President Trump’s supporters expected he would bring a new, business-seasoned negotiating style to U.S. diplomacy. What we’ve seen in the past month is something rather different: the art of the ultimatum.
Sure, Trump’s team has been bargaining with Mexico and Canada over trade, with China over North Korea, and with Russia over Syria and Ukraine. But the most striking thing about the president’s diplomacy so far in 2018 has been the public demands he has placed on European allies, Pakistan and the Palestinians. He has told the Europeans, and Congress, that he will withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran unless they agree to a “new supplemental agreement” by the middle of May. He pledged to cut off aid to the Palestinians unless they agree to participate in the peace talks he wants to sponsor. And he has already frozen aid to Pakistan for giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
Perhaps, for Trump, this is simply another way to bargain. If so, the fallout from the president’s would-be diktats suggests it’s not working.
Take Pakistan. Trump’s first tweet of the year blindsided Islamabad with this broadside: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the past 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit.” Days later the administration announced it was suspending nearly all security aid, up to $1.3 billion annually, while saying it could be restored if Pakistan took steps against the Taliban and other terrorists. In other words: Meet U.S. demands or forfeit the funds.
Pakistani officials predictably rejected the public challenge, saying they didn’t need the money and anyway could probably get it from China. Then they shut down the Pakistan operations of Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts in the Pashto language used on both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, saying it served a “hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.”
Then, on Jan. 20, came a deadly assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, which killed at least 22, including several Americans, and bore all the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, the Taliban faction that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is accused of supporting, if not directing. If Trump’s tweet was meant to intimidate, it appears to have spectacularly backfired.
Next come the Palestinians, who predictably took umbrage when Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinian Authority leaders refused to meet with Vice President Pence when he visited the region and said they would not consider the peace plan the White House has been working on. That prompted Trump to announce that aid to the Palestinians would be cut off “unless they sit down and negotiate peace.” Half the $125 million in expected U.S. aid to the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians has already been withheld.
To punish Trump for that ultimatum, the Palestinians need only sit tight. The withdrawal of U.S. aid is the last thing Israel wants — it would cause the collapse of the West Bank Palestinian security forces that in recent years have worked closely with Israel to prevent terrorist attacks. Israeli military forces might have to redeploy in Palestinian areas they now avoid. In short, if Trump follows through, he’ll do less damage to the Palestinians than to Israel, the ally he thinks he’s appeasing.
The most costly Trump diktat, however, concerns the Iran nuclear deal. In a statement stuffed with bullying rhetoric, Trump demanded on Jan. 12 that Europeans and Congress agree within 120 days to a rewrite of the 2015 accord that would impose new conditions on Iran and reverse sunset provisions — without bothering to negotiate with Tehran. European diplomats and a handful of senators are duly seeking to finesse something that would appear to address Trump’s demands without actually infringing on the pact — a nearly impossible task.
If they fail, which is likely, Trump will have the choice of failing to deliver on his threat or reimposing U.S. sanctions on Iran. The latter would trigger an international crisis for which the United States would be universally blamed and open the way for Iran to resume the large-scale production of enriched uranium — something it is now prevented from doing.
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All these disruptions might make sense if Trump had a plan for what happens after he blows up the status quo. Does he have a strategy up his sleeve for coercing Pakistan? Does he know how the West Bank will be secured if the Palestinian Authority collapses? Does he have a new way to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon?
He doesn’t. The worst thing about Trump’s ultimatums is that there is nothing behind them. In foreign policy, that’s an invitation to disaster.