On May 8, commonly known as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), the American President, Donald Trump announced his decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran deal. The US departure from the deal is a blow to the transatlantic community, multilateralism, and the non-nuclear proliferation regime. On V-E Day, the US president directly told his European counterparts that the word of the United States is unreliable, and that any commitment/deal made by the United States is effectively worthless. One caveat, in foreign policy, credibility is as important as interests.
Trump’s foreign policy has been in the making for now over a year. Early on, experts, including myself have framed Trump’s approach to world affairs as transactional. That was in the first 6-month of his presidency when he was still under tutelage of the traditional American foreign policy establishment. In year 2 of his mandate, Trump is now surrounded by his choosing, that includes John Bolton, as national security advisor, and Mike Pompeo, as US Secretary of State. Both opposed to the Iran deal. James Goldgeier is correct when emphasizing that “Bolton and Pompeo joining the team left [US Secretary of Defense] Mattis isolated in arguing the Iran deal was working.” Year 2 is about the implementation of the pledges made on the campaign trail. One major pledge and a driving force behind Trump’s foreign policy has been erasing Obama’s legacy.
President Obama understood that American foreign policy and interests can better be served via multilateralism and diplomacy. Obama had learnt the mistakes of foreign interventions made by his predecessor and favored in fact the used of targeted operations (for better or worst). Under his two mandates, President Obama managed to finalize the COP-21 agreement, the JCPOA, rebuild transatlantic relations (one attempt was the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and solidifying the US position in Asia with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). President Obama’s accomplishments had united the right and the Republican party and fuelled the message of candidate Trump on the campaign trail based on some sort of anti-globalist and anti-foreign policy elite defending the liberal order.
Once elected, President Trump did not wait too long before leaving the Paris climate deal, retrieving the US seat from the negotiation of the TPP, putting tariffs and quotas on aluminum and steel, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and finally leaving the Iran deal. On the climate deal, the international community responded by reaffirming its commitment to meeting the goals defined in Paris without the US, one of the largest polluters. It was a disappointment for European allies. But many were not surprised considering the perceptions and rhetoric on climate change in the American political debate. The US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal sent the initial signal to Europe and the world about US foreign policy under Trump. But the successions of policy rebuttals are now building up in increasing tensions and discomfort between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the Iran deal, both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been intensively lobbying the US president to reconsider its decision.
President Trump’s argument was that the Iran deal was one of the worst deals ever and that it did not do enough to address Iran’s ballistic program and curb Iranian foreign policy in the region. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial sums up very well the voice of the anti-Iran deal advocates. The Trump administration expects that by re-implementing the sanctions it would put so much pressure on the regime that it will ultimately bring it to collapse. President Trump and national security advisor Bolton are in fact hoping for regime change. When President Macron prepared his visit to the US a couple weeks ago, he talked on Fox News about not having a Plan B with regards to the Iran deal. The US neither has a Plan B today, nor one for tomorrow if the Iranian regime further radicalizes or even collapses.
From Europe’s point of view, the exit of the US from the Iran deal implies several dimensions: first, it undermines European commitment to multilateralism and more importantly the rules-based order, the centerpiece of European foreign policy. The Iranian nuclear deal is a “key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture.” It embodies a success for European diplomacy, which has been the main driver over 12 years of negotiations beginning with HR Javier Solana (E3+1). The Iran deal represents “the foremost proof of their [European] capacity to act coherently and effectively.”
Second, it creates a considerable financial and economic dilemma under the current circumstances. With the US departure and re-imposition of US sanctions, European companies could be in violation of such sanctions. It comes at the time when of the Trump administration unilaterally increased tariffs and quotas on aluminum and steel and the Europeans are currently receiving a temporary exemption. As mentioned by EU chief foreign policy Frederica Mogherini, “the European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and to protect its economic investments.” French, British and German officials must now navigate some tricky waters as EU companies, such as Airbus, Danone, Renault, Total and Sanofi, could be facing penalties under US sanctions. The US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, told “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operation immediately.” The lack of understanding of diplomatic protocol by the American diplomat is quite telling.
Third, there are considerable geopolitical ramifications in a highly volatile region. The nuclear deal has played a role in maintaining a certain level of stability (at least status-quo). The Europeans are seeking to maintain the deal and are committed to “work collectively on a broader framework” covering Iran’s nuclear activity, ballistic missile program and seeking for greater stability in the Middle East.
Fourth, it demonstrates one more time the lack of willingness by European powers to assume their European sovereignty in advancing and defending European interests. President Macron in his acceptance speech of the Prix Charlemagne, asked this critical question: “Are we accepting the rule of the other or the tyranny of the events or are we making a choice by ourselves of a deep autonomy and yes, of a European sovereignty?” The US-EU relations are deep and have evolved over time. Since the 1950s, Washington has called on Europeans to build up their power and influence, and Europe has struggled with such task. Now with the current administration, the EU and Europeans are facing a complex conundrum: developing a tough and united position against the Trump administration without damaging its relationship with the United States.
On V-E day, a day of commorancy of transatlantic unity defeating Nazism and fascism, the American president made a case for an America first, America alone (at the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia), and for undermining the interest of the international community. The case made by President Trump and some of his foreign policy allies, like Senator Marco Rubio, is that the Iran deal was a political agreement signed by President Obama and not by Congress (which is true). For instance, Senator Rubio emphasized in a tweet that the deal was “not a binding agreement under US law b/c never submitted for Senate approval. It is a political agreement made by the previous administration.” This is a dangerous game to start playing and to justify major diplomatic shifts.
Now the concept of ‘America First’ may play very well with a specific segment of the American electorate, however, it is not effective with the international community. Reciprocity is a core dimension of international relations. Under the liberal order, the US has certainly advanced its interests, while having positive and beneficial outcomes for American allies. In the case of the Iran deal, the Paris agreement, the tariffs/quotas, American allies are obvious losers. President Trump wants to keep his promises to his base, but what about his European counterparts? How can a European leader defend transatlantic cohesion under the terms and conditions advanced by this administration?France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said EU states would propose sanctions-blocking measures to the European Commission. He even asked “Do we accept the vassalization of Europe in commercial matters? The answer is no.”
President Trump mentioned in withdrawal speech that his action sends a critical message that “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” We will see on this point as so far US interventions abroad under President Trump have been so limited and frivolous. Trump is making unilateral decisions with lasting consequences without any grasp of the issues and policy outcomes. In year 2, President Trump is continuously isolating the US by proving that American commitments are in fact empty promises.