As many have noted, US President Trump’s unilateral diplomatic style is anything but subtle. His fake enemies may be fair game for intimidation. With Korea there might be some justification, there is none with Iran.His decision this past weekend to de-certify the nuclear deal with Iran displays a recklessness almost on a par with his apparent readiness to vaporise North Korea with nuclear bombs. The deal negotiated in 2015 and known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) involves all permanent members of the UN Security, together with Germany, in addition to the US and Iran, and endorsed by the Security Council.
While it is not strictly an international treaty, it is in the case of the US an executive agreement on the authority of the President – but now subject to Congressional discretion with respect to the maintenance of sanctions. Essentially it is a highly political arrangement designed to forestall and contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and stabilise the strategic situation in that respect in the Middle East, in return for the reduction and progressive elimination of economic sanctions against Iran. Its purpose is directed to that objective alone, not to sanction right or wrong in any broader sense. President Trump is in error in citing other aspects of the Iranian government as bearing on the agreement.
The wild pony in the ring is of course Iran, but now it must be seen to be the US itself whose unilateral action could go further in destabilising the regional situation than anything Iran might have been contemplating.
There is a fortuitous factor in the mix, by chance but in keeping with traditional American practice of checks and balances. As noted, Congress through its enacting legislation controls the sanctions regime on the part of the US. So whatever the Executive (Trump) decides unilaterally in that regard can be effectively countermanded by the Legislature, thereby preserving the integrity of the nuclear deal for Iran and the other key parties and their respective trading partners.
It has been suggested that Trump is relying on Congress to default so that he can have his drama without consequences, and thereby bolster with his Middle America constituency. There is risk here in that the GOP previously opposed the agreement but now that it exists they can be expected to read the diplomatic implications of its repudiation more clearly. One may well ask therefore how long this style of diplomacy can go on without creating huge problems for America’s allies. Already there is disquiet among them as to whether the US has any coherent policy approaches to major global issues and whether these will continue to be subject to impulsive and indulgent responses by its Chief Executive, and his patent disregard of agreed commitments.
For Australia the issue must also be acute. In so far as we are “still joined at the hip” with the US under Trump, we could be further led into even worse, ill considered conflict situations than the many to date since the 1950s Korean War.
In that regard there are no safety checks and balances on Executive power here, unlike with Congress in the Iraq standoff. Can it be said that an Australian government barely holding on in the Parliament, with a one seat majority or less, can presume to have the authority alone to commit the country to war or war like actions, with possibly profound and damaging consequences over a long period of time?
We can assume from the available evidence that Trump’s actions in foreign and defence policy are motivated largely by domestic political and personal considerations, not by any fine calculation of national and global interests. The same could be said to a large degree for previous Australian decisions committing the country to war in Iraq and Syria, with little understanding of the underlying issues but essentially to please the US – as was the recent decision to reject the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as these weapons in US hands are perceived (probably erroneously) to secure our long-term protection against unknown enemies.
If President Trump through miscalculation or rashness, and his spiteful determination to undo as much of former President Obama’s legacy as he can, were to commit to war against either North Korea or Iraq are we so “joined at the hip” that we would not allow ourselves any independent discretion about following America into certain disasters? This is not a simple matter of rejecting or not rejecting the ANZUS Alliance. There are many features of the alliance that can stand both nations in good stead in the right circumstances, but an “in for a penny, in for a pound” approach is not sound policy for Australia now or in the future.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law.