Motives behind Trump’s systematic unilateral decisions

TEHRAN, Nov. 06 (MNA) – President Trump’s approach cannot be understood in isolation as a specifically anti-Iranian or anti-nuclear project.

Instead it forms part of a broader objective that views the thrust of US multilateralism over the last several decades (including a broad range of treaties and other agreements of prior Democratic and Republican Administrations) as inimical in approach to US interests as understood by the current U.S. Administration and other leaders in power. Mr. Trump has systematically and quite openly sought to challenge the basic terms and the fundamental approaches to US multilateralism in everything from the US’s trade pacts to its security arrangements worldwide.  Mr. Trump would also take a similar position with respect to the Iran deal. The object is not necessarily to pull away from the world or from deal making; rather the object is to renegotiate the terms of these “deals” on terms that the President believes better serve US interests.  And in a sense that position does reflect a strategic reorientation of the traditional post 1945 U.S. position.  Mr. Trump appears to be moving away from a position in which the US sought to assert and maintain global leadership through the construction of a web of obligations built on US subsidies (in various forms) to its partners from which it would be difficult for states to escape. Instead Mr. Trump has aligned his policy with one in which the autonomy of the multilateral systems themselves are de-centered in favor of an approach grounded first in national interests (long and short term), which now become the basis for constant bartering among the US and its deal partners. In a way, many states ought to be relieved—the change in approach represents a return to old fashioned statecraft, and away from an experiment that, had it succeeded, might have substantially reduced the ability of states to threaten global orders.

Possible international consequences of Trump’s unilateral approach toward the JCPOA

Actually, the President’s approach can be viewed either as quite dangerous or quite clever. It can be viewed as dangerous to the extent that one interprets the move as a first step toward the abandonment of the “deal” and if one then assumes that without US participation the “deal” would collapse.  But those are far too many assumptions to hold much value. It is quite clever, at least in the short term, precisely because of its subtlety.  While the decertification of the JCPOA appears to shake the deal and signal U.S. withdrawal, its formal and practical effects are negligible—except in the important area of the wars for the control of international opinion and the shaping of narratives supporting national positions.  The refusal to certify does not automatically reimpose U.S. sanctions. Recall that the compliance certification was written into US domestic law and is not an essential part of the “deal” itself. As commentators in the U.S. have noted, this is the best of all worlds for Mr. Trump—he can continue to develop a strong voice against the deal, and seek to undermine faith in its fairness to all parties, while at the same time permitting strict adherence to its terms. In a sense, all the refusal to certify has done is to ensure that the issue remains an important element of domestic and international attention as its principal effect is to permit the US Congress to debate the issue for several months.

In this context about the only European leaders whose faith in Washington’s willingness to keep its word have been eroded by the President’s actions might be  those who have been away on another planet since November 2016.  The US President has been remarkably transparent about his guiding ideology and his distaste for the terms of this Iran “deal.” At the same time, the office of the President has been quite cautious in repudiating agreements to which it is bound, even as the US Administration has been aggressive in seeking to renegotiate their terms. The open questions for the next year are: (1) whether such renegotiations are possible, and (2) what might happen if these renegotiations fail.  My sense is that the US might then engage in the practices common to states unhappy about the terms of their international agreements but unwilling to repudiate them because of the resulting political costs.  That is, the US may begin to do what it can to minimize what it deems to be the worst elements of the deal through a process of strict adherence to treaty terms and a narrow interpretation of its obligations that fall just within the boundaries of the plausible.  This is a practice that all states have long experienced and one for which all states ought to be prepared.  But it is neither unusual nor necessarily unethical.
As such this practice is unlikely to change the calculus of war in the region. About the concerns expressed by some law makers and analysts on possible new war in the Middle East in case of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, I think it is both premature and too late to speak to issues of war in the region. It is premature because there does not appear to be any effort to withdraw from the deal just yet.  As such, the responses from the Democratic leaders appears to stake a position in ways are meant to appeal to some element of the American electorate (and the donor class in the United States) as well as to forge informal alliances with similarly minded factions within the US.’s European allies. It is also too late because, frankly, the Middle East has not been free from war except for short periods since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. What the Democratic law makers may have meant was that such a withdrawal, were it to actually take place, and were that withdrawal to be combined with other actions that effectively voided the agreement, could make it more likely that war would flare again in new places and among new actors. The great danger, then, would be not the wars that have managed to remain contained, but wars that involve powerful regional states that might draw in the great powers. For the moment, those fears are overblown.  It is in no one’s interest to move toward regional war with the possibility of escalation.  Yet, to the extent that the actions of the United States embolden those factions within all relevant states which for reasons of religious prejudice, political ambition, or ideological imperatives seek it, the appearance of withdrawing can increase the likelihood that states might well blunder their way to war.

Larry Catá Backer is a Cuban-American legal scholar and professor of law and international affairs. He holds a professorship at the Penn State University, and is the W. Richard and Mary Eshelman Faculty Scholar Professor of Law and International Affairs, Penn State Law and School of International Affairs, Pennsylvania State University (2001–), Ashgate Publishing Globalization Law & Policy Series editor (2010–), and the executive director of the Washington-based NGO Coalition for Peace and Ethics (2006–). A prominent comparative corporate and international law scholar and a leading researcher in constitutional law, Professor Backer is a member of the American Law Institute and the European Corporate Governance Institute. He has served as a grant peer reviewer for the The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law in the Netherlands, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and others.

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