One of the important foreign policy priorities of President-elect Joe Biden, which will have an impact not just on the US but a number of its allies in the West – such as the UK, Germany, France (the E3), India, and Japan – is Washington’s ties with Iran.
It will be interesting to see the ultimate shape which Biden’s Iran foreign policy takes place. Days before the announcement of the election result, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, in an interview to CBS news, that Iran viewed the statements emanating from the Biden camp positively, though Iran would have to wait and watch.
While commenting on the Biden-Harris victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Said Rouhani:
Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – Iran/P5+1 agreement in 2018, had been criticized by allies, including the E3, who were signatories to the agreement.
President-elect Joe Biden has also unequivocally stated that he is open to the US rejoining JCPOA, subject to the fact that Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement. Biden, who also served as Vice President under Obama (who had fervently backed the JCPOA), has been critical of the Trump Administration’s approach towards Iran, dubbing it as a failure. During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden, along with many US allies, had also advocated that the US relax Iranian sanctions temporarily on humanitarian grounds.
In recent months, Washington has imposed more sanctions on Iran, the latest instance being sanctions imposed days before the election on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, and its oil-tanker subsidiary. The reason cited for sanctions is the financial support provided by these companies to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It would be pertinent to point out that the US was unable to snapback Iranian sanctions which had been removed under the JCPOA – UNSC members blocked US attempts. While there is skepticism with regard to the revival of the deal given that incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself is likely to face elections soon, and there is limited room for manuevre given that hardliners in Iran (whose clout has increased as a result of Trump’s Iran policy), are averse to any engagement with the West. Senior Iranian officials have also stated that they will not accept any conditionalities from Washington.
Biden may have fundamental differences in his approach vis-à-vis the Middle East as compared to Trump for a variety of reasons.
First, Biden is likely to be less confrontationalist vis-à-vis Iran as has already been indicated by him.
Second, Donald Trump had a far better relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others like Turkey and Egypt. Trump made no qualms about getting along with authoritarian leadership of these countries, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.
Trump touted agreements between Middle Eastern countries Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as one of his major achievements. To be fair, even his critics would grant him credit for the same. What puzzled many was his flexibility vis-à-vis North Korea and his obduracy in engaging with Iran. Former President Obama while commenting on the US withdrawal from JCPOA had remarked:
Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans
Third, a more flexible engagement will prevent Iran from further swaying towards China, something Washington would want to prevent. One of the key factors cited for the Iran-China 25-year agreement (which will bolster economic and strategic relations between both countries) is the approach of the Trump Administration vis-à-vis Iran.
Apart from this, Biden, who has repeatedly reiterated the point about engaging with allies, is likely to take their advice. The US President-elect has already proposed a global democracy summit where common challenges confronting the world will be discussed and it is expected that the US will seek the views of allies.
It is not necessary that Biden is likely to follow a policy identical to Obama’s given that global geopolitical dynamics in general and the situation in the Middle East have witnessed a significant shift. Yet a more flexible and pragmatic US approach towards Iran could prevent Tehran from veering further towards Beijing. It is also important for the US to give more space to its allies to strengthen economic linkages with Tehran. Joe Biden has numerous other challenges, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani too has a number of problems to cope with but there is a limited window for at least getting back to the dialogue table and reducing tensions.
- Military alliances and lessons for collective action (pdf) Hartley & Sandler, JEL
- Federations, coalitions, and risk diversification (pdf) Chiang & Mahmud, PC
- How dirty and stinky were medieval cities? Elise Kjørstad, sciencenorway
- America’s postwar world order in transition (pdf) G John Ikenberry, IRA-P
- Attention, fashion, and false consensus Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- In praise of negativity Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber
- My only complaint: this should be anti-Communist Party rather than anti-China Shashank Bengali, LA Times
- The Belt and Road Initiative as an anti-imperialist discourse (pdf) Ying-Kit Chan, CJAS
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East Asia, and China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, it is interesting to see the tone of the English language media on China.
Yet a genuinely comprehensive peek into the Chinese view on crucial political, economic, and geopolitical issues requires a perusal of the Chinese language papers. This is imperative. The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, is important because it covers the views of Chinese academics and strategic analysts who, through their opinion pieces, provide a deep insight into China’s approach towards those aforementioned crucial issues.
From the opinion pieces at the Global Times over the past few months, one thing is evident: that with the US becoming increasingly unpredictable under Trump, China is virtually invincible. There is a growing belief that Beijing is formidable both in the economic and strategic context. Strategic analysts and journalists writing for the English language daily have also tried to drive home the point that Beijing is in a position to take on the US and its allies, and that any attempt to isolate China would not be taken lying down.
Other articles in the Global Times warn against anti-China alliances, and explain why these alliances will not be possible due to the fault lines between the US and other countries. It has also not refrained from using strong language against countries like Australia and Canada by insinuating that they are acting as mere appendages of the US.
Aggressive stance vis-à-vis countries which blamed China for lack of transparency with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic
Beijing has been scathing in its criticism not only of the US, which took a firm stand against China in regards to the suppression of crucial information pertaining to the pandemic, but also Australia, which had the temerity to ask for an enquiry into the origins of the deadly pandemic. The Global Times lashed out and labelled Australia as a mere appendage of the US, even dubbing it a ‘poodle’ and ‘dog of the US’.
It has also warned other countries, especially Australia, of the economic consequences of taking on Beijing. An article titled ‘Australia’s economy cannot withstand Cold War with China’, written by Wang Jiamei, concludes by saying:
‘…..If a new Cold War leads to a China-Australia showdown, Australia will pay an unbearable price. Given Australia’s high dependence on the Chinese economy, an all-around confrontation will have a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy’
China has followed this harsh rhetoric with sanctions on imports of certain Australian commodities, like barley, and suspended the import of beef. China has also issued warnings to students and tourists that ask them to reconsider travelling to Australia.
This was done days after China’s envoy in Australia, Cheng Jingye, in an interview to an Australian media outlet, had warned of strong economic repercussions (the envoy was referring not just to the impact on Australia-China trade, but on Chinese students pursuing education in Australia and tourists visiting Australia) if Australia continued to adopt a strong stance against China on the issue of an enquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic (Australia reacted very strongly to this threat).
Beijing unsettled by emerging alliances?
One interesting point is that while commentaries and reportage in the Global Times try to send out the message that China’s rise is inexorable and that Beijing is not daunted by emerging alliances and emerging narratives of reducing economic dependence upon China, it seems to be wary of partnerships and alliances which seek to challenge it. The newspaper repeatedly warns India, the UK, Australia, and various EU member states about the perils of strengthening ties with the US. Even in the midst of recent tensions between India and China, Global Times tried to argue that India would never openly ally with the US and if it did so, this would be damaging. An article in the Global Times states:
It won’t be in the interest of India, if it really joins the Five Eye intelligence alliance. The role of a little brother of the US within a certain alliance is not what India really wants.
The article also tries to dissect differences between the US and India over a number of issues, which are not wrong, but the piece forgets that the two countries do not have differences over strategic and economic issues.
Strong language against Canada
It is not just the US, Japan, Australia, EU member states, and India that the English-language daily has recently threatened. The Global Times has also adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Canada. One article, titled ‘China-Canada ties wane further as Ottawa becomes Washington’s puppet over HK’, suggests that Justin Trudeau was in the ‘pole position in the circle of bootlickers pleasing the US’ and castigates him for the measures he has taken after China tightened its control over Hong Kong via the imposition of National Security Law. Steps taken by Trudeau include suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and a decision to end the export of sensitive military items to the region.
Cracks in the bilateral relationship had begun to emerge between Canada and China after Canada detained the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, on a US extradition warrant (at the end of May, a Canadian court had ruled that Wanzhou could be extradited to the US, much to the chagrin of the Chinese), while Beijing in return has detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavlor (both were charged with espionage in June 2020). It would be pertinent to point out that Beijing has signaled its displeasure with Canada by reducing imports of Canadian products like pork and canola oil.
While Beijing itself is becoming more aggressive and belligerent, it cannot expect other countries to stick to their earlier position on crucial strategic issues. It is somewhat unfair to assume that the Global Times, the mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, can cover the fact that China is on the defensive. Other countries are now finding common ground in the strategic and economic sphere. While the results may not come overnight, partnerships are likely to concretize and gather momentum, because Beijing seems in no mood to give up on its hegemonic mindset and patronizing approach. Yet, other countries and regional blocs also need to have a clear vision to counter China and divergences over minor issues will not help. It is true that a zero-sum approach vis-à-vis China is not beneficial, but for that to happen Beijing too needs to act responsibly, which seems doubtful given its behavior on a number of issues.
In the run-up to the US elections, presumptive Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are four months to the election, however, and it is too early predict the outcome. Many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact. Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden is confidence with regard to handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. The current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations, and keeping the country united.
Commentators, strategic analysts, and policymakers the world over are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s mind is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct given the massive economic and geopolitical changes which have taken place globally. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton – whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir have stirred up controversy and come at the wrong time for Trump – a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.
It is true that Biden has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway.’ and would be preferred by US liberals and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’ who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well, given the fact that he may not be as isolationist as Trump, and is likely to be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.
In the changed economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues. We may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, as attitudes towards trade had already begun to change during the Obama presidency.
One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. (The Trump Administration has sought to build strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative.) Biden said that he would only join a ‘re-negotiated TPP’ (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken when elected to office was to pull the US out of the TPP).
On China, too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable and abrasive than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point that Trump, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang
Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei and ZTE Corporation were declared ‘national security’ threats), a number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, mostly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about the US working closely with its allies to take on China, and on the other hand Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.
Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken too kindly by countries like Germany and Canada, who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.
Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders
While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport, was involved in the killing of Khashoggi).
In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H1Bs (in recent years, Indians have received well over two-thirds of the total H1B visas which have been issued) until the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), and during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favour of a greater role for India in Asia, and the need for both countries to work closely towards this goal.
What has irked many in India, however, is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on Biden’s campaign website. It would be important to note that not just Democrats, but even many Republicans, have criticised the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, and a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism in India, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many right-thinking Indians, too, have been emphasizing on the point that India can not progress without social cohesion and warned against the perils of religious polarization and social divisions.
No US administration can afford to be soft on China any longer, and neither can India with its rising clout be ignored. The US under Biden is likely to cement ties with countries like India and Vietnam while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, and Australia are kept in good humor. What could change is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.
- What Social Distancing reveals about East-West differences Jen & Wang, Scientific American
- Welcome back to Kissinger’s world Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy
- Trump’s relationship with Europe goes from bad to… David Herszenhorn, Politico
- The debate around COVID-19 is starting to sound familiar Addison del Mastro, American Conservative
The United Kingdom’s post-corona foreign policy is likely to be driven by some crucial economic factors. On the one hand, it will continue to work closely with countries like the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to reduce its dependence upon China. On the other hand, the UK cannot totally bank on the US for achieving its economic goals, given the unpredictability of US President Donald Trump.
The UK needs to look at new Free Trade Agreements (FTA’s) and also be part of multilateral arrangements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which will enable it to diversify its supply chains.
Important upcoming economic decisions
Given the changing environment of the post-corona world, London now has an eye on enhancing self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on China.
The Boris Johnson government has set up a committee — ‘Project Defend’ — which seeks to study the UK’s economic dependence with hostile countries (with a specific thrust on China), especially for sensitive imports. Based on the findings of Project Defend’s report, for example, the UK will work towards the relocation of pharmaceutical companies. While changing supply chains overnight may not be an easy task, the Boris Johnson Administration has made an important decision.
The UK’s recent decision on Huawei
The Boris Johnson Administration has also recently decided to reduce Huawei’s participation in the 5G network to zero by 2023. In January 2020, Boris Johnson had given a go ahead to Huawei’s participation in the ‘non-core’ element of the 5G network, with important restrictions, as well as a 35% market share cap. This decision drew flak from a section of Conservative Party politicians, who for long have been arguing that the UK needs to be cautious with regard to close economic ties with China, since this has serious security implications. The Trump administration had also expressed its displeasure with the Boris Johnson administration. The US President and senior officials in his administration have publicly expressed their unhappiness, saying that this decision could have an impact on security cooperation between both countries.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, ties between the UK and China have gone downhill (senior officials of the Johnson administration have criticized China for suppressing information with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic), and Johnson’s decision was driven by two factors: 1) increasing pressure from Conservative MP’s who had threatened to vote against the government’s decision, and 2) the fact, that the UK is keen to go ahead with an FTA with the US (there have been differences between the US and UK, however, on the issue of the FTA, with the US urging the UK to make a choice between China and the US).
Apart from this, the recent US sanctions imposed on Huawei have also played a role in Johnson’s decision of reducing Huawei’s participation by 2023 (the Trump administration has made it compulsory for foreign manufacturers using U.S. chipmaking equipment to obtain a license before being able to sell chips to Huawei).
Interestingly, the UK has also proposed that a group of 10 countries, dubbed as D10, joins hands to provide an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network and other technologies with the aim of reducing dependence upon China. The proposed grouping would consist of the US, Italy, Japan, the UK, South Korea, India, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia.
The UK has thus taken the lead in providing an alternative to the now bipolar status quo. Significantly, Trump has also stated that he is keen to expand the G7 and include not only India and South Korea but Russia as well.
UK also keen to play an important role in the TPP
While on the one hand the UK is trying to reduce its dependence upon China by joining hands with the US and like-minded countries, on the other the UK is also seeking membership within the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which consists of 11 members (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).
While the idea of the TPP was proposed by former US President Barack Obama, the first decision taken by Trump after his electoral triumph in 2016 was to withdraw from the agreement. Japan has been playing an important role in the TPP, and efforts are being made to expand its membership so that democratic dependence on China is still further reduced.
The UK faces numerous challenges and while it does need to reshape its economic relationship with China, London recognizes that this cannot be done overnight, so enhancing FTAs and joining the TPP are important steps in geopolitical context.
From a purely strategic perspective, the UK-US relationship has been important and with Johnson and Trump at the helm, and increasing convergence on attitudes vis-à-vis China, this is likely to get further strengthened (though of course there will be differences on both economic and geopolitical issues). The idea of the D10 grouping mooted by the UK has also sent a clear message that in spite of numerous economic challenges, the UK is keen to emerge as an important player, in its own right, in the post-corona world order.
Lucas’ post reminded me of a piece that I wrote for his website ThinkIR, in 2013. Most of it I re-used in my book Degrees of Freedom (2015). Of course it is also a piece on its own, that readers of NoL may find of interest. Thanks Lucas!
It is fun to think about the almost unthinkable. Therefore this contribution is about the idea that no state is needed to provide military security against foreign attack. In modern times the idea goes back to at least the French-Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari and his 1849 pamphlet The Production of Security. The most prominent current defender of this idea is the German economist Hans-Herman Hoppe, a leading anarcho-capitalist thinker, in his essay The Private Production of Defense (also see The Myth of National Defense, which was edited by Hoppe).
Hoppe rightly notices (p.1) that the legitimacy of the modern state is strongly related to the belief in collective security. Following Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, he argues that states will always expand, due to the governmental monopoly to tax its inhabitants. This also applies to governments that only have the limited task of protection against aggression and administrating and justice. The only proper solution is therefore to abolish the state altogether, in order to ensure true liberty and individual justice. Consequently, this also means that the provision of security needs to be privatized, as Hoppe does not expect the world to turn into a peaceful utopia (pp. 1- 5).
So how would this work? Basically, to regard the production of security as an insurance, where the expenditures for defense are to be paid by premiums paid by individuals (pp.5-8). The insured people can choose from competing insurance firms, just like in other parts of the insurance market. This is not as improbable at it may seem at first sight. Importantly, insurance companies are already used to deal with risk and other real world dangers. There are already many private security companies in existence, also at the battlefield. The cost of defense in relation to other parts of the insurance market appears large, but do not discount the idea beforehand. For example: Dutch defense expenditure in 2013 is around 7 billion Euro, less than 1% of GDP, while annual turnover of the two largest insurers is around 20 billion. Of course Hoppe would point out that the 7 billion in current defense expenditures needs to be returned to the taxpayers, hence widening the premium base. Presumably, this would work the same in other countries with smaller economies and/or smaller financial sectors (but see the remarks below).
A world without states, but with private security insurance is less war prone, Hoppe argues (p.11-12). Insurers will have an interest in keeping costs down, and will therefore only make unprovoked attacks insurable. People who provoke, or have known to provoke violence in the past, will be excluded from the insurance. After a while, the number of uninsured people will be small. They will face big defense insurance companies if they violate somebody’s property, making this unlikely to happen often, in contrast to interstate war. Yet in my view here Hoppe relies too much on his stated view on human nature: man as rational animal.
A related main defect of the essay is its focus on the role of insurers and their (economic) incentives. This is fine, but the argument quickly loses any of the convincing power it has when Hoppe turns to an analysis of international war. Or more precise, a violent conflict between a free territory, defended by one or more insurance companies, and a state, financed by compulsory taxation. He simply asserts (p. 14) that the state would be in a disadvantage because it is less efficient and that its leaders would lose their legitimacy, because they necessarily fail to convince the population of the justification of an attack on the inherently peaceful free territory.
Yet if an attack would still happen, Hoppe continues, the state-led army of specialists would not only face the defense force of the insurance company (or several insurers and re-insurers cooperating), but also an armed population (p.15). Without much analysis he simply asserts the companies will always be more efficient and also capable to counter all attacks by any state, perform counter-operations in the state territory and be able to kill its leaders, while making sure to minimize any collateral damage. All because they have to justify their insurance fees.
That is as far as Hoppe goes in his argument. He offers no further analysis or other scenario’s, no additional arguments, does not provide any international political analysis, none whatsoever. Only the fact that the insurance companies are private suffices for Hoppe as they must be more efficient and thus able to overcome all possible attack. That is too simplistic, as just three examples illuminate.
Hoppe overlooks some important geopolitical aspects. Take size of territory and population for instance. How likely is it really that a small free territory, say the size of Luxembourg, or The Netherlands for that matter, would be able to raise enough insurance premiums to enable a good defense structure to counter attacks by much larger states? There is a difference between collecting enough money to match current defense expenditures and ensuring defense against all possible attacks, especially given the anarcho-capitalist dislike of international alliances such as NATO.
Apparently Hoppe thinks all necessary technology is either invented by the research and development people of the insurance company, or freely available at the market. This is improbable as far as the state-side of the argument concerns, given today’s relative secrecy in military procurement. Also, the cooperation between insurance companies may fail in this respect. If one company has a superior weapon system, it will be a ground for competition with the other insurer(s). The superiority of one company may quickly make it a monopolist. It may become a threat to its insured, just like states may be threats to their taxpayers. Once the armed forces of the private insurer are in full operation it only takes a powerful CEO with his or her own agenda to turn things sour. Just the fact of private financing does not make much difference.
Also, does economic efficiency always trump state inefficiency? The history of warfare is full of examples where the supposedly superior army loses unexpectedly. So if the state deals a decisive blow it effectively robs the remains of the insurance company, and it’s successors, of its premium paying clients.
To conclude, for liberty loving people the prospect of stateless private security may be tantalizing. However, the quality of the argument as presented by Hoppe thus far is poor and unconvincing. His theoretical arguments largely stem from economics and overlook other relevant facts and arguments, including those from IR. Hoppe’s private production of defense remains a fairy tale.
The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.
Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA
In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.
Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.
During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.
Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.
Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks
Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.
Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.
This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.
US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same
Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.
It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.
Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei
Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.
Johnson’s approach towards Huawei
In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.
Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues
It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.
If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).
In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.
Some say that Donald Trump’s transactionalism in the realm of geopolitics has gotten out of hand. Tridivesh has actually been saying this for awhile now. Jacques is not pleased with the president’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Of the other Notewriters, only Andre has spoken up for Trump’s withdrawal from Syria.
There are libertarians and leftists who have applauded Trump’s move, but for the most part people are dissatisfied with the way the president of the United States conducts foreign policy. There’s no logic. There’s no strategy. And the incentives don’t quite line up, either: is Trump out for the republic or himself?
This is unfair. Trump’s transactionalism comes with more press, but Obama and the guy before him were transactionalist presidents, too. Just think about Syria to begin with. Getting involved in the butchery there had no logic to it and actually went against the strategy of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia.” Still, Obama mired the republic in another brutal regional scuffle. GWB did the same thing in Iraq, too. Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan, so Bush invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Makes sense, right?
Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe we should be looking at the incentives and trade-offs available to the executive branch of the American government instead of single individuals.
My contribution to reassessing American foreign policy is to look at the role that formal alliances play in chaining down the executive branch in the American system. Libertarians loathe both alliances and the executive branch, but what if one is useful for off-setting the other? Which one would you rather have? (Trade-offs are more realistic than utopias, my fellow libertarians.)
There are two general types of alliances in the world: formal and informal. Alliances have been with us since the dawn of time, too. Think of the alliances our Stone Age ancestors made, one individual at a time. Elected politicians make alliances and call them political parties. Dictators make alliances and call them bargains. You get the picture. The United States has traditionally made use of informal alliances, so Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria is really a continuation of American foreign policy and not an aberration as some hawks claim.
In fact, prior to World War II, the United States had signed just one official alliance with another polity: the Treaty of Alliance with France that lasted from 1778-80. So from the start of the Revolutionary War (which was really a secession from the British Empire rather than an actual revolution) in 1776 to America’s entrance into World War II in late 1941, the United States had joined only one alliance, and it was a short-lived alliance that would make or break the existence of the republic. (During World War I, the United States was an “affiliated partner” rather than an official ally.)
This doesn’t mean that the United States was isolationist, or non-interventionist, during this time frame. In fact, it highlights well the fact that the United States has a long history of entering into alliances of convenience, and a short history of building and then leading stable coalitions of military partners around the world. Alliances have shaped the destiny of the republic since its founding. And, more importantly, these alliances of convenience have their intellectual roots in George Washington’s foreign policy. Washington’s foreign policy even has its own name: the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances. According to Washington and other elites of the founding era, the United States should freely enter into, and exit, alliances as necessary (Jefferson was a big fan of this Doctrine, too). This stands in stark contrast to the idea that the United States only soiled its virginal unilateralism once, when it was in dire peril and needed a helping hand from France to fend off an evil empire.
Washingtonian alliances throughout American history
Aside from fighting alongside the Oneida and Tuscarora during its secession from the British Empire, the United States forged alliances with Sweden, in 1801 to fight the Barbary states, and with the Choctaw, Cherokee, and some of the Creek during the ill-fated War of 1812. In fact, one of the reasons the United States got pummeled in the War of 1812 was the lack of Native allies relative to the British, who had secured alliances with at least 10 Native American polities.
The American push westward saw a plethora of shifting alliances with Native peoples, all of which tilted in eventual favor of the United States (and to the detriment of their allies).
The American foray into imperialism in the late 19th century saw alliances with several factions in Cuba and the Philippines that were more interested in extirpating Spain than thinking through an alliance with an expansion-minded United States.
In 1832 the United States entered into a Washingtonian alliance with the Dutch in order to crush some Barbary-esque states along the Sumatran coast. The alliance led to the eventual, brutal conquest of Aceh by the Dutch and a long-lasting mutual friendship between the Americans and the Dutch.
From 1886-94 the United States and its ally in the South Pacific, the Mata’afa clan of Samoa, fought Germany and its Samoan allies for control over the Samoan islands. The Boxer Rebellion in China saw the United States ally with six European states (including Austria-Hungary) and Japan, and affiliate with three more European states and several Qing dynasty governors who refused to follow their emperor’s orders.
NATO’s continued importance
Clearly, the United States has followed its first president’s foreign policy doctrine for centuries. Washington warned that his doctrine was not to be an eternal guideline, though. Indeed, the most-cited case study of the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances is not the American experience in the 19th century, but the Nazi-Soviet one of the 20th, when the Germans turned on the Soviets as soon as it became expedient to do so.
The establishment of NATO has forced the United States to become reciprocal in its alliances with other countries. The republic can no longer take, take, and take some more without giving something in return. This situation of mutually beneficial exchange has tempered not only the United States but everybody else in the world, too (especially in the industrialized part of the world; the part with the deadliest weapons). Free riding will most likely continue to be a problem within NATO. The United States will continue to pay more than its share to keep the alliance afloat. And that’s perfectly okay considering most of the alternatives: imperialism (far more expensive than free riding allies), ethnic cleansing, or oscillating blocs of states looking out for their own interests in a power vacuum, like the situation Europe found itself in during the bloody 20th century.
The forgotten alternative
Unstable alliances lead to an unstable world. The rise of NATO has been a boon to the world, despite its costs. If libertarians want to be taken seriously in the realm of foreign affairs, they would do well to shake off the Rothbardian shackles of isolationism/non-interventionism and embrace Madisonian federalism with a Christensenian twist. The 13 North American colonies that broke away from the British Empire were sovereign states when they banded together. The 29 members of NATO are sovereign states, too, and there’s no reason to believe that Madison’s federal blueprint can’t band them together as well.
If libertarians are comfortable embracing non-interventionism as a foreign policy doctrine, even though it has never been tried and even though it’s based on a shoddy interpretation of history, there’s no reason why they can’t instead embrace federation as their go-to alternative. Federation at least has history on its side, and it’s also got the obscure appeal that libertarians so love to ooze at public gatherings. Will 2020 be the year that libertarians shift from non-interventionism to federation?