The Trump administration lives in an illusion of its own making. The latest rendition came at the Munich Security Conference last week when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke about President Donald Trump and mentioned that he was working to “strengthen [America’s] leadership of the free world.”
Pence was expecting applause, but the audience sat silently after hearing his vacuous hyperbole. The Europeans remember how Trump supported Brexit. Britain’s departure from the European Union might well have contributed to breaking up a structure that the United States had long regarded as a cornerstone of European security, therefore that of the “free world.” They also recall that the leader of the free world appears to have never met an autocrat he doesn’t like—from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-un to Xi Jinping to the Middle East’s very own Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman.
The Trump administration will soldier on in the face of European contempt, all the while persuading itself that it is right while all the others are wrong. That would be foolish. Political power is not about smugness, it’s about getting things done in line with one’s objectives. And when it comes to diplomacy, today the United States is having trouble presenting a façade of coherence. Even those whom Trump has pleased the most, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are hedging their bets, maintaining open lines of communication with Russia.
The nuclear deal with Iran has become a test case illustrating this predicament. Certainly, there was much about the agreement that was questionable, not least what the Obama administration’s true motives were in giving Iran the means to revive its economy and fund its regional agenda. But the agreement also placed Iran’s nuclear facilities under international inspection, putting the country’s nuclear program on ice for now; and it reflected a consensus that the nuclear program could pose a threat to international peace and security. This was underlined by the United Nations Security Council’s endorsement of the nuclear deal in Resolution 2231.
Obama’s critics welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from the accord. Yet that’s hard to understand, because in making the perfect the enemy of the good, they opened the door on one of two very imperfect alternatives: either a possible resort to war if Iran resumed uranium enrichment; or a potential display of American powerlessness if the deal was kept alive by all the other countries that signed it.
Pence’s performance in Munich, and before that in Warsaw, where the administration tried but failed to rally international support against Iran, showed that the White House was concerned by the second option. It’s easy to understand why. The Europeans have introduced a special mechanism allowing them to circumvent U.S. sanctions when trading with Iran. While the Iranians may be complaining that the mechanism is insufficient, because it excludes oil and gas, they are likely to stick to the nuclear deal and can delight in the fact that Washington appears to have lost control over its allies.
Trump and his acolytes can rail against European perfidy, but they have only themselves to blame. For a president who embraces national sovereignty as a core aspect of his thinking, he’s had difficulty accepting this with respect to European states. Trump seems to believe that making America great again is about making Europe accept that America is boss. So when Pence instructed the Europeans to pull out of the nuclear deal in Munich, a German commentator acerbically tweeted that the vice president apparently considered U.S. leadership as “basically telling other nations what they have to do.”
This is not to say that on every issue the Trump administration is wrong, nor to encourage a glib anti-Americanism the U.S. president appears to have magically revived. If Pence had come across to his audience as less of Trump’s errand boy, he would probably have found more enthusiasm for American leadership in his Munich audience. Many Europeans gave up on Barack Obama because they felt that he never took that concept seriously. The Europeans want the United States to provide guidance, but are having trouble reconciling this with a president who prefers to dictate to them while spending much of his time demeaning the European Union and European leaders.
This impact of this in the Middle East will be significant. The United States is disengaging from the region, but that’s hardly an option for the neighboring Europeans. In that context, Europe’s relations with Russia and Iran will inevitably become more multifaceted, and maybe more collaborative, than the Americans might like. Washington has left a vacuum that Moscow and Tehran are attempting to fill and the Americans cannot simply will both out of the region.
Trump has decided that in a post-American Middle East the United States would depend much more on its traditional regional allies, such as Israel and the Gulf states. That may be defensible from an American perspective, but without America acting as the anchor of a coalition of states, it will also mean a more fragmented and unstable region. In that context, a unified regional policy from the United States and Europe will be more difficult to achieve than before.
Perhaps this speaks to the fundamental contradiction in Trump’s view of the world. In stressing sovereignty, he invariably harks back to a multipolar world in which the guiding principal of international relations is an exclusive assessment by states of their national interest, with little emphasis on common values. At the same time Trump has behaved as if the U.S. were still leading a group of states united around shared principles, as during the Cold War. The president wants freedom for America to act, but won’t allow this for his allies, taking offense when they refuse to follow his instructions.
The United States, whether led by Trump or a successor, will have to resolve this contradiction. Trump and Pence may curse Europe for its impudence, but the Europeans are only implementing rules that Washington has imposed under Trump. This is a lesson that the Middle East is learning quicker than most.