Making America Irrelevant Again

There was a time when the United States of America was an irrelevant nation, a loose collection of colonies bordered by a geographic and psychological ocean on one side and an unforgiving and foreboding wilderness on every other. It had beaten a world power with the aid of another in one of history’s many lessons on imperial overreach, but it remained virtually ungoverned, deeply in debt, and in no way meaningful to almost any other nation. Things are starting to look very similar to those times again.

The U.S. pulled out of the international agreement that had stopped Iran from enriching uranium and making fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons. It did so in favor of reenacting a sanctions regime similar to the one in place—but lacking the force of the world’s will—when Iran came so far along the nuclear path as to cause alarm. It’s important to understand these statements. Before this agreement and for decades after the revolution that ousted a monarch and brought on a terroristic theocracy, much of the developed world supported sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy. Under the most recent sanctions regime that included Russia and China, Iran was still able to engineer or acquire tens of thousands of centrifuges, gain access to nuclear material, and create enough enriched uranium that many thought Iran was only several months to a few years away from its first nuclear test. As a means of inhibiting nuclear activity, the sanctions were an abject failure. Iran’s nuclear program was stopped in its tracks by a diplomatic agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The plan restricts Iranian nuclear activities to peaceful uses. It has an inspection regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s foremost authority on nuclear inspections. It has compliance timelines out to 25 years (you’ve no doubt heard fewer) and requires Iran to unequivocally state that it will never pursue nuclear weapons. It has not been read by almost anyone who claims to understand it as “the worst deal in history.” It is—was—an agreement between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the EU. It is now—still—a plan between all of those save one, the increasingly irrelevant nation called the United States of America.

Our country is in retreat on the world stage, and all of those who complained bitterly about that perception during the previous administration are strangely silent about the mounting evidence of the reality now. It is entirely possible that the willingness of this administration to follow through with campaign promises tested only on applause meters at rallies is based on the lack of reaction from the rest of the world on early administration decisions. It is probable that lack of response is simply apathy for what the United States now says and represents.

Policy wonks on the left and right made dire warnings about various causes this administration has pursued. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade partnership is anti-free-trade and would cede vast economic territory to a near-peer competitor; it would have catastrophic impacts on access to a market larger than the EU. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord would cede the moral high ground of the world’s largest and most dynamic economy leading other large and developing economies to pursue growth at the expense of considered resource expenditure and without regard for the future peril of climate change already manifest among many populations. Announcing intent to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would cause a break down in the tenuous Middle East Peace Process and would affect western nations’ relations with the Muslim world. Those warnings would have been accurate in a world that relied upon U.S. leadership, but that is no longer the context of America’s place in the community of nations.

World leaders are on record saying they ignore the president’s favored form of communication. The TPP is a sealed deal at the exclusion of the U.S. and on terms more favorable to China. Other nations recommitted themselves to the Paris Accords and were heartened by many U.S. state and local governments who rejected the administration position and began efforts to meet accord milestones on their own. The Middle East shrugged at the notion of an embassy in Jerusalem (after this was initially written, violence broke out in protests leading to the deaths of approximately 60 Palestinians by the Israeli military). No one with a degree of rationality has any hope for a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The peace process is at an impasse and has been for decades as Palestinians continue to allow terrorism to foment in their territories and the Israelis continue the policy of annexation through settlements that is tantamount to benign ethnic cleansing. Mexico and Canada do not seem particularly concerned as they eye the future of trade in North America and are exhibiting absolutely no fear of the “great negotiator.” That both are also in the TPP probably adds to their sense of ease in the matter. What the administration and its cheerleaders miss is that this lack of world reaction to these pronouncements is not a failure of the policy establishment that predicted cacophony. It is not evidence of “elites” and “experts”—now pejorative terms amid the din of right-wing media—being out of step with “real Americans.” It is not evidence of the unilateral dominance of the world’s only remaining superpower. It isevidence of a world that no longer cares what the United States says or does. This once great power is now the boy who takes his ball home in the absence of getting his way only to find, as he sits looking out the window wistfully, that lots of others also had a ball, and the neighborhood games function just as well—perhaps better—without him.

Tehran could not have been given a bigger gift. The Iranians now get to welcome other members of the Joint Committee as those diplomats plead to determine what it will take for Iran to stay in the agreement. The Islamic Republic is now in a position of dictating more desirable terms as prerequisite to honoring the agreement, as the rest of the world would very much like them to do. Certainly, there will be consequences as the unconfirmed former UN ambassador and current National Security Advisor along with cabinet officials work to rebuild the sanctions regime. They should look to recent history to determine the probable efficacy of such actions. First is the aforementioned fact that Iran’s nuclear program came into being under near world-wide consensus on economic sanctions. Second is the experience of the U.S. and Britain in attempts to control Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between the first Gulf War and the second.

The world signed on to constraining the actions of Saddam’s militarism in the aftermath of Desert Storm and then the gassing of Kurds and slaughter of the “Marsh Arabs.” Economic sanctions preceded military actions in the form of two “no-fly zones” meant to keep the Iraqi armed forces from moving equipment into protected areas. Multiple—eleven by the end of 1999—UN resolutions restricted Iraqi actions and placed limits on economic activity. By the year 2000, only two nations remained— the U.S. and the UK. No other military forces enforced the no-fly zones and even French oil companies eventually had contracts on Iraqi oil fields. The sanctions, still fully in effect, were defunct in reality. Saddam ignored most démarches throughout the long engagement and moved military equipment at will under the ever-present eye of U.S. and British forces. He did so under one Democratic and two Republican administrations. When others are willing to pursue economic gain and opportunity, not even the largest economy on earth can exert the force required to compel compliance. That is the lesson no one in this administration or its backers care to acknowledge.

The U.S. can go it alone on many things, but it cannot inflict harm on economies of other nations when there are multiple outlets for economic activity and the rest of the world is willing to trade under the nose of U.S. institutions and law. Certainly, there is power in U.S. influence over financial markets and its favored status in holding the world’s reserve currency. The U.S. will have power to seize assets and create financial hardship on those entities who trade through U.S.-controlled institutions and in U.S. dollars. For this reason, there is a great deal of uncertainty on what this withdrawal does to certain companies. Boeing and its 140,000 workers worldwide just lost out on $19 billion in aircraft sales. That will not play well in Seattle or Chicago where Boeing airplanes are built and headquartered. Airbus, the European conglomerate aircraft maker, also had lucrative contracts with Iran following the implementation of the JCPOA. Total, the French oil and gas giant, did so as well. Both have a U.S. presence as do several other affected companies. Some Airbus aircraft are built in Alabama. This is bad for those workers too, but these are problems corporations will solve (though Alabama’s airplane builders will not be a part of the solution). Airbus will create a subsidiary that has no ties to U.S. markets and that trades in currencies other than the dollar. Perhaps Dubai or Singapore exchanges will handle the coming enormous deals. The Euro will rise in value and esteem because of this and other ill-thought U.S. actions on trade. London’s seat as one of the world’s financial centers will become more secure, even as it attempts sticky negotiations with the EU on “Brexit.” The Pound Sterling will likely rebound over the next year in reaction to this news and other Republican protectionist policies. China has long sought to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency in favor of the Renminbi. As mothers of invention go, the necessity of creating avenues to avoid U.S. law and sanctions is a pretty good motivator for countries to begin to consider a financial system outside the U.S.’s realm of influence. To be sure, some of these manifestations are long off, but many will be almost immediate.

These inevitabilities highlight Administration disciples’ strange view of American leadership. Leadership is not simply doing whatever the hell it is the voters of Michigan think they like. Leadership is exerting influence on others to make them willfullyact in a manner that is most beneficial for the maximum number of entities. When others understand that you do not have any influence to exert, that you are no longer credible in communicating the path of maximum benefit, then you have lost the ability to lead. You can no longer act as a positive role model, and you can certainly no longer compel others to bend to your will…except through the use of brutal force. And then you have done nothing to alter their mentality or values; you have succeeded only in making them act—temporarily—against their will. These are now the two paths open to the United States. First, irrelevancy caused by bluster masquerading as decisiveness. Then the intoxicating fallacy of brutality disguised as justice, an act that may bring acquiescence but only of the kind cloaked in hate. One must hope the latter does not inevitably follow the former.

Before Jefferson sent warships to Tripoli to take on the Barbary Pirates, no one thought much of the U.S. as a world power. Fifty years after settling its own internal affairs with cannon and musket, our country took its first steps into what would come to be called the American Century. Doughboys cemented a revolutionary legacy of self-determination. Only a quarter century later the U.S. built the international order on those principles and assumed its place as the “indispensable nation.” Washington and Adams did not have Jefferson’s luxury. The country was incapable of acting on the world stage. All three would be in awe of what we became, and they would recognize where we are headed once again. I think they would be saddened. They would recognize this decline is not a hand dealt from the deck of history. It is choice. A choice borne of a deep misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, the power of example, and the recognition of sovereignty beyond our own shores. They would recognize its cause as something they were deeply concerned about and warned us of from across the centuries—the fundamental idea that good governance requires extraordinary depth of character, understanding, and contemplation by leaders willing to put the country before self.

Make America Irrelevant Again. It doesn’t look very good on a hat, but it was always the inevitable consequence of governing by slogan pretending to be policy.