Every 90 days, the Trump administration is required to stamp its approval on Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The administration has done so twice, albeit reluctantly, and is on the eve of yet another decision. True to Trump’s training in reality television, he has left us with a cliffhanger regarding his intentions: “I’ll let you know.” While Trump may find this behavior titillating for ratings, it creates an environment of instability and uncertainty for the rest of the world. It also undermines the United States’ credibility to faithfully engage in international negotiations and agreements in the future.
With the October 15 deadline for recertification approaching, Trump continues to play fast and loose with international diplomacy. Going against the recommendations of European allies, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and some of his top advisors, Trump is determined to renege on the deal. Trump campaigned on the promise to tear up the agreement and commissioned a White House team to build a case against recertification. Despite the numerous negative consequences of decertification (among them increased threats to cybersecurity, damaged relationships with allies, and a greater likelihood of nuclear proliferation), Trump appears to be plowing forth with his objective, regardless of the evidence that shows Iran is complying.
Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has been deployed as spokesperson against recertification. She argues that the “spirit” of the agreement has been violated and that the deal no longer represents U.S. national security interests. (If only I could wipe clean my student loan debt by arguing that the lender violated the “spirit” of our agreement and that the debt is no longer in the interest of my financial security!) This flimsy rationale will put U.S. credibility into question. With credibility gone, power will shortly follow.
This brings us to a scary prospect: the Thucydides Trap tells us that war is probable when a rising power threatens to displace a dominant power. The decline of U.S. global dominance predates Trump’s tenure, but his occupation of the Oval Office is certainly accelerating it. Russia and China are obvious contenders for the title of global leader. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are far superior statesmen to Trump. They are likely to exploit Trump’s weaknesses, namely his inexperience and vanity. Putin has already shown his skill in manipulation by getting Trump to agree to form a cybersecurity unit. Trump backtracked when he was ridiculed at home for agreeing to such an alliance with the country that successfully waged a hacking and influence campaign during the 2016 election.
Furthermore, Trump seems to be itching for a war and has a history of lashing out at anyone who challenges his “alpha dog” status. Indeed, war would be a handy distraction as Robert Muller’s Russia probe heats up. Always the showman, Trump intimated that war is on the horizon during a recent gathering of military leaders. Teasing another cliffhanger, Trump cryptically told reporters, “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” When pressed to elaborate, Trump responded in a quintessentially Trumpian way: “You’ll find out.” Will the United States go to war with China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea? You’ll find out after this short commercial break.
Trump used his first outing at the United Nations to threaten the total destruction of a country of 25 million inhabitants. Kim Jong Un, the despotic ruler of North Korea, is just as unpredictable as Trump. Both seem to be embracing the Madman Theory to coerce the other into backing down. But miscommunication and missteps under such circumstances can lead to grave consequences. Some in Washington have begun speaking publicly about the threat this type of rhetoric poses. Senator Bob Corker, a leading Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced his concern that Trump’s reckless threats are putting the United States “on the path to World War III.”
If Trump continues in the same vein, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to claw back power after he leaves office. The U.S. has yet to recover the global standing it lost as a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. Another disastrous and unjustified war—which seems increasingly possible under the current administration—would render obsolete U.S. power and influence for decades to come.
At the time of writing, reports suggest that Trump will decide not to recertify. The move would punt the political consequences to Congress, who would have 60 days to decide whether or not to impose sanctions. The Trump administration has yet again exchanged global leadership for political gain within his populist base.
Without a hint of irony, Trump declared in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly that the nuclear deal is an embarrassment to the United States. But inept global leadership from the Trump administration is a far greater embarrassment.