Whatever the issue, the response is: me. Whether we talk about Iran or North Korea, trade with China or Mexico – the US president always seems to set the spotlight on himself. Policy watchers have to understand that their traditional methods of analysis aren’t working anymore. The vanity and business interests of the man at the top have taken over the national interest, institutional infighting, and partisan politics. More than at any time in history, the world’s fate hinges on the decisions of a single person, and a very bullish one. He certainly enjoys this, as do his supporters, who look up to him as if he was their savior. But, to the rest of the world, he looks more like a savage.
Iran is a perfect example, even though we could pick any foreign policy issue, getting the same result. The fact is that it doesn’t matter that the nuclear deal of 2015 is working to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb for as long as it is in place; what matters is that the US president hates it for his very own personal reasons. Whatever else happens hardly gets addressed. Whether Tehran provides missiles to the Houthis in Yemen or Iran’s ally Assad gasses his own people, it only serves to strengthen his views and the opinions of his followers.
This makes it very hard for America’s partners to actually pursue a policy. Taking the issues seriously that he raised in his January ultimatum in order to find a workable compromise to the nuclear deal is futile when his final decision depends on his mood-of-the-moment or whomever he spoke to last. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrated his understanding of this when he presented well-known, warmed-up evidence of Iran’s nuclear program to the world as ‘breaking news’ of Iranian cheating.
The Europeans are particularly bad at playing this game. First, because they do not see it as a game to play, but as something serious. They are not only concerned with the security situation around the Persian Gulf and the Levant but they also believe in diplomatic solutions to a violent conflict. That is what you do when you no longer have the power to rule empires in far-away places and instead depend on taming the other superpowers with binding rules.
Second, the European Union still consists of 28 member states that have to agree on every single foreign policy issue. This can be difficult no matter if the issue is the crisis management in the Sahel or arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Yet, the EU gets entirely vexed when each country’s perceived ‘special relationship’ with Washington is at stake. Just don’t expect EU member states to take a forceful stance unless they really have to.
But, there is still hope. More than one year into his first term, President Trump has not taken the fateful, consequential decisions many have feared. He still may do so any day, no doubt, but here is another catch: We really cannot know how to prevent it from happening. Or why exactly did he extend the tariff waivers to Europeans by another month? What we need to realize is – to turn upside down Roosevelt’s well-known maxim – that Trump speaks loudly to hide the fact that his stick is so small.
So, what should we do? By giving him attention, we are all just feeding his ego. Instead, we should prepare to deal with the problems ourselves. For the Europeans, this is a hard lesson to learn, but their Iran policy is a good place to start.
‘It’s the Egomania, Stupid!’ – Op-Ed by Cornelius Adebahr – Carnegie Europe.
(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here)