A new approach to American diplomacy?

In a world where its hegemony is being significantly challenged, the Iran deal may be a reflection of America’s new foreign policy doctrine. Has its resounding defeat in stabilizing the Middle East prompted an effective rethinking of its diplomatic strategy?

Bush’s “with us or against us” approach to deal with the post 9/11 era was justified particularly due to the overwhelming sentiment of fear and anger among Americans. It was a rational response to an emotional demand, and his strategy of demonizing the opponent through his rhetoric of “evil” was domestically effective at the time, contributing towards his reelection. Rather than diplomacy, the U.S. government chose to use intimidation and violence. Unilateral actions were favored, seemingly defining Bush’s foreign policy doctrine.

14 years later, however, this ideology seems outdated. The letdowns of American foreign policy seem to have demonstrated that a hegemonic military budget does not result in hegemonic decision-making; the U.S. government and its people have realized that they cannot bend countries to their will through the use of brute force and condescending rhetoric.

The Iran deal, in many ways, is a symbol of this strategic shift. America is now increasingly working with its allies to achieve its goals and the Obama administration is showing increasing signs of humility. It is now preferring to work through legitimate multilateral agreements, as opposed to Bush’s “coalition of the willing”, which was a mere illusion. John Kerry reminded in the 2004 debate that 90% of casualties and costs were American. Widely criticized, the invasion of Iraq was deemed illegal by the United Nations.

The deal, on the other hand, is in accordance with U.N. and international jurisdiction. Once a defining member of Bush’s “axis of evil”, Tehran is now a symbol of Obama’s attempt to reach out to the diplomatic world. An attempt to secure American interests through the idealist mediums of international law and public legitimacy. As Foreign Policy Magazine explains “The P5+1 effort with Iran on the nuclear issue is a case of classic multilateral idealism: global relationships as moral, ordered, rational, and based on the rule of law.”

Rather than creating enemies and then dealing with them, America is instead showing a greater depth of understanding by neutralizing its stance. Rather than its previous use of threats and aggressive rhetoric against Khamenei’s regime, America may even be attempting to build a regional coalition based on mutual interests. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, has emphasized that “if [the deal] is finished, I am now empowered to work with and talk to [the U.S.A.] about regional issues.” If this rapprochement proved to be capable of opening up a fruitful dialogue between Sunni and Shia powers, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region could benefit immensely.

The two nations have essentially been fighting a Cold War for many years after all. They notably have engaged in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Long-term stability in the Middle East must be achieved through its regional actors, not foreign powers. The United States can be a leading player in creating this historical reconciliation. The deal may therefore symbolize a more idealist, grander and long term approach on the Middle Eastern region. After all, such a substantial multilateral compromise is not frequent, and its significance should therefore not be underestimated.

It would, however, be naïve to claim that the future of America’s foreign policy will be entirely dictated by idealist values. The deal has clearly showed that the United States remains rightfully cautious with its “trust but verify” policy. Although the “axis of evil” rhetoric is forgotten and the deal will soon be ratified, the two nations’ rapprochement will most likely not extend any further. The U.S. alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest enemies, remain strong and durable. The Republicans’ strong opposition in the U.S. Congress to the deal and any form of diplomatic talk with Iran will continue to grow. Finally, Khamenei’s recent comments that “Iran will never negotiate with the United States on anything other than the nuclear deal” and that “there will be no such thing as Israel in 25 years” will likely provoke outrage among the West.

It is therefore hard to predict whether the deal will be as historically influential as it may seem. But for the citizens of this Earth, its importance lies in how it reflects America’s growing humility and emphasis on playing by the rules. Most of all, it embodies the U.S.A.’s growing reticence to use coercive force. And that is a historical step forward.

photo: U.S. Mission / Eric Bridiers / CC BY-ND 2.0

Zephyr Dessus

Master's student in international relations & politics at Sciences Po Lille & University of Kent.

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