The secret comments that Donald Trump made off the record leaked. He was not sincerely negotiating a compromise: he was bullying his opponent. If any deal was to be made, he boasted, it would be "totally on our terms." America’s negotiating partner was "working their ass off," Trump admitted, but "every time we have a problem with a point, I just put up a picture of a Chevrolet Impala." The Impala is a car that would be affected by U.S. auto tariffs. Imposing auto tariffs would "be the ruination" of that country: "all I have to do is tax their cars, it would be devastating," Trump said. Trump would only boast off the record about his threat to ruin the country if they dare to negotiate rather than yield because if he says publicly what he threatens privately, it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal."
Trump’s negotiating partner was not Iran. It was not North Korea. It was Canada. Canada! Not America’s enemy, but, historically, one of America’s closest friends. And the negotiations were not over a nuclear weapons program: they were over a free trade agreement. But, even here, the president who boasts that he is a great deal maker had nothing but bullying. No negotiating, no diplomacy: "totally on our terms" or it will be the "ruination" of you.
Imagine what Trump brings to the negotiating table if you are Palestinian or North Korean or Iranian. Is he the great deal maker? No, says North Korea, he is "gangster-like." Iran calls it "naked . . . aggression" and "strangulation." The Palestinians simply call it "bullying."
What Palestine, North Korea and Iran all have in common is that they have done what America wanted them to do. Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, severely limiting its nuclear program and exposing it to unyielding inspection and monitoring. North Korea signed a joint statement in which it commits to “work towards complete denuclearization.” And the Palestinians have adopted a nonviolent method of protesting.
The Palestinian Great March of Return has remained remarkably nonviolent despite the death of at least 173 protesters. But over the the nonviolent chorus, a new and powerful statement has been made. The Palestinians have pushed back against the final betrayal of the self declared honest broker and self appointed gate keeper of the Israeli-Palestinian peace protest and forcefully declared that they will no longer listen to American peace plans or talk to American negotiators.
Bullies don’t like their bullying to have no effect, and Donald Trump’s response was quick and brutal. The Palestinians dared to stand up for themselves and America responded by putting a foot on the throat of an already nearly starving people. More than $200 million of Palestinian aid was slashed as a result of a State Department review of Palestinian assistance that was ordered by Trump. This economic punishment was on top of the more than 50% cut in American financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
And the bullying wasn’t just economic. It also took the form of "If you won’t talk to me about a peace plan, then we won’t talk to you about anything": the USshut the Washington office of the PLO. And Trump not only defunded the Palestinian refugees, he de-refugeed the Palestinians they were funding. Trump has redefined "refugee" to mean that you had to actually have lived in Mandatory Palestine prior to the creation of the refugee problem in 1948. None of their descendants count. That means you have to be over seventy to be a refugee. That means soon there will be no refugees to fund or to return to their homes. No refugees; no problem. Accept that peace plan!
Trump left no doubt about why he was financially strangling the Palestinians. It was to bully them back into listening to America and accepting their peace process. Trump said the $65 million in UNRWA aid would disappear unless the Palestinians participate in American run peace talks with Israel. When the Palestinians didn’t capitulate, Trump cut it all: no more US contributions to UNRWA. Trump was going to bully the Palestinians into submitting to American leadership in the peace process: "I told them, we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying,” Trump told a group of Jewish leaders. In the words of Jared Kushner, the bullying will improve the chances of a real peace deal by ridding the Palestinians of their "false realities": that is, that they have a voice, that they have a say.
When it came to North Korea, the strategy was the same. Behind the diplomacy, Trump’s approach was not diplomatic at all. There was no negotiation: until Trump gets exactly what he wants, North Korea gets nothing. There was to be no reciprocal gestures. Trump will keep his foot on North Korea’s throat until North Korea completely capitulates.
In the case of North Korea, the foot on the throat took the form of continued sanctions with no relief. In classical bullying form, Trump twisted the arm of his weaker victim until his victim yielded up exactly what the bully demands. And if North Korea dared to complain, Trump punished them.
Despite North Korea having taken a number of significant steps since the joint agreement, Trump has insisted on maintaining full sanctions on North Korea and forced other countries to do the same. “We have initiated goodwill measures of, inter alia, a moratorium on nuclear tests and rocket launch tests and dismantling of nuclear test ground,” North Korea complained, “However, the United States, instead of responding to these measures, is raising its voice louder for maintaining the sanctions against the DPRK and showing the attitude to retreat even from declaring the end of the war, a very basic and primary step for providing peace on the Korean peninsula.” America’s answer? North Korea has to fully yield "before we get to the other parts." North Korea compared the American tactics to the tactics of gangsters.
And, if North Korea dares to complain or criticize, Trump takes away the carrot and twists their arm further. When North Korea objected to National Security Advisor John Bolton’s invocation of the Libya model for dealing with them—a model that saw the US attack Libya and murder Gadhafi—Trump chastised Kim Jong Un for his "tremendous anger and open hostility". He then took away North Korea’s summit and threatened them with American "nuclear capabilities" that are "so massive and powerful that [he] pray[s] to God they will never have to be used."
Three months later, when North Korea again complained of Trump’s policy against reciprocal gestures and the added pressure of US war drills aimed at North Korea, Trump again took away the carrot, ordering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel his trip to North Korea for high level talks.
The bullying of Iran has been comprehensive, brutal and painfully unfair. Trump has sanctioned, starved, impoverished and isolated Iran for fulfilling a promise to prevent a nuclear weapons program it never even had. Iran was in complete compliance with the agreement. It was Trump who acted illegally. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s consistent and continued compliance with the JCPOA nuclear agreement at least a dozen times since its inception: most recently at the end of August of this year. Because Iran is verifiably in compliance, it is America that broke the international agreement when Trump pulled out of the agreement. But, though the agreement was good enough for Germany and all the permanent members of the Security Council (P5+1), Trump didn’t get everything he wanted. So, he bullied Iran. He illegally broke America’s pledge, pulled out and put his foot on Iran’s throat until Iran will submit and yield everything Trump wants. Until then, Trump won’t trade with Iran, and he won’t let anyone else trade with Iran either. Trump not only reimposed sanctions, he piled on new ones and assured any other autonomous nation that if they dealt with Iran, he would sanction them too. Trump has replaced international diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 with bullying.
A New Way of Dealing With America
In the face of Trump’s bullying, a new way has emerged for dealing with America. In the past, America’s enemies matched American provocations with provocations of their own. In 1994, America promised to stop threatening North Korea, and North Korea promised to freeze and, eventually, eliminate its nuclear weapons program. When the US broke its promise and returned to threatening North Korea, first in the Axis of Evil speech and then in the 2002 nuclear posture review (in which it included North Korea as a country the US should be prepared to use a nuclear bomb on), North Korea restarted its weapons program. Again in 2005, when the US reneged on its commitments to North Korea, North Korea reneged on its commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The same happened in Iran. In a proportionate contest of escalation, every time America increased its sanctions on Iran for spinning centrifuges and stockpiling low- and medium-enriched uranium, Iran spun more centrifuges and stockpiled more low- and medium-enriched uranium.
But attempting to out bully a bully seldom works: especially when the bully you are trying to out bully is the most powerful bully in the world. So, a new pattern of dealing with American bullying is emerging in the world.
The pattern includes all or parts of a four-part strategy:
- Continue to keep your promises and follow your obligations.
- Create a foil that puts in stark contrast that the US is the one who is in the wrong and who is breaking the agreement.
- Let the contrast encourage America’s traditional allies to side with you.
- Instead of exclusively negotiating with the States, take your case to international bodies.
Despite the killing of 173 peaceful protesters, Palestinians have kept the Great March of Return protest remarkably nonviolent. Though Trump refused to condemn the killings of peaceful protesters, vetoed a Security Council statement calling for an investigation into the deaths of the "peaceful" protesters and voted against their protection at the United Nations, the Palestinians continued to keep their protest nonviolent. That foil, America protecting the bully that was killing peaceful protesters, drew great sympathy to the Palestinians from America’s traditional allies. At an emergency session of the UN, a resolution that "deplored" Israel’s "excessive disproportionate, and indiscriminate" response to peaceful protesters that also sought “ways and means for ensuring the safety, protection, and well-being of the Palestinian civilian population under Israeli occupation" received 120 votes in support against only 8 against. Side stepping the United States as the exclusive negotiator through which the Palestinians have to deal with Israel, the Palestinians have decided to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have requested the creation of a multinational mediator to replace the United States as the monoploid peace broker. The US has made it clear that they would ensure that cases against Israel at the ICC are blocked.
The North Koreans too have replaced their policy of responding to American hostility with proportionate hostility. While Trump refuses to reciprocate trust building measures for trust building measures, North Korea has gone on taking steps toward fulfilling its agreement, including, most recently, agreeing to allow international nuclear inspectors in to observe the permanent dismantling of a missile engine test site and launch pad and announcing a time line for denuclearization that aimed for completion by 2020.
North Korea has also refused to be provoked by Trump’s insulting cancellations of meetings. They called the cancellation "regrettable" and declared that "we remain unchanged in our willingness to do everything we can for the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and of the <sic> humanity, so with a broad and open mind, we are willing to give the United States time and opportunity." Consistent with the new pattern of dealing with American bullying, North Korea continued to honor its obligations while highlighting Trump as the one who was breaking agreements and was clearly in the wrong. Kim Jong UN’s response to the cancellation of high-level talks with Pompeo was to schedule a summit with South Korea that would focus on complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a peace treaty between the two Koreas.
North Korea’s plea for an ease to the bullying has won some international allies. Not only Russia and China seem to be circumventing American sanctions but even American ally South Korea is: South Korea has sent nearly a billion dollars worth of sanctioned material and equipment to the north. Though America’s European allies have not defied Trump and come to the aid of North Korea, they are not happy about having Trump’s will imposed on them. Historian and expert on US-North Korean nuclear diplomacy Leon Sigal told me in a correspondence that the "Europeans are chafing at US extraterritoriality." Sigal also told me that "There’s more evasion in SE Asia, Mideast and African countries."
Like North Korea, Iran has continued to keep its JCPOA obligations while highlighting that it is Trump and the United States who are in violation of the international agreement. While still feeling the sting of Trump’s betrayal of, and illegal abandonment of, the nuclear agreement, Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif immediately assured the international community that, as long as the rest of Iran’s P5+1 partners kept the agreement alive, Iran would fully honor it. And Iran has been true to its word as confirmed repeatedly and recently by the IAEA.
Abandoning its pattern of responding to American provocations with reciprocal and proportionate provocations and highlighting America as the evil international foil has won Iran several allies from the traditional American camp. Trump’s illegal exit from the JCPOA and the crude pressure he placed on the world to join him in illegally boycotting the innocent Iran led the European Union’s High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security to join the Palestinians, North Koreans and Iranians in calling Trump a bully. Specifically, she described America’s behavior as "screaming, shouting, insulting and bullying."
The leaders of the UK, Germany and France sided with Iran and issued a joint demand stating: "We urge the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA (deal) can remain intact and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal." Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future." UN Secretary General, António Guterres also identified Trump as the party in the wrong, urging him to "preserve" the JCPOA.
While the US continued to threaten Iran, and Rouhani continued to label Trump as the bully of the world, America’s allies continued to side with America’s enemy. The European Union, along with both Russia and China, fearing for their autonomy, announced the establishment by November 2018 of a Special Purpose Vehicle financial clearing house that will allow countries to preserve the nuclear agreement by conducting financial transactions with Iran in a way that bypasses European banks that have backed away from transactions involving Iran because of US threats to cut their access to US markets.
Having established itself as the nation on the right side of international law and having highlighted the US as the country on the wrong side of international law; having won the alliance of America’s traditional allies; and having, like the Palestinians, despaired of talking to an American interlocutor who was bent on bullying instead of negotiating, Iran has abandoned talks with Trump in favor of taking its case to an international body. Iran has accused Trump of "naked economic aggression" with the illegal reimposition of sanctions and has requested that the International Court of Justice order a suspension of sanctions. The ICJ is the judicial organ of the UN that settles legal disputes between member states.
And that, now that the world is faced with a President who is a bully and not a diplomat or a deal maker, seems to be the new pattern of how to deal with America.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.
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