America's Imperial Unraveling
The news that President Donald Trump will not recertify the Iran nuclear deal—despite the fact that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—hardly comes as a surprise. The deal, forged between Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union, greatly curtails Iran’s right to refine nuclear fuel and requires that the country’s nuclear program be put only to peaceful uses, instead of the production of weapons. Trump made plain while campaigning and since taking office that the signature foreign policy accomplishment of the Barack Obama administration was in the crosshairs and that he sees Iran, not the Islamic State, as America’s principal adversary in the region.
By giving ethno-nationalists a seat at the foreign policy table, Trump has sanctioned a racialized fixation with Iran as paramount national threat, more dangerous even than Russia.
In the short term, Trump’s decision to not recertify the deal amounts to a tense stalemate between the foreign-policy hawks and ideologues in the administration, and the Secretaries of Defense and State, who have made clear that, from their perspective, the deal is in the best interest of U.S. national security. It also places the fate of the agreement in the hands of Congress, which will now have to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, an act that would violate the terms of the deal. Derailing a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activities would likely be the first step on a path to direct confrontation with Iran, to the joy of the Trump administration’s allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
For many commentators, Trump’s refusal to recertify the deal looks like the final death throes of U.S. global leadership and thus the end of the American Century. Combined with Brexit, the sense of disorientation among global leaders has been palpable, with questions abounding about whether the post–World War II order may be nearly over. But if we are today witnessing the collapse of this order, it is an unraveling more than a quarter century in the making. While the Trump administration has certainly broken with the conventional decorum and diplomacy of the presidency, Trump’s rise is hardly the triggering cause of the breakdown. Indeed, the new administration is best seen as a culmination, a product of the United States’s steady defection from the very order it was essential in establishing and sustaining.
If there is something like a “Trump Doctrine,” it lies in two developments: the boldness with which a declared reliance on coercion and conquest now sits uncomfortably beside America’s professed moral authority; and the implications of Trump’s ethno-nationalism for how global allies and enemies are conceived. For starters, whereas earlier administrations emphasized the need for diplomacy even as they consistently preferred unilateral uses of military force, Trump eschews such niceties. Instead his administration is at pains to dismantle the infrastructure of the State Department, with the president declaring that the United States intends to “take Iraq’s oil” and plunder “Afghanistan’s minerals.” Trump’s bald reliance on strongman tactics is difficult for elites to reconcile with their persistent belief in American exceptionalism. Yet, this is simply the culmination of the last quarter-century’s cleaving of U.S. power from its classic justifications.
The other development is that by giving a seat at the foreign policy table to proponents of a virulent ethno-nationalism, Trump’s presidency marks a shift in U.S. self-presentation. Such ethno-nationalists contest the universalist and inclusive premises of Cold War rhetoric. They defend a harsh anti-immigrant position and proclaim the link between Americanism and European racial and cultural identity. These racialized premises are central to the fixation with Iran—rather than say Russia for example—and to the insistence that a country with which the United States was, until recently, able to conduct complex diplomacy now presents the paramount national threat.
The United States remains the preeminent economic and military power in the world, yet it has embarked on a project to dismantle its own hegemony.
The best way to appreciate the meaning of the Trump presidency for American foreign policy is by turning to the Middle East, a region that—perhaps more than any other—has been a hot zone of American power in the years since the end of the Cold War. In many ways, American priorities for the region have remained continuous since then, namely, the pursuit of privileged access to oil markets and the preservation of a set of security arrangements organized around the Gulf States and Israel. But in the context of unipolarity, the United States has increasingly pursued these objectives outside the frameworks of the multilateral global order and in ways that repudiate an international system of mutual self-constraint. And under the War on Terror, the region has, if anything, become a testing ground for a new American model premised on unilateralism and preventative military action. Placed in this context, the Trump administration’s verbal bellicosity, loosening of military rules of engagement, and spike in civilian casualties is properly understood as an acceleration of practices long underway.
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When commentators bemoan the collapse of the American postwar order or the end of the American Century, what exactly do they mean? The brand of American power that took root in the early days of the Cold War had a series of connected elements. The starting point was U.S. policymakers’ contention that the United States was an exceptional nation, because from its founding it had been committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence: self-governance, universal equality, and personal liberty. This meant that, unlike its global adversaries, the Soviet Union chief among them, American interests were coterminous with the world’s interests. And for this reason, it should serve as the world’s steward and first nation.
In practice, this justified restructuring foreign societies on U.S. terms by spreading abroad both market-based capitalism and the institutions of liberal democracy. It also called for the creation of an international framework marked by these same principles, especially through multilateral and consensus-based legal structures, to address the problems of global governance. The United States was at the forefront of establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, the Bretton Woods institutions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and a plethora of other interlocking institutions aimed at shaping everything from international monetary policy and global trade to health, education, and scientific cooperation. The overall aim was a U.S.-led world driven by collective security and capitalist economic principles, with U.S. military power and wealth as the ultimate backstop.
Obama's use of diplomacy with Iran to deescalate any nuclear confrontation was the single most significant foreign policy move in recent decades consistent with the old U.S. postwar liberalism.
In reality this utopian vision left much to be desired. The rosy picture of a United States “born free” cut against persistent and obvious issues of racial oppression and domestic class conflict. As for foreign policy, the Cold War saw direct U.S. involvement or complicity in truly staggering forms of mass violence across large swathes of the world, from the Vietnam War to countless coups, political assassinations, and small-scale interventions. For critics of U.S. imperium, rather than generating a stable and prosperous community of liberal democracies, U.S. power often seemed to entail economic exploitation and illiberal authoritarianism (as in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, and South Africa, to name just a few client states). But it is still worth noting that for much of the Cold War, the example of a growing U.S. economy and the commitment of policymakers to investing in multilateral economic and security institutions sustained faith that the Unites States could lift all boats. It gave a sense of real purpose to U.S. policymakers and to U.S.-aligned elites, in Europe and in the Global South. These groups could look to the United States’ example as a viable model, even if it went hand in hand with political violence.
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While the end of the Cold War meant the end of the perceived Soviet threat, it also decreased the pressures that had led U.S. leaders to value international institutions as conducive to national self-interest. The consequence was a systematic withdrawal by American administrations from the multilateral global order. From the International Criminal Court to the Kyoto Protocol, U.S. elites continued to pay lip service to multilateral institutions and even presided over the drafting of new treaties for global governance, but increasingly opted not to join the institutions they themselves had negotiated.
The effects of this quickly became apparent in the Middle East, given the near continuous exercise of American military power that has marked the region since the 1991 Gulf War. In the beginning it seemed that the first Gulf War—authorized by the United Nations Security Council—signaled a new potential for international unity under American unipolar leadership. But 1991 proved to be the high-water mark for international security cooperation. Such cooperation was soon displaced by a growing U.S. preference for selective ad hoc coalitions and for unilateral and preemptive uses of force. While this also played out in Kosovo, at the European periphery, it especially came to define how the United States engaged with Muslim and Arab states, from the bombing of Sudan in 1998 through the Iraq invasion of 2003. Indeed, the War on Terror only intensified what had already been established during the Clinton era. The George W. Bush administration repudiated the Geneva Conventions when justifying its use of force against al Qaeda, withdrew from arms control agreements, and promulgated a national security strategy premised on preemption.
Where the promotion of democracy once served as the go-to rhetoric of U.S. policymakers, the War on Terror introduced priorities that clash with even an aspirational invocation of global democracy.
Following the spectacular failure of the Bush administration’s military enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama rekindled international hopes for American recommitment to a rule-based international order. Yet the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to Obama during his first year in office proved premature. His administration was at best ambivalent about multilateralism and it repeatedly defended the U.S. prerogative to use force in counterterrorism operations around the world. If anything, the 2011 intervention in Libya, which recalled the chaos and violence of the Iraq invasion a decade earlier, raised doubts about whether the United States was legitimate—or even competent—in its uses of force. Whatever the stated aim—whether fighting terrorism, countering arms proliferation, or serving humanitarianism—U.S. military force seemed ill-suited for the task. Simultaneously, the prospect of an alternative multilateral approach to security dilemmas or “fragile states” continued to be remote under U.S. leadership.
As the logic of anti-communism has come to be replaced by the logic of counterterrorism, U.S. commitment to a liberal transnational project has waned. Where the promotion of democracy once served as the go-to rhetoric of U.S. policymakers, the War on Terror introduced new priorities that often clash with even an aspirational invocation of global democracy. For example, Cold War support for anti-communist dictatorships was presented as transitional, a regrettable compromise on the road to democratization. By contrast, support for authoritarian rulers in the age of the War on Terror is effectively disconnected from even cursory calls for democratic transition. Rather, in a region presented as an incubator of terrorism, U.S. actions consistently aim to consolidate executive power, banking on pliable elites regardless of the implications for the liberal order. In the face of expanding doubts in Washington about the capacity of Arab and Muslim states to reform themselves, the goal is simply a pro-American and largely authoritarian stability.
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And thus we arrive at our present circumstance, with the United States routinely operating without regard for multilateral cooperation, international constraints, or external accountability. Nothing illustrates this better than the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Syria, where the United States has been continuously intervening—albeit with little domestic awareness—throughout the country’s six-year civil war.
Trump’s posture on Syria is to treat the country as a sandbox where he can try out various regional alliances, without any actual plan for—or regard to—how lasting peace might be generated there. In this, there is much continuity between Trump and Obama. The Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 allowed the Obama administration to capitalize on instability and popular demands to unseat U.S. foes, while simultaneously resisting any currents of change that threatened U.S. interests. In February 2011, even as the mildest expressions of peaceful dissent were brutally repressed with American support in Bahrain, the U.S. embraced armed opposition to the Libyan regime. Within weeks, as the Saudi military rolled across the causeway to assist the U.S.-allied Bahraini government in its brutal crackdown on a nonviolent democracy movement, the United States began offensive aerial support to Libyan rebels taking up arms to oust that persistent thorn in the side of the United States, Muammar Gaddafi.
Trump has loosened whatever constraints existed for the United States’s most aggressive allies in the Middle East, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.
In Syria, the United States has sought to simultaneously flip a regional adversary, constrain Iranian and Russian influence, and shore up the position of its Gulf allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Trump’s sword-dancing performance last May in Riyadh followed by his direct flight to Tel Aviv make evident that these policies have earned his administration a warm welcome in some quarters. Indeed, the Saudis and Israelis have much to celebrate in a Trump presidency, which is helping to realize their ideal regional order. Leaders of these countries are delighted that Trump is derailing the Iran agreement—with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu praising the decision as both “brave” and “right” and the Saudi and U.A.E. governments joining in a chorus to express their full support. Similarly, the U.S. escalation of support for proxy wars from Syria to Yemen has earned accolades in the Gulf. All of this may be building toward a reckless, elective war with Iran provoked by the United States, to the satisfaction of our partners in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
The larger implication for the Middle East is that Trump has loosened whatever constraints existed for the United States’s most aggressive allies in the region. We see this in everything from the metastasizing war in Syria and the destabilizing pursuit of the Islamic State in Mosul, to the violence, cholera, and famine that have consumed Yemen and the attempt to immiserate and isolate Qatar. Bent on establishing Sunni domination and displacing a supposed Shia crescent, a Gulf coalition centered on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has enlisted Israel to its cause and transformed the United States into its enforcer. In many respects, the United States now behaves as both the most powerful pro-Sunni actor in the region and as a backstop for Saudi Arabia’s expansionist aims.
This is a striking development. Sixteen years after 9/11, the policy choices made by U.S. elites have turned the United States into the military muscle of forces seeking to construct Sunni hegemony in the region. And at present, the Trump administration has essentially handed the tacit anti-Iranian alliance between the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis a carte blanche, setting the scene for the intensification of violence and further disorder.
In this respect, the War on Terror drift of American foreign policy has converged with the ascendance of ethno-nationalist approaches under the Trump administration. Obama officials tended to present Iran alongside Russia as two enemies threatening American dominance in the Middle East, but also as each containable through military and diplomatic strategies. However, the ethno-nationalist wing of the Trump administration splits the two. Despite the tensions over Syria, Russia is seen as potentially an ally rather than an old Cold War foe, since it aligns with right-wing populists across Europe, embracing an ethno-religious account of national identity as well as market principles and strongman political tactics. The real enemy is Iran, which is depicted as an implacable foe. As an opposed Muslim power, the country is viewed in racialized terms as inherently violent and incapable of assimilating into a Western global order.
Sixteen years after 9/11, the United States has become the military muscle of forces seeking to construct Sunni hegemony in the Middle East.
What the rise in anti-Iranian sentiment underscores is how, for many in the Republican Party, not to mention allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is Obama—rather than Trump—who should be viewed as the outlier and threat to national interests. For all the ways that the Obama years continued the basic orientation of U.S. foreign policy—highlighted specifically by the intervention in Libya and the arming of factions in Syria—the one break was his focus on using diplomacy with Iran to deescalate any nuclear confrontation. In truth, this effort was the single most significant foreign policy move in recent decades consistent with the old American postwar vision of multilateralism and faith in international legal arrangements. But it cut against the right’s growing Islamophobia as well as the desire of elites in Saudi Arabia and Israel for the United States to directly confront their regional nemesis. For this reason, despite all the general consternation at home and abroad about the meaning of Trump’s victory, some nonetheless hailed it as a return to foreign policy normalcy.
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Ultimately, it is no surprise that this administration, so fond of authoritarian strongmen abroad, also pursues similar strategies at home. Expressing his admiration for manipulated elections, the dismantling of the free press, and the jailing or killing of political opponents, Trump has offered warm praise and even congratulations to a range of violent plutocrats besides Putin, from Viktor Orbán to Rodrigo Duterte to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the place of a faith in U.S. exceptionalism, Trump sees neither a qualitative nor an ethical distinction between U.S. and Russian politics. Rather than projecting a model of governance and rule-based order globally, the United States now borrows from a global authoritarian playbook.
This inversion has profound implications. The United States remains the preeminent economic and military power in the world, yet in many respects it has embarked on a project to dismantle its own hegemony. In part, this is because the reliance on a politics of unilateral force has produced an interesting disconnect. While during the Cold War the United States faced serious adversaries, it was nonetheless largely able to avoid any real experience of existential threat. Today, faced with far more limited foes, the country has adopted a politics that presents the real possibility of existential violence and nuclear confrontation. As with the decline of earlier empires, the threat does not lie so much with the rise of an alternative power but with the actions of the United States itself, which has slowly repudiated the very order it once authored. Trump is little more than a symptom of the forces that over decades have produced this gradual decline, though he may also prove to be the final nail in the coffin.
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