The unreliability of American foreign policy under the Trump administration

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PHOTO: MARTIN H. SIMON/ZUMA PRESS

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 p071415ps-0184interventions 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.

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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 criticalMacron-PrixCharlemagne 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.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).
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ISIL and Homeland Terrorism – Is Europe Going to War?

Source: AP
Source: AP

It took 10 days to shift a quiet and reluctant European Union and its 28 Member States from a closed-minded fortress to a group reflecting on the realities of its environment. Ensuing the terrorist attacks in France and the foiled ones in Belgium, the war narratives are emerging in Europe. In the case of France, the political class – in and out of power – has been hammering the same narrative: ‘France is at war.’ At war against radical islamists in Mali, in the Sahel, in Iraq and Syria, and just comes back from Afghanistan. All these foreign military interventions orchestrated by France since 2012 – aside of Afghanistan a multilateral military effort – had gone unnoticed by a French citizenry uninterested about French foreign and military policies as well as geopolitical realities.

Europe at War?

The week after the Charlie Hebdo attack, ‘France is at war’ has become the mainstream narrative of most French politicians. French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and Minister of Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, among others have all talked of war. During his allocution before the National Assembly, Manuel Valls declared “Yes France is engaged in a war, against terrorism, against jihadism and radical islamism” (“Oui la France est en guerre, contre le terrorisme, le djihadisme et l’islamisme extrémiste (…)). Additionally, the taboo in France has been broken, the political elite is finally underscoring on daily basis that French and European citizens ought to be ready to see an increase of terrorist attacks inside the Union. The linkage between the two points, increase of terrorist attacks and the war narrative, is France high level activity in fighting radical islamic groups around Africa and the Middle East. France among the other EU Member States ought to understand the dichotomy of the current fight: on the one hand, the fight against radical ideologies within the EU is not going to end anytime soon and will require serious societal-political debate; while on the other, stopping the rise of ISIL will not end the rise of extremism in Europe.

In the case of France and Belgium, the alleged terrorists have received training in Syria at some point. Both countries hold the largest muslim communities in Europe (in proportion to their overall population); both countries have faced recent attacks such as the killing at a jewish museum in Brussels and the killings orchestrated by Mohammed Merah against Jewish individuals in the South-West of France. Both countries have failed in their models of integration as a segment of their Arab youth has become radicalized or at least sensitized to the radical islamist cause.

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

Additionally, more and more individuals – most of them are indeed European citizens – are coming back to their homelands after receiving a military training in Syria and/or Iraq (look here at the excellent interactive map by Radio Free Europe). The numbers fluctuate in the case of France from 700+ (as described below) to roughly 1000 in January 2015. Ultimately, EU Member States are confronting a complex challenge connecting foreign war endeavor and homeland terrorism-radicalization of a segment of Muslims communities.

Source: Statista
Source: Statista

With the increasing numbers of European citizens fighting in Syria/Iraq under the ISIL umbrella, should the Euro-Atlantic community wage war in Syria and Iraq against ISIL?

The war narrative in France is interesting for one simple reason: Is France trying to get domestic support to a military intervention in Syria? Or is France trying to mobilize its European allies and the US for a military intervention in Syria? The current bombings over Iraq and Syria led by France (principally over Iraq) and the US seem insufficient in maintaining the rise of ISIL. As argued in a recent ECFR analysis, “months into the armed strikes, it is clear that the existing approach can only go so far. Western political leaders, thrown into a state of panic by the mesmerised media coverage of the beheadings of Western hostages, launched extensive military action against IS that has been heavily dominated by the US, in spite of the participation of regional actors who spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons each year.”

Scenarios to Addressing the Root Causes of ISIL:

Ultimately, in the aftermaths of the January terrorist attacks, how could the EU address the realities of the threat?

First, mobilization of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO may be the way to go for the military phase at first followed by a credible CSDP mission of state-building. The NATO-CSDP couple did work in the Balkans and has stabilized the region since the late 1990s (read here a volume on the Security Sector Reform). Certainly some states in the Balkans are more stable than others; and problems of corruptions, lack of rule of law, and other societal and economic problems remain a reality. Nevertheless, it is a more stable region than ensuing the fall of the Soviet Union. In the case of Syria and Iraq, both NATO-CSDP could be the instrument to first, use credible military forces on the ground and in the air, followed by a long-term reconstruction process overtaken by the CSDP. Inside the EU, the question of a credible CSDP mandate and operation will be a tough one to get. Large EU Member States, like the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, may be reluctant to invest large amount of money, to provide credible military capabilities and soldiers. France and Poland cannot be the only two large Member States providing the bulk of the CSDP mission. The destruction/containment of ISIL is not an end in itself; but it is the re-construction and eventual creation of nation-states in the region. The reality is that 15 years later, starting with the 1998 bombing campaign over Kosovo, the CSDP and NATO are still present in the Balkans. Europeans and Americans must be consciously willing to commit to several decades of reconstruction in the Middle East.

Second, Russia and Turkey are the key to the future of the region. Russia was the state protecting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad when France and the US were ready to sanction Syria following the use of sarin gas against civilians. President Obama did not

Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP
Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

want to start another war in the Middle East and was certainly satisfy to find the best-worst short-term option in his playbook, an international supervision and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. Since then Russia and the West have not been agreeing on the course of event in the region. Russia ought to understand that the current situation in the Levant is not aligned with its interests. The second key player is Turkey. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been reluctant to use military force against ISIL. Turkish army is deployed at the borders with Syria monitoring the ongoing war in Syria. Both players are crucial for the future: Russia in order to get a military operation with international legitimacy, a Resolution by the UN Security Council; and Turkey, as a neighboring state and NATO member in leading the war effort in Syria.

Third, Arab States, especially Qatar, Saoudi Arabia, Iran, ought to play a credible role as well. Their contributions is greater than simple financial and military supports, it holds strong religious and symbolic dimensions. The involvement of Arab States would demonstrates that the war against ISIL is not a clash of civilization between the West and the Arab world as it has been framed, but rather as a war between radical islamism and the world. Without the inclusion and the assistance of these three regional powerhouses, the fight against ISIL will not be fully realistic, at least in the aftermaths of the military phase.

A New Regional Order?

The Arab Spring has transformed the balance of power at domestic and regional levels all around the Mediterranean. The EU, Russia, the US, Arab States may all have diverging political systems, religious beliefs, perceptions of the world, but the reality of the threat is undeniable and common. The long term solution is not military, but political. Behind the walls of its imagined fortress, the EU has thought that it would be immune of all troubles if it just ignores the threats and challenges knocking at its doors. The EU’s neighborhoods are on fire causing mass migrations, rise of terrorism, all sorts of illegal activities and political instabilities. European capitals must now address the problem, ISIL, as it is not only destabilizing the Mediterranean region, but now European societies. It is Europe’s fight. Europe should decide to take the lead on this one.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).