomatic advances, such as the signing of the Iran’s Nuclear Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement and the Paris agreement to limit human-caused global warming (December 2015).
After a year of a Trump administration, it is clear that American diplomacy has taken a totally different path. We have moved from a multilateral approach to major international issues to a unilateral approach. The diplomacy of consensus has been abandoned. The diplomacy of the ultimatum is now preferred.
The most recent salvo came on January 12, addressed to the three European signatory powers of JCPOA, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. They have 120 days to “remedy the terrible shortcomings” which, in the Trump’s view, this agreement suffers from. The President accuses the JCPOA of only providing for a ten-year (rather than indefinite) freeze on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities; and of putting forward an system of international control over Iran’s developing nuclear facilities that is undefined rather than clear and immediate.
The idea of demonstrating more power than the enemy has been embedded in the American psyche for 38 years. It will have no trouble getting the support of the Republican electorate, and even gaining support from those Democrats who favour systematic alignment with Israel’s Middle Eastern politics.
But Trump has so far failed to inform his fellow citizens of two unavoidable realities. First, the JCPOA establishes the most intrusive international verification system in history since the signing in 1968 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency of Vienna views the JCPOA is a model of its kind, an example for the future.
Secondly, the Europeans have already said that they would not change this complex and detailed agreement that took more than two years to negotiate. Even if they wished to change it, nothing would happen, because, in addition to Iran, China and Russia (also signatories of the JCPOA), do not want to hear about any renegotiation. It’s hard to imagine how America could do better than this if its intention were to weaken Iranian reformists and push the Pasdarans to demand the return of nuclear weapons.
Since the end of the Second World War, the US foreign policy has been marked by continuity: some presidents could innovate, but they never unravelled what had been drawn by their predecessors. After the setbacks of isolationism of the 1920s-1930s (which had completely destroyed the diplomatic work of President Wilson), America’s word had, after the war, painfully regained a certain amount of credibility. Trump has broken with this principle of continuity.
Does this mean he will be isolationist, like Republican presidents Coolidge (1920-1928) and Hoover (1929-1933)? No. The US has engaged deeply – sometimes successfully – on several major foreign affairs issues: in the war against the Islamic State (increase in the contingent of US special forces in Rojava, this territorial band of northern Syria controlled by the Kurds of the PKK), in the showdown with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, in the Ukrainian crisis (delivery of “defensive” weapons to the Kiev government), in the strategic partnership with the Saudi Arabia of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in support of the Israeli right.
It is Trump’s unilateralism that wreaks havoc. He claims all rights for America, but accepts no duties. He has not integrated the concept of “sovereign obligation”. In Europe, he has generated mistrust by his rejection of the Treaty of Paris, and by the sustained vagueness on the defence obligations laid out in Article 5 of the NATO Charter. In Latin America, he has created mistrust by refusing a multilateral approach to migration issues. In the Arab-Muslim world and in Africa, he has generated hatred by stigmatising certain peoples and renouncing America’s traditional neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In Asia, he unintentionally strengthened China’s hegemonic position by withdrawing from the Transpacific Partnership Agreement signed in Auckland in February 2016.
Since Roosevelt, we have been used to seeing America steer International Relations for the better much more often than for the worse. This is no longer the case today.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.
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