Whatever you think of President Obama’s deal aimed at preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, it’s vital to recognize that it greatly compounds the evidence that a key pillar of recent U.S. foreign policy is crumbling – the belief that many crucial American international objectives can successfully be pursued multilaterally. The terms of the deal powerfully indict extensive reliance on formal U.S. alliances and less formal groupings of allegedly like-minded countries. They also indict extensive reliance on international institutions like the United Nations. And they make more urgent than ever the development of alternatives.
Even President Obama has described the terms of the Iran deal as sub-optimal. But he and his aides have insisted that it is better than any feasible alternative non-military approaches to Iran’s nuclear program. The president appears to be correct on this score, and consequently, a compelling case can be made for the deal’s approval by Congress. Nonetheless, it’s imperative to understand why an agreement with genuinely disturbing weaknesses has in fact been the best peaceful option available.
The principal reason, as made clear by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is that even the western powers involved in the Iran negotiations have decided that the economic sanctions to which they have agreed have exacted a high enough price, and that the further costs they might have to pay due to efforts to strengthen the deal are unacceptable. In other words, for Britain, France, and Germany, the desire to resume potentially lucrative commercial ties with Iran outweighs the benefits of increasing pressure on Iran’s economy in order to, say achieve the right of no-notice, “anytime, anywhere” inspections of suspect Iranian sites. Similarly, the allies judge new business opportunities to be more important than requiring Iranian compliance with the agreement’s terms for longer time spans before restoring its ability to buy arms – including ballistic missiles – on the international market.
Kerry has noted that the United Nations has been even less interested in keeping The Bomb out of Iran’s hands. He has pointed out that the Security Council had not decided to condition early ends to the weapons- and missile-buying embargoes on signing a nuclear deal with Iran. The Council conditioned these actions on nothing more than Iran’s agreement to participate in nuclear negotiations. That’s why, Kerry argues, he needed to agree to these relatively early sunsets to begin with, and why he insists that the United States will be isolated in the world community if Congress does not agree.
In other words, a goal described by the president as vital – keeping Iran nuclear weapons free – has been significantly compromised because the allies do not fully share U.S. concerns. Nor does most of the rest of the world. As a result of this fundamental disagreement, it’s difficult to understand, as I’ve written, why anyone supposes the allies or the UN membership would agree to reimposing (“snapping back”) sanctions while the agreement is in place, much less holding Iran’s feet to the fire once the deal’s various provisions lapse.
Economics just delivered a similar message to Washington. The United States had initially decided to oppose China’s decision to set up an international development bank to serve as an alternative to the existing World Bank. Chinese leaders argued that the Western-dominated Bank was too slow to finance the massive infrastructure needs of developing countries in Asia and elsewhere, but U.S. leaders suspected that China was really seeking to gain international influence at America’s expense. Washington also worried that a Chinese dominated aid bank would be managed irresponsibly from a financial and governance standpoint, and that its projects would run roughshod over the environment. Anyone who knows anything about Chinese financial, governance, and environmental practices would need to regard these fears as legitimate.
As I’ve written, however, despite this U.S. opposition, even most of its closest allies decided to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) anyway. They have cited two main reasons that even many prominent Americans agree with, but that turn out to be bogus on closer inspection – and that underscore the weaknesses of multilateralism. First, many of the allies themselves maintained that their participation would promote best business and environmental practices at the new institution. Second, they – and many influential Americans – describe the aid bank as an understandable Chinese reaction to the U.S. Congress’ refusal to approve increasing China’s voting power in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Yet the U.S. allies that have jumped on the AIIB bandwagon are acting so eager to win new infrastructure contracts that it’s hard to believe they’ll pressure Beijing to adopt high standards. Moreover, increasing China’s IMF vote amounts to increasing the global clout of a government and economic system that’s by far the worst kleptocracy of all major countries. That’s a terrible idea, which in particular overlooks the multi-decade failure of western policies to moderate China’s behavior by integrating it into the world economy. The results to date have been a country that’s immensely stronger militarily, far more aggressive towards its neighbors, increasingly protectionist on the trade and investment fronts, and increasingly repressive towards domestic dissent.
The United States has never been especially successful at alliance management. In particular, it was never able to convince either its European or Asian allies to contribute proportionately to the common defense and security burden. And the Europeans frequently broke with Washington even on the military conflicts of the day – to the point of continuing to trade with North Vietnam during the Indochina conflict. But failures during the Cold War took place in a period when America possessed much greater relative military and economic power than today. So it needed allied cooperation much less to achieve goals it considered important. The Iran deal and AIIB failures show that a lack of allied cooperation is now enough to prevent America from achieving such goals.
Which means that, as during the Cold War, the main point is not the United States has been necessarily right and other countries necessarily wrong in these disputes. The main point is that America today finds itself in a position in which the rest of the world (including its closest allies) can – and have – fatally undermined measures needed to achieve objectives that Washington regards as deserving the utmost importance. As a result, whether its leaders know it or not, the nation faces a basic choice. It can either accept the global consensus, and decide to live in a world that its own leaders have stated will pose unacceptable risks. Or it can start figuring out ways to attain an acceptable level of security through its own devices.
The possibilities are wide-ranging, depending on how the American political system defines the nation’s overseas priorities, how much it decides to spend on achieving them, and how much wealth the economy can generate – thereby determining how intense the inevitable resource competition between “guns and butter” will be. My own hope is that U.S. leaders recognize two truths that seem to be recognized by the public already. First, foreign policy is about achieving important goals that cannot be attained through domestic policy. Second, although the United States lacks the power to become acceptably safe and secure by stabilizing, pacifying, enriching, or democratizing the rest of the world, it has ample power to survive and prosper even in the deeply flawed and indeed dangerous world it faces today.
Worrisomely, though, President Obama doesn’t even yet seem to recognize the problem. Speaking at the West Point commencement last year, he made a point that’s become presidential boilerplate by now: “America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.” Yet as demonstrated by his Iran diplomacy and, secondarily, by the AIIB fiasco, that’s exactly what the nation is doing. And the rest of the world is anything but reluctant to say “No.”