Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
Superpowers have a lot of room for error. Unlike lesser nations, they can shrug off many of the consequences of failed policies. Their weight and influence can compensate for subpar statecraft. But bad policy eventually takes its toll on everyone. And right now, bad policy is taking its toll on the United States.
As U.S. President Donald Trump nears the fourth year of his presidency, he confronts the damage wrought by his own policies almost everywhere. The Trump administration has maneuvered itself into diplomatic cul-de-sacs with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. It has undermined its own efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. The economic damage from Trump’s trade war with China is mounting, and Beijing shows few signs of giving in. At the same time, the president’s laceration of alliances leaves the United States weaker and more isolated.
For three years, Trump has played fast and loose with American power—picking fights with little thought to how and whether the United States can win them, damaging relationships he needs to accomplish his objectives, and shunning the systematic policy work that superpowers must embrace. The cost of this negligence is finally coming due.
Things could get worse in 2020. The president has always styled himself as the ultimate deal-maker, and his desire for diplomatic breakthroughs will grow as the presidential election approaches. Yet U.S. competitors can see that Trump is in a tight spot, so they will offer him a choice between bad deals and no deals. They may even pursue escalatory strategies to dial up the pressure on a floundering superpower. A few constructive initiatives notwithstanding, the overall trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy has been steadily downward. Year four could be the most dangerous yet.
Trump’s foreign policy has unfolded in phases, corresponding to each of his years in office. In 2017, the “axis of adults”—principally Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster—constrained some, if not all, of Trump’s most disruptive impulses. In 2018, Trump broke free, installing more pliant advisers and pursuing his own policy priorities—such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and imposing punitive tariffs on allies. The current year, 2019, has been the year of living dangerously, as Trump’s ill-considered and sometimes contradictory policies have started to catch up with him. And 2020 is shaping up to be the year of bad choices: one in which Trump’s gambits finally unravel and his options diminish.
Consider the state of U.S. policy toward the three rogue regimes that have consumed so much of the administration’s attention. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro is entrenching himself for the long haul, and Trump’s threats to use force to bring about regime change have been exposed as cheap bluster. Similarly, in North Korea, the president’s mix of maximum pressure and maximum engagement has failed to deliver progress toward denuclearization, leaving him clinging to the fantasy that he has solved that problem even as Pyongyang improves its nuclear and missile arsenals. And in the Persian Gulf, Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal has backfired: Iran responded to American sanctions with its own maximum pressure campaign, attacking tankers in the Gulf, downing a U.S. drone, and carrying out a dramatic assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The resulting crisis has rattled the global oil market and revealed that Trump had little desire for the showdown his confrontational policies were bound to provoke. His administration is now torn between efforts to intensify the pressure on Iran and Trump’s own desire to launch negotiations to bring Tehran back into the compliance with the deal he scuttled.
Trump’s policies have run into trouble elsewhere, as well. In Afghanistan, the president is searching, reasonably enough, for a way to negotiate an end to that conflict, but he has simultaneously undermined his diplomats by telegraphing his desire to withdraw U.S. troops before November 2020. And contrary to Trump’s boast that trade wars are easy to win, his commercial conflict with China has not played out as planned. Reciprocal tariff hikes are surely doing real damage to the Chinese economy, but they are also increasing the recessionary pressures on the U.S. economy. Having initially sought to cut a deal, the Chinese government now shows little interest in the economic grand bargain that Trump reportedly seeks. The president deserves credit for taking a harder line against a rising challenger, and the Pentagon’s China-focused defense strategy is a positive step. But in nearly three years, the Trump administration has still not developed a comprehensive approach for competing with China—in part because Washington’s attention is elsewhere, on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
The Trump administration has still not developed a comprehensive approach for competing with China—in part because Washington’s attention is elsewhere, on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
At a time of great upheaval, even a superpower needs allies. But Trump’s public attacks on allied leaders; unilateral abandonment of international agreements; and punitive tariffs against close U.S. allies have weakened the relationships that Washington will need to confront short-term crises like the one in the Persian Gulf as well as grave longer-term threats from China and Russia. U.S. allies in Europe have hesitated to follow Trump’s lead in resisting Chinese domination of the world’s 5G telecommunications networks, for example, in part because of the Trump administration’s allergy to meaningful consultation and in part because they worry that the U.S. president will ultimately make a bilateral trade deal with Beijing, leaving them isolated. Similarly, European allies have distanced themselves from Trump’s confrontation with Tehran (although they now agree with the U.S. assessment that Iran was behind the attacks on Saudi Arabia), while mounting a longer-run effort to blunt U.S. financial power by creating mechanisms to bypass American sanctions.
To be fair, Trump deserves credit for some of his more constructive policies, such as modestly strengthening the U.S. and NATO posture in eastern Europe, expanding defense assistance to Ukraine, and presiding over a badly needed increase in the defense budget. His basic instincts—that China poses a severe threat to U.S. interests, that U.S. alliances need updating, and that unfettered economic integration is not necessarily an unalloyed good—are far from crazy. And even Trump’s haphazard policies have put U.S. competitors under strain. Foreign policy is ultimately about results, though, and this administration has relatively little to show on many of the issues that the president has put front and center.
This is not especially surprising. Since Trump took office, he has combined disdain for the block-and-tackle work of policymaking—setting objectives and priorities, connecting goals to capabilities, realistically assessing U.S. competitors as well as the geopolitical environment, negotiating in a systematic and disciplined manner—with an offense-in-all-directions approach that generates multiple crises while weakening the United States’ overall diplomatic effectiveness. The price of that approach is now apparent.
An ordinary administration would take this moment to repair the policymaking process and steady the ship of state. But Trump’s hollowed-out administration, in which turnover is rampant and dozens of mid- and upper-level posts remain vacant, is ill equipped for a serious turnaround. The president recently appointed a new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and a well-respected Asia adviser, Matthew Pottinger, as deputy national security adviser. Yet it seems unlikely that these officials will have a real mandate for change. The national security process ultimately reflects the president’s personality, and so far Trump has shown himself incapable of the introspection required to admit when his policies are failing or the discipline needed to devise and execute effective statecraft. Personnel may change in the late innings of Trump’s presidency, but the quality of policy probably won’t improve dramatically.
As a result, 2020 is likely to be a rough year in U.S. foreign policy. The United States will face multiple crises and critical decisions at once. Handling several challenges simultaneously is hard enough when an administration is firing on all cylinders. The difficulty multiplies when the team in power is short-handed and the president behaves erratically. At best, then, the United States will limp through 2020, stumbling from crisis to crisis, struggling to shape events and use its vast power effectively.
Yet there is also another possibility—one that seems more benign but could actually be quite damaging. As a self-proclaimed deal-maker, Trump sees coercion as the prelude to negotiating favorable agreements. As the 2020 election approaches, he will probably feel pressure to conclude deals that allow him to claim victory and deliver on earlier promises. A peace accord with the Taliban will be high on Trump’s list (despite his public claims that he ended the peace talks). So will deals to de-escalate the crisis with Tehran and the trade war with Beijing. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has written, Trump will want to pivot away from confrontation and toward diplomacy. The president recently broke with former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the last official who strongly opposed this agenda.
Rather than a year of diplomatic breakthroughs, 2020 could be a year of dangerous provocations.
There’s only one problem: Trump has a weak negotiating hand and his interlocutors know it. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has every reason to expect that Trump will grow more desperate—and more pliable—in the run-up to November 2020. Chinese leaders have now seen how jumpy the U.S. president gets when the stock market swoons, presumably confirming their belief that China’s authoritarian system can withstand the pain of a trade war better than the United States. For his part, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows that a president who has prematurely declared victory in nuclear diplomacy can ill afford to see a new crisis flare up. And the Iranians have discovered that Trump talks tough and deploys sanctions aggressively, but—in typically contradictory fashion—doesn’t really want a major diplomatic or military crisis in the Gulf.
So Trump’s interlocutors won’t be in a hurry to conclude agreements unless they can drive some hard bargains. The Iranians have shown little interest in Trump’s efforts to initiate talks at the UN General Assembly, making clear that they want significant sanctions relief first. When the president reached for a Camp David summit to end the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban ultimately held him at arm’s length. The Chinese appear to have backed away from their earlier effort to reach a grand economic bargain with Washington—in part because they worry that Trump won’t honor it but also because they seem to think that time is working in their favor.
Trump may even discover that pressure tactics work both ways. If Pyongyang believes that Trump is in a tough political position, why not increase its leverage with a few select provocations? Such a strategy appears to be behind Kim’s recent short-range missile tests. In a similar vein, if Iran perceives Trump to be simultaneously hostile and weak, why not use missiles, special forces, and other asymmetric capabilities to generate counter-leverage? This is precisely the playbook Iran has used since Trump’s campaign of “maximum” economic pressure really began to hurt in early 2019. The same basic strategy—pressing for advantage at a moment of apparent American weakness—could easily appeal to other competitors as well. Rather than a year of diplomatic breakthroughs, 2020 could be a year of dangerous provocations.
Better news about the United States’ role in the world comes in the realm of public opinion. Many commentators saw Trump’s victory in 2016 as a harbinger of a broader American retreat from global leadership. Why else would Americans choose a president who vehemently criticized so many features of the international order Washington built after World War II? Yet something interesting happened after Trump became president: Americans became modestly more internationalist in their views.
Recent polling shows that American support for free trade has risen considerably since 2016. Support for key military alliances and stationing troops overseas has also risen. And while concepts like the “liberal international order” are meaningless to most Americans, a clear majority of respondents to a recent poll by the Center for American Progress believe the jargon-free equivalent: “Our country’s commitment to taking a leading role in shaping security and economic affairs around the world after World War II led to safer and more prosperous lives for Americans.”
To be sure, there are still cracks in the political foundation of American internationalism. The same polling shows that Americans will be reluctant to support an ambitious foreign policy unless pressing domestic problems are addressed first. Yet the Trump presidency hasn’t dramatically eroded public support for an internationalist foreign policy. On the contrary, Americans are increasingly supportive of some of the policies that Trump has most vehemently attacked, such as trade and alliances. It is hard to say precisely why this is happening. But given that Trump’s foreign policy approval ratings are low—around 40 percent—it seems plausible that his conduct is reminding some Americans why stable, constructive American leadership is necessary.
If Trump loses in 2020, the next president may be able to harness this rising popular internationalism in a bid to repair the damage Trump has done to the United States’ position in the world. Alas, given what has happened over the last three years, and what is likely to happen in the next, there will be a lot to repair.