Washington is starting to realise the limitations of its diplomatic power
Last week, it must have dawned on the US administration that its principal foreign policy contradiction had caught up with it. Two major gatherings took place, one in Warsaw, the other in Munich, and both showed the very real limitations of American diplomatic power, with significant implications for the Middle East.
The contradiction is a fairly obvious one. When he came to office, president Donald Trump sought to reaffirm the notion of state sovereignty. Everything he did would respect the tenet of “America first”. Yet when other states have shown a similar propensity to pursue their own national interests, the US has interjected to instruct them on how they should act, with no regard for their own sovereignty.
This was obvious at the Warsaw summit, where the Trump administration sought to recruit countries into its efforts to isolate Iran. Many of America’s European allies sent low-level representatives to Poland because they disagreed with Washington on the policy to follow towards Iran. Mr Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Tehran – a deal that had been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council – was regarded by the Europeans as a step too far.
When Vice President Mike Pence travelled to Germany for the Munich Security Conference a few days later, he again met a wall of scepticism when asking European states to abandon the nuclear deal. “Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as co-operative. In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions,” he chided. He was referring to a new European Union trade mechanism that allows countries to circumvent US sanctions when trading with Iran.
Diplomacy is about patience, but neither Mr Trump nor his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have much of it
That Washington finds itself so isolated is no surprise. When Mr Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May last year, most observers said his administration would not have much global support. Gulf states and the Israeli government, which have good ties with the president, have backed him because they are most directly affected by Tehran’s actions in the region. But that has not persuaded western countries and others to support the US, and the Americans are now seeing what it means to have squandered influence with their allies.
Diplomacy is about patience, but neither Mr Trump nor his secretary of state Mike Pompeo have much of it, nor have they gone to the trouble of building on legitimate and genuine European misgivings about Iran’s missile programme and its policies throughout the Middle East. The president has so relished taking a confrontational attitude towards Europe and the European Union that he long ago blew any opportunity he might have had to forge a unified policy to contain Iran’s regional expansion.
In fact it has been difficult for Mr Pompeo to define any coherent foreign policy towards the region when Mr Trump has been so contradictory in his decisions. As Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel reminded him in Munich, the president’s sudden order to withdraw American forces from Syria is bound to boost Iranian and Russian ambitions. It seems that Mr Trump is issuing his pronouncements without any consideration for the aftermath. This lazy, superficial approach to diplomacy has already given Iran a victory of sorts against Washington.
If Mr Trump’s aim is to earn the plaudits of the political right, all well and good. But that won’t take him far. As the administration plans more initiatives in the region, all of them are likely to crash. The so-called peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians is a dead letter, at least what we know of it so far. Doubtless the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner never intended to put forward a true peace plan, only to undermine the Palestinian position. However, the US cannot admit this publicly when it turns out to be a flop.
Similarly, Washington has isolated itself over Syria and will have very little say in what comes next. Mr Trump is not the only one to blame, however, as his predecessor Barack Obama was also largely absent from serious diplomacy there and allowed the Astana framework to marginalise the UN process co-sponsored by the US and Russia. But Mr Trump never tried to reverse that situation. As a result, Washington will remain largely a spectator in Syria.
Mr Trump's supporters disagree. They say that the US will retain leverage in Syria by being able to sanction all countries, including allies, if they invest in post-war Syrian reconstruction against Washington's wishes. Certainly, US sanctions are a powerful weapon, but what if the administration decides to impose them on European states that commit to rebuilding Syria as a means of ensuring that refugees go home? Then the rift between the US and Europe would only widen.
In other words, the absence of effective co-ordination between the US and Europe over Iran, or over much else in the region, will be to the Trump administration’s detriment. US power has always been about building a consensus when none was present in favour of an agenda Washington sought to advance. Without engaging with, and listening to, his closest allies, whose own agendas matter as much as his, Mr Trump must now worry about his friends as well.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut
Updated: February 20, 2019 07:06 PM