Trump on foreign policy: Keep doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result
How wars start: one step at a time
There is a famous saying attributed to Albert Einstein that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
In reality, it appears that this statement originally appeared in an Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet, and it has become a staple saying of twelve-step program participants. The theory behind twelve step programs such as AA, NA or Alanon is that you need to change your behaviors because obviously, what you have been doing so far isn’t working for you.
Or, as Dr. Phil famously said, “how’s that working out for you?”
Unfortunately, our foreign policy under Trump, especially as it relates to Iran, appears to need an intervention. Calling Dr. Phil.
Sanctions were first imposed upon Iran in 1979 after students took over the American embassy in Tehran in response the United States’s protection of the hated Shah, who had just been overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. These sanctions were lifted as a result of the Algiers Accord that resulted in the release of the hostages. But in 1987, in response to Iran’s support of international terrorism, President Reagan imposed new sanctions. These sanctions remained in place until the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
In other words, Iran was subject to crippling sanctions for nearly thirty years.
These sanctions had a devastating effect upon Iran’s economy. According to the World Bank, since the revolution in 1979, Iran’s real Gross National Income (GNI) per capita declined dramatically. It then recovered somewhat with the signing of the Algiers Accord in 1981, suffering another dramatic drop after the United States reimposed sanctions in 1987. Despite persistent effort to rebuilt its economy, the real GNI per capita is still far below what it was in the 1970s.
Iran’s currency has become nearly worthless, resulting in high inflation and panic among Iranians. Iran’s unemployment rate has hovered in the double-digits, a problem that has been especially vexing for Iran’s young people, who endure unemployment rates ranging between 25 and 30%.
Imagine the response here if we had to endure such hardships.
But yet Iran resisted them for nearly thirty years non-stop. Even as these sanctions have caused such chaos, especially through the early 2000s, Iranians have given strong mandates to hard-liners in its elections. So much for winning minds and hearts with sanctions.
To give the Obama administration credit, they decided to try to change the narrative. Just as they did in Cuba or elsewhere in the Middle East, with Iran they sought to take a different path from the one that had not worked for nearly thirty years. The result was the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)which restricted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from sanctions.
Was the JCPOA perfect? Certainly not. But it had a very specific goal: restricting Iran’s nuclear weapons program for the foreseeable future and start the reintegration of Iran into the global economy. In those goals, it appeared to be successful.
For instance, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) argues that the deal has allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear sites, enabling them to verify that Iran has not been developing nuclear weapons. According to the IAEA, Iran has not violated that agreement despite Trumpian claims to the contrary.
So rather than continuing down the different road with Iran that started in 2015, Trump has taken us back to the failed approach of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Without provocation, in 2018 Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA. Despite the fact that the Europeans, the other signatories to the JCPOA, have not chosen the same path, the might of the American economy has allowed Trump to bully other countries to also comply with our sanctions regime. The result has been another recession in Iran.
Since then, tensions have been heating up with Iran. Contrary to the declarations that sanctions would force Iran to the negotiating table, they have now followed the United States’s lead and abandoned the JCPOA in 2019, thus allowing them to resume the development of nuclear weapons.
Then, Iranians shot down an American military drone. It’s not clear whether the drone was shot down over international waters or Iranian territory. It’s also not clear whether the shooting was a planned response or the mistake of a rogue Iranian commander. Nevertheless, in response, the United States came within minutes of going to war with Iran.
Most recently, Iran seized a British oil tanker negotiating its way through the Straits of Hormuz bordering Iran. Again, the details as to what actually happened are murky, and Iran already allowed a second seized tanker to continue on its way. Nevertheless, the incident has only increased tensions.
What happens next? Only God knows. But there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this developing crisis:
- The United States is not a reliable negotiating partner: Like it or not, the U.S. had a deal with Iran and our European allies. And one thing that is clear is that Trump withdrew us unilaterally. Other countries looking to negotiate with the United States such as China and North Korea must be wondering to themselves if they can count on the U.S. honoring any deal they enter into with it. Indeed, Iran must even be asking itself if it is worth negotiating with the U.S.
- This is part of a pattern for Trump: Obama had sought to begin the normalization of relations with Cuba. This island, only 90 miles away from Florida, has been under American sanctions for even longer than Iran, and they have been equally unsuccessful. Trump, though, reversed course, returning to the pre-Obama regime of sanctions. Will the sanctions now be successful? History says otherwise.
- This is how wars start: President John F. Kennedy famously refused to allow military tit-for-tat to draw us into a war with the U.S.S.R. during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In so doing, he relied upon his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s book the Guns of August. In her book, Tuchman argued that World War I started because countries backed each other into corners with no escape hatches, so once the crisis started, there was nothing to stop it. Kennedy insisted on finding an escape hatch that would allow the U.S.S.R. to back out while saving face. In this crisis, one wonders whether such an escape hatch exists. Certainly, Trump’s history does not give grounds for optimism. The result could be a war starting as a result of miscalculations, as one almost did in response to the downed American drone.
When the United States has been at its best from a foreign policy perspective, it has been able to turn erstwhile enemies into allies. Consider how Japan, Italy and Germany have become such close allies after fighting a brutal war against them. And even now, Vietnam seems to be moving to have a closer relationship with us. The reason? We have what they want: prosperity and growth.
But in each case, we succeeded in bringing them into our orbit through relationships. As countries developed closer relationships to us economically, they became more and more allied with us. Right now, China is seeing how difficult it is to have disputes with the United States while being so closely integrated economically.
But in this case, we are denying Iran access to our economic regime. They want this so badly, they were willing to give up their nuclear program in 2015. But now, by withholding access to world markets unless Iran debases itself, we have taken away any motivation for them to increase their ties with us.
At a certain point, when countries have close economic relationships, they don’t want to jeopardize those relationships with diplomatic and military disputes. That is the direction we were going with Iran since 2015. Now, Iran has no reason to maintain any relationship with us. They have nothing left to lose, and we have Trump to thank for that.
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