allies, America First, Barack Obama, foreign policy, globalism, Iran, Iran deal, Iran nuclear deal, Iran sanctions, JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, multilateralism, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, sanctions, Trump, unilateralism
If you think about it seriously, the main sequence of events that’s led up to the latest surge in U.S.-Iran tensions has dealt a hammer blow to the mainstream U.S. foreign policy idea that going it more or less alone is a formula for failure in world affairs, and that closely cooperating with allies is one of the biggest keys to success.
To remind: The mainstream (in the case of Iran, overwhelmingly its left-of-center wing) has been charging that the two countries have moved close to major conflict because, over allies’ objections, an America First-oriented President Trump pulled out of the deal negotiated during President Barack Obama’s administration with the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, Russia, and China and Iran to restrain Tehran’s nuclear weapons development. And Washington then proceeded to antagonize Iran gratuitously by ramping up its own economic sanctions. As a result, Iranian leaders have threatened to start violating some of its nuclear agreement commitments, and has further protested these actions by lashing out regionally – including (as seems to be the case) attacking tankers transporting vital oil supplies through the Persian Gulf and its narrow Straits of Hormuz.
So if only Mr. Trump had listened to the allies and stayed in the agreement – i.e., if he followed an approach called multilateralism – all would be (reasonably) well in the volatile and oil-rich Gulf region. And to be fair, I myself initially bought the multilateralist reasoning when the nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) was finally reached, agreeing that without allied buy-in, the United States could never create enough pressure on Iran on its own (i.e., “unilaterally”) to prevent Tehran from going nuclear for any length of time.
And yet, as I eventually realized, this narrative held no water whatever. For the United States has proved eminently capable of inflicting major pain on Iran’s economy all by itself – by dint of its ability to deny companies that do business with Iran (including companies from allied and other foreign countries) access to the U.S. dollar-dominated global banking and payments system. America’s unilateral power, in turn, strongly reinforces the argument that the Obama administration (and the allies) could have secured much better terms from Iran than the deal currently contains.
It’s true that weakening Iran economically is no guarantee that it will turn from the nuclear weapons path. But neither is the agreement. The strongest argument made on its behalf is that it pushes back any possible nuclear-ization by roughly fifteen years. Even strong supporters, though, acknowledge it contains important verification loopholes. And had the United States remained in the JCPOA, and imposed none or few of its own sanctions, when Iran did “break out,” it would have surely been much stronger economically than otherwise – which couldn’t serve the interests of anyone worried about the Islamic Republic.
Even more important than my own evolving views: Iran itself clearly understands the United States’ matchless leverage, too. That’s why it’s been so enraged by the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement – even though all the other signatories remain part of the pact. Its leaders apparently understand that, in this instance, U.S. allies’ words and even deeds don’t matter much.
And as for the allies augmenting American power and influence in this episode – because their top priority (rightly or wrongly) is preserving the nuclear deal, they’re trying to frustrate American aims nowadays, not support them.
Multilateralism certainly can be a useful, effective U.S. approach to various international challenges. But contrary to the impression created by its staunchest champions, allies need to do their part, too. If consensus among all parties is lacking, multilateralism can too easily become a recipe for paralysis and inaction. In other words, like all other tools or tactics, it’s simply a tool or tactic. It mustn’t be treated as an end in and of itself.
And this caveat, of course, goes double for the United States. For as the Iran situation shows, it’s unique among the world’s major powers in having many, and robust, unilateral options.