American Reliability: Iran and North Korea editions

| May 2018
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Two months ago, I noted, based on my observations at the Munich Security Conference and at a trilateral dialogue sponsored by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, that there was growing unease about American reliability and whether the United States as a whole, not just the Trump administration, could be trusted to see through its long-term commitments. At that time, I wrote that we were hearing more pronouncements “that the United States is becoming more inconsistent and unreliable; that its guarantees and promises carry less weight; and worries about erosion in commitments to liberal democracy and human rights.”

This week, the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was created in 2015 to place limits on Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons development by linking cessation of some activities of concern with sanctions relief. This, of course, was not a bilateral agreement or treaty between the U.S. and Iran but, as the name implies, a “plan of action” between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus the European Union (P5+1). Because of deep concerns about Iran’s reliability and the fact that the agreement did not address other areas of Iranian international and domestic behavior that was of concern to many in the United States, the Obama administration took the gamble of using executive authority to sign the deal (and, because of the executive prerogative to direct how the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations votes, without requiring Congressional sanction, to vote in the Security Council to lift international sanctions)–hoping that future administrations would accept to be bound by the deal’s parameters.

A jury-rigged political compromise which many members of Congress eagerly accepted–the ability to vote “no” against the deal without torpedoing the president’s ability to carry it through–meant that most members of Congress could have their cake and eat it: they could vote against the deal but the legislation enabling that vote required absolute, veto-proof majorities to override the president’s decision. As long as President Obama could convince enough Democrats not to vote for disapproval, the agreement moved forward.

Members of Congress, at the time, warned that the deal would only endure as long as a president was committed to it. Of course, Donald Trump was not viewed in 2015 as a likely occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so the Iranian leadership–Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani–took the gamble and signed.

And now the perfect storm has happened. That gamble has failed. What one president did with the pen, another has undone. To the extent that, over the last two decades, the United States has increasingly relied on executive agreements–the Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine’s sovereignty, the Paris climate accords, etc.–the question of American reliability is increasingly raised.

In the past, when there was a general consensus on U.S. foreign policy and this consensus was accepted by the broad mass of the citizenry, this question of American reliability was heard less often, because the agreements made by one administration were generally honored by subsequent presidents. The JCPOA, however, ended up being seen more as a partisan legacy and something particular to the Obama administration–and not legally binding on its successors.

Withdrawal from the JCPOA also happened even after two close allies traveled to Washington to make the case for “mending, not ending” the deal. In particular, it is hard to see how French President Emmanuel Macron can view the U.S. decision as anything but a stinging slap against his offer to see what he could do, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to address loopholes in the existing agreement (sunset provisions on enrichment, dealing with ballistic missiles, etc.). Had Macron tried and failed, it might have been easier to rally European support to reimpose sanctions. As it now stands, division over the Iran deal is likely to open up a new trans-Atlantic rift, to join contentious issues on trade, and likely divergence on whether it is time to punish Russia more or to start, as Macron labelled it, an “historic dialogue” with Moscow. European states may be more inclined to diverge from the United States on these and other issues.

U.S. domestic political dysfunctionality is also on display. It is a warning to North Korea that any agreement reached with Trump which is not written into stone in U.S. law (via the Constitutionally-mandated treaty process) has a shelf life only as long as the Trump presidency. How the fate of the JCPOA will influence the talks in Singapore remains to be seen, but the withdrawal of the U.S. from an agreement, flawed as it was, that was seen as a foundation for how the U.S. and North Korea might create their own diplomatic process will complicate matters.


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