Campaigning on a nationalist vision of the United States as a country being misused by other countries, Donald Trump promised to bring upon significant changes to the international order. His primary tool for achieving this has been an abandonment of multilateral arrangements. Under Trump’s leadership, the US withdrew from the Universal Postal Union, the UNESCO, and has effectively blocked the dispute resolution mechanism of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It has weaponized tariffs using them as an extortion tool in negotiations with Mexico and China and has threatened to use them against other countries as well.
But, Trump’s line of reasoning about multilateral institutions goes a long way in the history of American political and legal thought. Despite participating in creation of such institutional and legal creations as the League of Nations, the International Criminal Court or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the US never joined these institutions or did not ratify the international legal treaties establishing them. The idea of the application of international law in the US remains somewhat controversial to this day and some of the leading legal academics in the US have framed the international law as one to be followed only when it suits the country in question. Therefore, what seems to be the difference concerning Trump’s behaviour is not the attitude towards multilateralism but the rationale in usage of unilateral actions.
The unprecedented transparency of Trump’s actions and the sheer amount of information on his style and policy has allowed the negotiation theorists to portray Trump as a high-risk negotiator, someone who has an optimistic and self-confident outlook on negotiations. The books that were ghost-written for him in the 1980s picture a man endlessly communicating his investment plans and ideas in constant pursuit of the “art of the deal.” His cancellation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multilateral agreement concluded by the EU, China, Russia, the US and Iran displays his abandonment of multilateralism in exchange for high risk game of negotiation, of “making a better deal.” Certainly, there are those who claim, such as the former British ambassador to the US that the JCPOA was cancelled simply because it was a deal that Obama made. Even if true, this should not lead us to ignore the negotiation tactics and the power of the negotiating position that Trump enjoys vis-à-vis Iran.
The JCPOA was a deal that would stop the nuclear enrichment of Iran by imposing – among other measures – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in exchange for elimination of the sanctions. The deal was criticized from the onset from Israel and many in the Republican Party of the US for the main reason that according to them Iran, quite simply, does not have an incentive to abide to it and that it will sooner or later pursue a nuclear program. Direct consequence of this is that the deal will not stop the rise of Iran which will challenge not only the power of Saudi Arabia and Qatar but also that of Israel, the main strategic ally of the US in the region.
Thus, Trump had good reasons to cancel the deal and to impose sanctions that would greatly hurt the Iranian economy. The US sanctions were applied extraterritorially, despite protests of governments (including the EU) that considered them illegal under international law. But all the venues before which they could have been challenged (the US courts, the WTO and the International Court of Justice) were blocked. The WTO’s Appellate Body was blocked by the Trump administration, litigation before the US courts represented too high of a risk even for a large multinational company that would have the motives and the resources to litigate and the Iran’s application before the International Court of Justice has an uncertain potential in changing US practice. Together with an almost global compliance and the willingness of the US to prosecute individuals or companies even if they facilitated the transactions that included non-US companies or goods made the sanctions a powerful tool for influencing the behaviour of regimes. This is because the nexus of jurisdiction can be made based solely on the fact that the transactions were executed in US dollars which remained a favourite currency of global trade. The sanctions thus hurt anyone with an exposure to the US financial markets involving most world banks and insurance companies vital to insurance of tankers that carry the Iranian oil through the Hormuz straits towards its buyers.
From the moment he reintroduced the sanctions Trump changed his rhetoric towards Iran. Threats of military escalation were combined with the invocations of “good people of Iran” and calls to “make Iran great again.” Additionally, a list of demands that, if executed, would lead to a decrease in power that Iran enjoys in the Middle East were added to the JCPOA conditionality. However, the Iranian government openly refused this calls for negotiations calling Trump a mentally ill person. Encouraged by his success in courting another pariah state, North Korea, Trump was hoping to establish a rapport with Iran overestimating the impact of the sanctions and their willingness to evade them. Instead, Iran relied on its ability to withstand the sanctions perhaps hoping for a regime change in the White House by 2020. Actions taken by the EU which sought to establish a trade vehicle that would bypass the US sanctions in order to allow for humanitarian trade (INSTEX) that were supported by Russia have sent a signal that the rest of Western democracies are willing to preserve the deal. Despite enormous difficulties, China kept buying Iranian oil. Thus, what Trump achieved so far was pleasing his base in the Republican Party but not too many other people.
It seems that Trump lost sight of the grand goal that he is pursuing, which is a non-nuclear, less regionally present Iran. He also failed to consider the history of US negotiations with Iran. Simply replacing a multilateral regime with a bargaining game may work for the US as it may use the international legal obligations to its interest. But, without a willingness to either engage Iran militarily or support a credible opposition to the regime the goals of the US will not be achieved through sanctions. To the contrary, sanctions have prompted a reimagination of the international order without a US hegemony. His re-election, aside from a further escalation of unilateral negotiations, will prompt challenges to both the extraterritorial application of US law and to the US dollar as a vehicle of global trade with other currencies. Difficulties in establishing INSTEX demonstrate how hard it is to achieve something like that. But the world should not rely on Trump’s negotiating incompetence. In fact, if we look at the outcome that North Korea achieved through negotiations perhaps the advice to Iranian regime would be to negotiate. These negotiations would buy time and would not undermine the credibility of the regime before the citizens.
The views expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI