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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Do We Believe Them?


James Watt

Mon, 14 May 2018 16:23 GMT

Radical regime change delivered by US threats and sanctions? In North Korea? In Iran? Anywhere else? The Palestinians brushed aside? The three-quarter century-old partnership with Europe trashed? These are some of the claims, and the consequences, of the present US Administration's foreign policy. Bizarrely, they call to mind the deliberate, extreme brutality of IS in Iraq and Syria. The shock factor is deliberate. The message is that the world is going to be different. Forget decency, trust, mutual benefit. Get used to a monopoly of coercion, and the narrow interest of one, ideologically extreme player. 

Yes, we're in mild shock. But we know something of history, and of the nature of human societies.

Aggression is rarely rewarded. Leadership and influence come from inspiring a shared vision of a better future. Success in foreign policy, as in so many things, comes from observing closely the aims and interests of the other parties. And remaining self-critical about one's own assumptions. And looking ahead to consequences. These do not seem to be characteristics of either President Trump or the team around him, despite being amply present in the professionals and analysts who, up until recently, largely made a success of American global leadership. The Trump team claim to be realists, in a hard-nosed way, but it does not take much to dismantle the claim.

In the case of North Korea President Trump claims the credit for Pyongyang's promise to de-nuclearise its armoury. That would be a great achievement, if it happens. But it's also the card that the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, always intended to play in return for a wide range of political and economic benefits. He has shown himself to be a far more skilled politician than his adversary. His price is the withdrawal of American military protection of South Korea. The wider context is China's policy of eliminating the American military presence in the region. Are the Trump team up to handling the effects of this change?

The imposition of severe new US sanctions against Iran, as well as the decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear agreement, has a similar logic to the pressure on North Korea: seeking a radical change in the target's geo-strategic behaviour, and even regime change. Any experience of Iran's history and its political reactions would indicate that pressure of this kind is not going to work. Sanctions in any case rarely have a decisive effect of the kind intended, and more often simply reinforce resistance. The first effect of the US sanctions is to weaken the progressive democratic forces in Iran and to reinforce the hard-line reactionaries whose stock in trade is defiance of the West. Moreover, a sanctions regime has to be universal if it is to have a chance of working. Iran will suffer but will also continue to trade outside the dollar banking system. Will the acute shortage of foreign currency that it was already suffering cause it to pull back its forces from Syria, to leave Hezbollah to its fate, and to slacken its pressure on Iraq? That is highly doubtful. These territorial assets become more important to a beleaguered Iran, not less. 

Blindness to consequences applies even more in the case of the Trump Administration policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. As Israel's best friend, the United States has long urged a constructive approach which would ensure the long-term peace and security of both populations. To sacrifice this goal, as the present Administration has done, has merely reinforced the prevailing right-wing view in Israel that a solution can be ignored. This would be a tragedy, not only for the Palestinians still suffering in their homeland, but for Israel itself.

The cumulative effects of these radical changes in US policy have a wider impact on the alliances and friendships that have constituted much of American influence and advantage in the world. President Trump's transactional, bookkeeping view of international relations fails to recognise their value, or maybe believes that they will survive the rough treatment he is giving them. This is not so. The greatest shock, though less visible for now, has been to the sense of shared values that Europe and other Western-minded countries until recently have felt they had with the United States. The break is not a clean one, for we know of the strong commitment to a liberal, respectful and rules-based world order among a significant portion of the US population. We share their deep dismay at the path their country's leadership has taken. The realisation is sinking in, though, in Europe and elsewhere, that we cannot treat this all as a passing aberration: the new Iran sanctions that deal a heavy blow to European policy are the sharpest wake-up call. A deep ideological rift has opened between old allies. Europe's reaction is not to follow the new American path. We in Europe do not, quite simply, believe the claims being made, nor their faulty logic, not the cynical absence of values they imply. But instead we reaffirm our conviction that peace and prosperity call for the same values, and the same commitment to mutually respectful international relations, that have long proved their success in managing the modern world. 

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