The culmination of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) - regarded as the two landmark achievements of contemporary diplomacy- altered the trajectory of international politics. Charting a new course for the normative legal order, the two agreements coalesced conflicting concerns and settled debates with hardliners, reinstating the priorities of a liberal democratic order.
Enter President Trump
Campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump vowed,
“…we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs...”
And he did not. He went further, dismantling a number of arduously negotiated international agreements. Clamping down on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Global Compact on Migration, he consistently launched diatribes against organizations like UNESCO and WTO, among others. Mr. Trump’s America First policy, which brought him to power in 2016 on a populist agenda is undoubtedly, inward looking, but it has international ramifications. His most consequential decisions have been on nuclear arms control. Despite forward movement on North Korea, America’s nuclear posture under Mr. Trump is one of serious concern.
The Iran Deal
The JCPOA, as the Iran Deal is officially known, was not holistic of Iran’s peace threatening activities, but on the nuclear issue, was a success by all measures. Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) heralded the arrangement as “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.” The 159 page deal that the Mr. Trump rescinded on May 8 this year, stripped Iran of its capacity to build a nuclear weapon, and prevented it from acquiring them in the future. Nuclear facilities were to be repurposed under close supervision of the IAEA and the P5+1 (alternatively E3+3).
In exchange, Iran received sanctions relief, access to frozen assets worth approximately $100 billion, alongside the ability to exploit its oil internationally. Endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the deal came with a dispute resolution body, a ‘snapback mechanism’ — essentially allowing the UNSC to reinstate sanctions without the fear of a veto should Iran renege on commitments- and a continuation of US sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missiles program, human rights and terrorism situation.
After Mr. Trump’s withdrawal, Iran now issues warnings about leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), building advanced centrifuges to increase its uranium enrichment capacity and preparing its Atomic Energy Organization for ‘surprising action’. As the US Secretary of Defence ‘Mad Dog Mattis’ put it, ‘the enemy gets a vote’ — and now they will use it.
(Source: The Economist (Print Edition)/January 25, 2018/Europe)
Safety Hazard: Handle with Care
Neo-realists and institutionalists alike hold that there are no benefits of an unpredictable system. While unintended and undesirable consequences bedevil the theorist, intended unpredictability and imposed (or self-imposed) indeterminacy frustrates every decision-maker. A clear example of this was that of world leaders, diplomats and advisers jockeying around Trump, before his decision on JCPOA, but persuading him has proven to be a Sisyphean task. This points to the validity of ‘might makes right’ but this time, American muscle has been put to test against the limits of hegemony.
Keeping treaty obligations even with changing administrations, is a pillar of international law and betraying them incontrovertibly knocks down the stability and security offered by a rules based system. The consequences of backing out of the Iran nuclear deal are monumental as they, in the words of Barack Obama, “put to question American credibility”. America First is premised on the assumption that deals formulated under previous administrations, particularly the Obama Administration, are to America’s disadvantage. The solution? Isolationism and transactional relationships.
The backtracking of US from affairs of the world is not an unwelcome move, but a problematic one. Specially because there is no Plan B, but rather a simple advert for intensified rivalries and intractable conflicts. How credible was the threat of nuclear weapons from Iran before and after the deal? If the United States was seriously committed to ending the nuclear provocation, would staying in the treaty not be a more viable option?
The logic of securitization and an ‘existential threat’ from and for Iran would build up now, if it didn’t exist. Toppling the deal meant tipping the balance of power in the complex domestic politics of Iran, constraining the ability of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani and strengthening critics of the deal and of the West. The reactions from European allies were concomitant, with a shared undertone of regret. Mr. Trump’s decision has indisputably impacted the nature of alliances — making US, and not Iran, the unpredictable partner for Europe.
Now, because Europe is left alone to salvage the nuclear deal, it will have to shield Iran from the blow of sanctions, contradicting the policies of its longstanding partner- the United States of America. To this end, EU nations have resurrected a 20-year old ‘blocking statute,’ last used to circumvent US sanctions on Cuba!
How realistic the exercise would be is hard to predict but it confirms the vexation of Europeans, who are also irked by the Trade War. The White House has resisted the politics of appeasement offered by May, Macron and Merkel and chosen to silence the EU through intimidation. This begs the question, does the United States have the clout necessary to achieve its end of isolating Iran by turning the JCPOA into a zero-sum game or would it have benefitted more from complying with its obligations?
(Source: The Economist (Print Edition)/May 12, 2018/Middle East and Africa)
Increasing interdependence, the need for unrelenting access to global markets, and technology and capital for political survival would strengthen the deepening partnership between Iran and its allies — China and Russia. On the other hand, disengagement with Iran will surface through conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and a proxy war with Saudi Arabia. American unilateralism has stirred the debate out of its court and the ball is now in Europe’s court, and the migrant crisis is a stinging lesson that curbing security dilemmas and regional security spirals is in Europe’s best interest.
N(o)clear future?- Other Nuclear Control Arrangements
One cannot prognosticate a nuclear Armageddon, but this instability in the political context has left everyone worried. The possibility of the non-renewal of the New START treaty between the US and Russia — which places limits on deployment of strategic arms, due for renewal in 2021 — as reported by Reuters, worsens the already threatened nuclear nonproliferation regime. While Sweden is already handing out ‘If crisis or war comes’, brochures to its 4.8 million households, Europe fears an assertive Russia at its Eastern fringe. The intensifying ZAPAD (Russia and Belarus) and NATO exercises, the displeasure of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) over not following Article VI of the NPT- which enshrines the principle of nuclear disarmament- in good faith, something that seems to be lacking in the politesse of contemporary leaders, adds to the chaos. Any policy analyst pointing to Trump would then raise the same question — cui bono?
This comes at a time, when the global nonproliferation regime braces itself for another highly anticipated event — the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un in Singapore. Despite the disparity between the two situations, the summit would directly be impacted by the status of the Iran deal. The misfortune accompanying KEDO, the Six Party Talks and other measures, naturally helped highlight the great successes of the JCPOA, but the latter’s fate now foreshadows the fate of any future negotiations. The message to DPRK, as has been made clear by the National Security Advisor John Bolton, is that the President would not accept anything short of a ‘real deal’.
Months of indecisiveness and tweeting later, we moved from ‘big buttons’ to ‘big progress’, and ‘Little Rocket Man’ to ‘honorable leader’. The atmosphere of unpredictably that Trump’s volte-face carries as the first serving president of the United States meets with a North Korea’s Supreme Leader, raises concerns over motivations as well. While Japan, Israel and South Korea benefit from the American nuclear umbrella, substituting American nuclear weapons for their own destroys trust-building. Hence, even differing definitions of ‘denuclearization’ of the Korean peninsula might result in a classic diplomatic fudge — with possibly no tangible gains.
(Source: Financial Times/May 16, 2018/New York)
An ascendant China would not easily come around either, especially for the investment it has made in North Korea, both diplomatic and monetary, and because it is directly impacted by the US military influence in the region. This was clear from its opposition to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system was deployed in South Korea. A rationalist deterrence theory outlook would approach this fragile issue with concern for retaliation and mutually assured destruction in case the pursuit turns into an impending fear of attack. With a capricious state of security guarantees, the viability of any arrangement would turn volatile.
The Japan Option, aka nuclear latency, is as credible a threat as clandestine acquisitions on a grand scale. The nuclear nonproliferation regime, in this instance, does not have to deal with the skepticism of entering into agreements with rouge and autocratic adversaries. Here the threat of violation is from a democratic regime, and even more so, from the leader of the free world.
A celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 NPT this seems misplaced as the doomsday clock strikes closer to midnight. The big picture, what comes next?
The reference to the ‘the withdrawal doctrine,’ or the ‘great dealbreaker’, proves that it is easier to break deals, than make them. Rallying around the flag cannot guise the hyper-nationalistic agenda that guards a new idea of Americanism.
Trump’s cabinet, which shuffles as fast as his opinions, is now full of hawks ready to jump on opportunities but unilateral realism and a brutal disregard for allies won’t shield America even if it closes its borders. The action from Washington DC, once the strategic stabilizer, is now endangering norms against nuclear proliferation.
Executive Director of the Centre of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, John Tierney was quoted, after the North Korea Summit was cancelled in May 2018, saying that,
“The first rule of diplomacy is to always consult your allies, yet our key allies in the region were blindsided by the move. President Trump can blame North Korea’s hostile rhetoric for his decision, but the reality is that the Trump administration had no unified diplomatic strategy from the beginning”.
This analysis confirms that jettisoning commitments, disrespecting allies and issuing threats of a ‘Libya model’ won’t work either for Iran or North Korea. A stronger Saudi Arabia, growing asymmetrical warfare in the Middle East and undaunted China and Russia are set to benefit from revived discussions on the political cost of nuclearization. To what extent can Donald Trump unilaterally drag the nuclear regime is a pressing question indeed, however, strong pressure from European heads of state and mediators like South Korean President Moon Jae-in, bring back hope.
Nuclear security is sacrosanct to a state’s security dilemmas but a mutual reinforcement of multiple factors shaping the strategic landscape must be kept in mind before making any deterministic conclusions. The abrogation of the right to invest in the development of nuclear weapons stands as a firm commitment, secured by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the advancing Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Nuclear Weapon Free Zones and an array of bilateral commitments. An indefinitely extended NPT, and the addition of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are hallmarks of an effective collective action regime. With Mr. Trump’s arrival, we see rattling possibilities and juggling spectrum of opportunities, pointing to the question — where do we go from here?
However, a stable system can be resurrected by convergence and reanalysis, rather than bolting in and out of agreements and promises. Even non-binding political commitments can have catastrophic consequences when broken. Mr. Trump would do well to remember that as he boards Air Force One for Singapore.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Author
Neha is pursuing her MPhil in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. She is also a Political Analyst specializing in International Security Studies and holds a graduate degree in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, India, where she also pursued a postgraduate Diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. She has previously worked with The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as The United Nations Information Centre for India and Bhutan. Her research interests and past work cover politics of the Middle East and South Asia. Neha is also a keen follower of developments in AI and has a number of laurels to her name in the domain of public speaking. She hopes to spend any time outside of her research learning languages, of which Spanish and French are already (arguably) her strong suit.