by Dr. Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia
Montreal—On September 19, 2017, Donald Trump spoke for 40 minutes at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). His speech certainly garnered the widespread attention of international leaders, diplomats, and mainstream media as he threatened to wipe out North Korea, insulted Iran, and attacked Cuba and Venezuela… The timing of Trump’s speech was the worst it could possibly have been, as the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is escalating day by day on one side, and Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal framework is hailed by the EU on the other. To paraphrase the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, on the BBC: “It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience!”
After Khrushchev’s shoe-banging and Bush’s “axis of evil,” Trump’s statement breaks the international diplomatic savoir-vivre tacit rules. Indeed, in the UN fortress, international civility is the norm. The major universal morality principles (peace, justice, conflict resolution, mutual aid, relief of human suffering) take precedence over confrontation, verbal attacks, and flexing political muscles. Trump, in this case, preferred the latter and used a language qualified by some as “potentially more appropriate for schoolyard debates”, sounding “more like a mob boss than a statesman.”
Trump’s speech has disturbing and destabilizing attributes that leave the audience wondering whether he is aware of the diplomatic quake his words could lead to, on top of his daily tweets that keep adding fuel to the North Korean and Iranian fires, to name a few. Trump’s “Make America great again” actually causes the opposite effect! Iran and North Korea, two countries that have stood up to the US over the years and remained stable despite international sanctions, continue to be the Achilles heel of US Asian foreign policy’s and a source of significant irritation.
JCPOA: The US’ loss is Iran’s gain!
In his address, Trump called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal framework, “an embarrassment to the United States.” On the eve of the deadline for its re-certification he refuses to acknowledge that Iran has been abiding by the agreement’s requirements. He does not seem to realize that an international agreement of that importance cannot be changed according to the whims of one signatory state; a state whose president claims loudly that his political agenda is focusing on making America first and foremost.
Following Trump’s speech, Mogherini (the EU’s top foreign affairs official) set him straight by reminding him that the Iranian nuclear deal is an agreement that belongs to the international community and not to one country. She confirmed Iran’s fulfillment of the deal’s requirements under the JCPOA and said that if there is another issue with regards to Iran, it should be raised outside the JCPOA framework. China and Russia urged the US to not violate the agreement. Meanwhile, Tillerson exhorted Trump to certify Iran’s compliance and recognized that the issue is rather geopolitical and geostrategic, as Iran (can) put sand in the US gears with regards to Iraq and Yemen, to name only these two issues.
That said, instead of isolating Iran, Trump’s speech is creating the opposite reaction! A rift between the US and the EU is widening and deepening. Western powers are disappointed by Trump’s attitude, and there is a surge of sympathy and support for Iran from the EU, China and Russia. Thus, the biggest loser could be the US that finds itself isolated. Iran’s gain is major, and its role as a Mid-Eastern regional power is strengthened to the displeasure of the US. Apart from Iran’s gain, Trump’s speech is a windfall for Jihadists who can exploit it to their benefit, giving them more ammunition to feed their offensive in the region, already a cause for concern for China’s dealing with the Uyghurs, which is becoming a transnational situation.
North Korea on the way to becoming a “David”?
Another legitimate concern for China is the North Korean issue that is getting out of hand on a daily basis, thanks to Trump and Kim Jong-un’s tit-for-tat reprisals. The world cannot help but observe that both Trump and Kim Jong-un are similar despite their respective backgrounds: they are both belligerent, unpredictable, and “irrational.” Instead of feeling cowed by Trump’s attacks, North Korea fires back with its own set of threats. Endless cock fights with global and nuclear consequences can create a precarious situation for two long-term American allies, South Korea and Japan, who are directly impacted by this spiraling situation.
On the one hand, South Korea is acting, to a certain point, as if there is no crisis. Seoul does not want to have “another outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula” as South Korean Foreign Minister Kang told CSIS. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance had allocated USD$99.7 million for humanitarian relief to North Korea and extra funds under the inter-Korean economic cooperation; aid that is very much welcomed in the midst of international sanctions. Meanwhile, in Japan, Abe is trying to take advantage of the North Korean issue to boost his plummeting popularity by calling snap elections. Japan is also urging China to help with resolving the conflict.
Both China and Russia are concerned, as they do not want an armed conflict at their border, already preoccupied with other issues. The latest American show of force over the Demilitarized Zone of North Korea’s coast must have been done with the consent of China and Russia, who probably had talks with North Korea to avoid a casus belli. The Dragon’s and the Bear’s use of diplomatic channels clashes with Trump’s “adiplomatic” ways.
Trump’s “adiplomacy” is strengthening China’s position: “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity.” (Confucius)
The US failure to articulate an Asian foreign policy on top of alienating allies and non-allies is weakening its position in the global geopolitical landscape. This is a golden opportunity for other countries: The “make America great again” is gradually turning into “make others great again”; others being China, Russia, Iran, India, etc. These Eurasian regional powers are rising thanks to American populism exacerbated by Trump’s self-centeredness.
China can clearly gain from the Iran-USA tug of war. The Middle Kingdom is seeking harmony, whether domestically or internationally. To do so, China needs to maintain good ties with Iran since 1) Iran’s religious ideology has regional reach; 2) Iran is a power that opens up the Central Asian countries, over which it has a strong cultural influence; 3) Iran has a geostrategic position that offers access to the warm seas; 4) Iran has a great geo-economic potential with numerous investment opportunities; and 5) Iran is a major player in the Middle East.
Moreover, Iran serves China’s global ambitions. In contrast to official US policy, China is not interested in Iranian domestic affairs or in the state of democracy and human rights. Business and national interests are the only motivations. Both countries are dealing with each other cautiously, recognizing each other’s status as a regional power while sharing a distrust of the US government and its foreign policy. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative provides an attractive opportunity to seize and to strengthen economic ties. Moreover, Iran is a founding member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and holds observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while it is backed by China for full membership.
On the other side of Asia, China’s gains over the North Korea-US conflict, a resolution will not come from the US. Knowing Trump’s warlike intentions, China and Russia will not entrust him with the primacy of his resolution and will try to stop him through the UN and by pressuring him to stop torpedoing negotiations. Being close to North Korea and sought after by Japan, China’s role will be strengthened. Once again, the Middle Kingdom will become the center of the world in accordance with the Confucian strategic objective.
Regardless of Trump’s future actions, the wheels are in motion, and China–along with other regional powers–is benefiting from the current US position. Trump’s speech during the UNGA was not coherent or a rallying force, as it did not allow a unifying action plan to take place on the global stage. It was a part of the media noise amplified by Trump’s tweets, whose consequences can be disastrous both at national and international stages. Trump’s actions fall within “adiplomacy” rather than traditional diplomacy; the schism is large and widening. It will be difficult for the US to fill the gaps, which other powers are eager to use to strengthen their positions and to carve out their place in the global geopolitical chessboard.
Dr. Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.