A Pyrrhic victory?

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Obviously, D. Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements already signed by the U.S. has a special significance once such actions grow in number. Some experts have started to dub this constant policy of the U.S. President in the external arena as the “Trump doctrine” or the “withdrawal doctrine.”

Immediately after the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran was announced, on May 9, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael MacFaul wrote on his Twitter account that “Iran deal exit splinters alliances, jeopardises security,” citing an analysis of this action’s impact under the caption: “Trump’s Withdrawal Doctrine.”

But withdrawal from where? Only from signed treaties, as has happened so far (the TTIP, the Paris agreement on global warming, the one with Iran etc.)? Could other agreements be next – UN, NATO? Is it a withdrawal to traditional U.S. isolationism, hence billeting between the two oceans, leaving global hegemony, the Euroatlantic and Pacific primacy?

A withdrawal from the international order based on rules actually established, mainly, by Washington? Or is this latest Trump decision only the expression of “aggressive unilateralism” as G. Rachman considers in The Financial Times? Hence a behaviour that is not at all novel at the White House, which has added certain nuances to a common orientation of U.S. neoconservatives. Behaviour that has the objective to determine the continuity of U.S. systemic hegemony by forcing the other actors to follow the path chosen by Washington.

The current reality in this dossier is extremely complex and contradictory. As a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, the international system is in a major crisis, of almost unequalled dimensions in the post-Cold War era, a crisis whose consequences cannot be satisfactorily assessed yet.

There could be a crisis of the bloc of states allied to the U.S., because the White House has disregarded the opinion of the closest U.S. allies, whose leaders have recently visited Washington to convince the U.S. President not to take this step. As Nicholas Burns, another American expert noted immediately after Trump’s announcement: “One immediate consequence of Trump’s disavowal of Iran Deal—trouble with Europe. If the U.S. insists on sanctioning European companies that do business with Iran, Trump will have a crisis across the Atlantic. This is the problem with a No Plan B foreign policy.” The EU has already announced that it will remain in the nuclear agreement with Iran – as did Russia and China, and Tehran has stated it accepts this situation.

A fault line between NATO allies has been created – could it be by chance? – by Trump’s recent decision, and its dimensions are less important than the trend that the European position will establish: a trend of accepting U.S. unilateralism – we have the example of Iraq 2003; or, on the contrary, Europe will detach itself even more from the U.S.

Another possible immediate development is the amplification of the danger of general war in the Middle East. Israel and Saudi Arabia support this evolution triggered by the U.S.’s withdrawal from the accord because, in this way, not only is an end put to Tehran’s nuclear programme, but Iran’s aspiration to regional hegemony is thus limited. The first clashes in the Golan Heights region, at the Israeli-Syrian border, have already occurred just 24 hours after Washington’s announcement. Iranian armed forces are in Syria and Iran seems determined not to leave this country, which is unacceptable for the existence of Israel.

The onset of an ample atmosphere of marked uncertainty in the international system – the uncertainty regarding the future moves of the U.S. or of other great powers, and the systemic-level reactions to them have grown exponentially – has surpassed by far the logical norm of the construction of a new international order. It is deemed that the perception according to which other great powers can act unilaterally to their own benefit has thus been consolidated. It is an opportunity calculus imposed by the fact that Washington already has two major dossiers – the Iranian and North Korean – and can no longer be an efficient and involved break-down mechanic in other major systemic crises.

The international reaction toward the unilateralism manifested in the early 2000s by the U.S. shows that it can be repeated now, at far wider dimensions. Not only will other great powers seek – now, just like then – to form a joint line of resistance to a Washington that may repeat this recent unilateral ‘move,’ but other states too, small- and medium-sized, will be able to join them for various reasons. Russia could be unsettled by potential ‘regime change’ actions, China by the worsening of the trade war promoted by the U.S., and the major European actors by the uncertainty felt in the face of a NATO partner with unilateral behaviour. The traditional tendency of U.S.’s European allies to oppose a global NATO could be significantly consolidated precisely because of the fear of similar actions that induce uncertainty and can lead to unwanted military confrontations. Some of the systemic actors’ desire to shelter from this type of unilateralism will lead not so much to isolation but to a hastened re-nationalisation of foreign policy, at the expense of globalisation and international security.

Faced with this systemic data, mentioned in a simplified manner, two theses concerning trends in developments are taking shape. One is that of “aggressive unilateralism” (G. Rachman), which argues that the advantages gained by the U.S. during the lengthy period of systemic hegemony can ensure rapid victory for President D. Trump’s recent move. Fundamental systemic data such as the ownership of the currency of systemic safety – the Dollar, the unequalled military calibre, and the economic capability able to withstand shocks of ample magnitude and to intervene globally to avoid their consequences, but especially to cause great damage to adversaries through institutional levers that Washington has, plays decisively in favour of the “Trump doctrine.” Iran will abstain from resorting to war, it will not return – at least momentarily – to its nuclear programme and will probably do everything possible not to trigger a confrontation with far superior opposing forces.

After all, in a nuclear age, being aggressive without owning nuclear weapons is a useless exercise, especially in the face of powers that do have such weapons. According to this thesis, Europe will be content to gradually move closer to the U.S. position once it identifies niches of waiver from the economic sanctions re-imposed on Iran following the U.S. withdrawal, and other systemic powers will become far more reserved with Tehran, the latter being forced to slow down its regional activism.

Of course, in this case, systemic uncertainty will not diminish by far compared to its current amplitude, the fear of new unilateral moves on the part of the U.S. continuing to persist. Intelligent crisis management that would lead, after lengthy negotiations, to a new accord that would answer the expectations of the U.S. and Israel far more precisely than the old one did is not ruled out. It is one of the options toward which the European Union is heading.

However, opposing this thesis is another one, which shows, without downplaying the chances of a Trump victory in the short term, that in the long term the current systemic data that concerns the economic hierarchy of great powers and its major trends will be to the disadvantage of the U.S.

And Trump’s recent move to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran does nothing but – according to this thesis – hasten the approach of this systemic handicap for the U.S. Hence, opposing the aggressive unilateralism thesis, this latter thesis considers that Trump has scored a Pyrrhic victory. About this thesis in a future editorial.