Trump’s zigzags on Iran threaten US alliance structure
9 Jul 2019|

US President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy gives the impression that he ventures abroad not in search of monsters to slay, but as a bull carrying a china shop on his back. He has been widely criticised for erratic and impetuous decision-making and for his lack of experience, expertise and grasp of foreign affairs—exacerbated by the hollowing out of the State Department. His purely transactional approach robs US foreign policy of any strategic coherence and his partiality to authoritarian strongmen and disdain for allies has emboldened rivals, disheartened partners and confused potential friends. A recent example of the latter is reports of private musings about terminating the defence treaty with Japan.

Occasional rumblings of discontent among democratic allies are only to be expected. Nonetheless, is it conceivable that, building on accumulating tensions and frustrations, Trump’s actions on Iran could rupture the structure of US alliances in the North Atlantic and the Asia–Pacific? Michael Pascoe offers a succinct summary of the challenge:  ‘As Donald Trump’s America belittles allies, undermines international institutions, extends extraterritoriality, creates divisions,…rattles sundry sabres,…denies history, constantly lies and misleads, bullies and feints, when does the rest of the world decide, enough?’

The root cause of the current Persian Gulf crisis is the US withdrawal in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Negotiated with Iran by the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany and the European Union, it was unanimously endorsed by the UNSC in July 2015 and brought a halt to Iran’s nuclear-weapon ambitions under international verification. Tehran continued to be independently certified as being in compliance.

Having jointly negotiated the deal, the Europeans, Russia and China were upset with US unilateralism. Because the UNSC had called on states to uphold the deal’s obligations, the rest of the world was troubled by the US putting itself in material breach of the agreement. And because they feared any Iranian return to the bomb-acquisition path, they tried to devise special mechanisms to shield Iran from punitive US sanctions and continue to trade with it.

Washington went into the second stage of its offensive by imposing secondary sanctions on any country that continued to trade with Iran in defiance of unilateral US sanctions. For all the economic advances by China, Washington retains unchallengeable sway in the global financial system buttressed by the role of the dollar as the world’s currency. This is the first time the US has weaponised its dollar-cum-financial dominance in such a generalised manner. Over-use and abuse of dominance risks blowback.

In the short term, other countries have little option but to buckle to US bullying. Over the long term, however, they will search for credible alternatives in order to avoid being held hostage again. Their net conclusion can only be that US dominance is a profound threat to their national sovereignty and policy autonomy and they must build workarounds. Around 140 countries that have China as their largest trading partner might choose to use the renminbi in economic dealings with China. When the Eurozone crisis ends, the euro might acquire a more prominent role. And the Europeans will look to rewire a de-dollarised financial global governance so it no longer runs through the US.

The latest phase of the US offensive is the threat and risk of war. In response to Iran’s downing of a US spy drone, Trump authorised a military strike but cancelled it minutes before the operation got underway because he was told 150 civilians could be killed. Which is worse—that he wasn’t told the civilian casualty estimate or that he had ignored it initially? This is a shockingly casual approach to decision-making on a possible major regional war.

Former national security advisor Susan Rice thinks the downed US spy drone ‘just might have strayed briefly into Iranian airspace’. Thoughtful Americans should be sobered with the extent of global scepticism surrounding US claims. Allies to have voiced such scepticism, absent further corroborating evidence, include Germany, Norway and Japan. They distrust US motives and believe National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are looking for a pretext to attack Iran. These allies were firmly opposed to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and resent US coercion to break economic ties with Iran.

Bolton has advocated military strikes and regime change for a decade and Pompeo is not a restraining figure among Trump’s top advisers. With Trump’s own capacity for moral reflection on war and peace being highly suspect, it’s a strange feeling to welcome his doubts on the wisdom of a military strike and abort it. Wars of choice and necessity have contributed to destabilising the entire region from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa, turning countries into broken, dysfunctional societies, some of which have become hotbeds and breeding grounds for Islamist terrorism: a bitter legacy of serially failed wars.

The biggest victors of much US blood and treasure shed in this century thus far have been Iran and China in the regional and global balances of power respectively. Iran’s capacity to bleed America is significant and it has positioned itself to take the fight to forward areas beyond its borders, through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. And it could inflict significant pain on the global economy by choking off the flow of oil through the vital Strait of Hormuz.

The dilemma for countries like Australia, India and Japan is that they look to the US as the indispensable stabilising force to check growing Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific, but have to contend with the reality of the US as the primary disruptor of stability in the Middle East.