Varieties of Disruptive Diplomacy – Part IV Responses to Trump
I have considered both critical and defensive analytical reactions to Trump’s initiative in previous blogs. The gist of the latter was that the initiative was a realistic but disruptive move to shake up the peace process. Trump’s disposition, motivated by domestic reasons, had been shaped into a well-crafted and plausible move, with the possible scenario that it could free up the sclerotic process and remove the clots preventing any movement. Now I want to consider other explanatory accounts.
Did the initiative express a preference for disruption and thereby risk all as American diplomacy in the Middle East and the rest of the world – Iraq, Syria, Somalia and North Korea – may appear to indicate?
In the end, was the pronouncement an expression of irrationality, the mad impulsive move of a narcissistic and unthinking leader, or was it based simply on stupidity? A third irrational foundation might be sentiment, namely the 18th century belief that all beliefs, if they can be ascribed any moral value, serve to enhance a harmonious cosmic order even as they appear to be disruptive. Or the resort to disruptive diplomacy, perhaps an oxymoron, may be an amalgam of all three. Certainly, both the rational comprehensive constructivist as well as realist approaches to international relations have been questionable since George W. Bush instigated an absolutely dumb war in Iraq and Barack Obama began the American retreat from global involvement leaving vacuums in its wake.
However, constructivist realism, combining moral goals with realist policies, has been under stress everywhere in the world. Have the UN and UNESCO, as well as peace operations, such as UNIFIL, verified John Mearsheimer’s 1995 thesis on the “False Promise of International Institutions,” the bankruptcy of liberal institutionalism intended to deter destructiveness and protect victims? Has the inability of peacekeeping to deal with such complex conflicts as the Rwandan-Congo security impasse put a nail in the coffin of traditional methods? Has the rise of the internet and the prominent role of social movements totally altered the international landscape and introduced populism to international relations as well as domestic national politics? Has Robert D. Kaplan’s prognostications in his 1994 thesis on “The Coming Anarchy” reinforced a conviction that the continuing destruction of our environment, tribalism, the emergence of new diseases, the official endorsement of white crime and the theft by the rich of a grossly disproportionate share of surpluses produced by innovation, simply worked together to destroy the social and institutional fabric of the planet, creating room for disruptive efforts in the international arena? Have international power politics married to our contemporary political culture not only failed to prevent the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power, but enhanced that outcome in defiance of conventional wisdom?
Before exploring disruptive diplomacy based on various types of irrationality, I want to reiterate the positive case for rational disruptive diplomacy in the context of a reduced respect for law and traditional rational diplomacy. According to that thesis, President Donald Trump’s declaration last week that the United States will officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is good news. Partially, this is because it recognizes the long-evident facts on the ground: Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the people of Israel for thousands of years, has finally been declared capital of the modern state of Israel, though this has been the actual case for seventy years. It is undeniable that some configuration of the city will remain so forever regardless of future negotiations concerning the city’s eastern side. There’s no serious question of that, except in the minds of fanatics who truly believe the population of a (putatively) nuclear-armed state will one day be driven into the sea.
Yet the world’s political and diplomatic elites have indulged in the delusion that Palestinian leaders mean to be equal partners in pursuit of a better, more peaceful life, and that a deal was always tantalizingly close at hand. Surely no one genuinely believes that any longer. But that fiction was, at least for mandarins and diplomats, for political scientists and philosophers, too polite and convenient to abandon. The illusion that there is some progressing peace process in the Middle East has itself ironically become the latest impediment to peace. Smashing that illusion carries risks. But, as the last five decades of violence between Palestinians and Israel make clear, so does indulging that belief.
According to this thesis, the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an inspired move; the Canadian government’s decision to respond judiciously is also considered to be very commendable. Nothing useful in the Middle East peace process has occurred since Rabin’s assassination, but the correlation of forces in the region and the ambitions of the Arab powers have evolved. For decades, Israel’s most fanatical enemies were Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The first two countries disintegrated. Not so secretly, Saudi Arabia is now an Israeli ally with Egypt against Iran.
Yet columnists, such as Doug Sanders in The Globe and Mail, echoed Tom Friedman and insisted that Trump threw away Israel’s last hope for peace when the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In contrast, Conrad Black in an 8 December op-ed in The National Post argued that the goal of reducing violence would be brought about by means of four other r’s of realistic rational international diplomacy:
- Responding Proportionately and in a Timely Fashion (sequencing)
- Restoring the Use of Quiet Diplomacy
Before I review that thesis, I want to examine three versions offering a non-rational basis for disruption as the new foundation for international diplomacy – madness, stupidity and sentiment.
The madness thesis seems to be the most prevalent one. It is certainly widespread. Elizabeth Drew made this point in an article entitled, “The Madness of King Donald” for the Project Syndicate (4 December 2017) where she opined that Trump’s increasingly bizarre behaviour in various spheres as well as the Israeli-Palestinian case had been evident, such as at the ceremony honouring the Native American heroes of World War II where he once again used the racist term “Pocahontas” to describe a Democratic Congresswoman, his re-tweets of a British neo-fascist’s anti-Muslim rant, his revival of the calumny re Barack Obama’s birthplace, and his sudden denial that the tape record of his grabbing women by their genitals was fake even though he had admitted making the remark and apologized for it. All those provided a portrait of Donald Trump as a president detached from reality and a great danger when it came to North Korea and the Middle East.
There is also the stupidity thesis. This was articulated by Leil Leibowitz in Tablet (“Trump’s Embassy Statement”). “Instead of his [Trump’s] statement the other day, he could’ve simply refused to sign the waiver that delays the embassy’s mandated move to Jerusalem, in accordance with the 1995 law. He didn’t do that. Nor did he gut Obama’s disastrous Iran deal, another one of his campaign’s promises. Instead, he left untouched a Middle East in which Teheran continues its march towards regional hegemony, gleefully threatening to wipe Israel off the map, failing to prevent Iran from establishing bases inside Syria and completing its takeover of Lebanon while shamefully continuing to fund the Lebanese army, which Iran and its proxies now control. He has also failed to take any significant action to protect the Kurds or to provide Israel with anything more substantial than loud proclamations.” In sum, Trump was all rhetorical excess with little policy depth.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to Trump’s move on Israel and echoed the assessment of stupidity, but for very different reasons. “Their announcement of Quds [Jerusalem] as the capital of Occupied Palestine [Israel] proves the incompetence and failure [of the U.S.]. In regard to Palestine, they are helpless and unable to achieve their goals. Victory is for the Islamic nation. Palestine will be free, and the Palestinian people will be victorious.” Hannah Ashrawi echoed this sentiment, though with far less aggressive threats. “This decision will be interpreted by Palestinians, Arabs and the rest of the world as a major provocation. It will cause irreparable harm to Mr. Trump’s own plans to make peace in the Middle East, and to any future administration’s efforts as well. It will also undermine the United States’ own national security.” Why? Because the recognition was not just symbolic but sent a signal that the U.S. would no longer set up roadblocks over Israel’s efforts to cement its control over the whole city. Trump had legitimized Israeli actions and its policy of creeping annexation.
Then there is the sentimental thesis that has its modern roots in the Scottish leaders of the Enlightenment, David Hume, Adam Smith (the author of The Wealth of Nations), Francis Hutcheson and Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury). The sentimental thesis is based on a teleological belief that all events serve to enhance a harmonious cosmic order even as they appear to be disruptive. That is because, in the end, all human behaviour, if it is moral at all, is rooted in a universal moral sensibility. Human behaviour is not governed by self-interest, with the possible exception of the pursuit of material goods. Correct moral judgments are always based on sentiment.
Less concerned with either the motivation, the rationale or the geopolitical significance, Rabbi Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, is an example of someone who praised the Trump initiative and greeted the pronouncement as a song to Jewish hearts. He articulated what the historic recognition meant for Jews for whom Jerusalem had been at the centre of their prayers for two thousand years. He also believed that the message sent to the rest of the world was a message of peace, for Jerusalem was the city of peace, of shalom, even though it had been ravaged by wars over the centuries. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a manifestation of divine design as well as of virtue.
While the madness and the stupidity theses accounts of disruption predict disaster and chaos, the rational and sentimental justifications envision an emerging harmony.
Tony Berman in the Toronto Star argued that the “unilateral decision by the Trump administration to favour Israel, defy the world and recognize the fiercely divided city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” sabotaged any lingering hope of peace and that the conflict can be resolved through negotiating a two-state solution setting a dangerous new stage for the conflict. Like the PA, Berman predicted that the result would be a one-state solution with Israel put at risk in the process. Whatever the possibility of that outcome, it was not based on the destruction of a peace process which has been in a state of rigor mortis for years.
|Hezbollah’s Nasrallah called on the world to support a new Palestinian intifada, and stories of violence in response to the announcement seemed to initially verify the prognostication that this would be the result: riots in the West Bank and Gaza, a Molotov cocktail thrown at a synagogue in Goteborg, the demonstration in front of the American embassy in Lebanon breaking out into violence, an Israeli citizen killed in a stabbing attack, a 9-year-old girl slightly injured by a Palestinian rock thrower, two Palestinians killed as police attempt to control protesters. However, journalists had also been interviewed who had been called to witness staged events with “more journalists than protesters.”
Even in the protests at Rachel’s tomb, only 450 protesters appeared. Whether these were the exception, the general consensus was that the three days of rage were relatively mild and would not be a portent of a Third Intifada. The best clue was the speed with which the story had been relegated to the inside pages of newspapers. The violence and protests seemed far less than predicted, though, as could be expected, Turkey’s foreign ministry accused Israel of responding excessively at the Damascus Gate but has not, as yet, broken off relations with Israel as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had promised.
While civil war has raged in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, while the relations between Hezbollah and the Sunnis in Lebanon remain tense, while Hamas throws a few rockets at Israel and Israel responds with bombs, Joshua Sharf asked why, after recognizing a three thousand-year-old truth, was Trump going to set the region aflame?
Tomorrow in Part V My own summary and assessment.
With the help of Alex Zisman