As the U.S. drifts out of the international picture, chaos potentially looms
Iran announced last week that it would be pulling out of some elements of the nuclear deal it signed in 2015, primarily its agreement to export enriched uranium stocks that it didn’t need for nuclear power generation. The move was seen as an attempt to pressure the EU to move more quickly on setting up financial mechanisms that would bypass U.S. sanctions after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal last year. That underlying motivation suggests a much deeper shift playing out in the international order, one where the U.S. is no longer the arbiter of international relations and other countries try to take its place. What will that future world look like?
►Adnan R. Khan: Originally, the U.S. goal in pulling out of the Iranian nuclear to deal was to isolate Iran. But it does seem like the opposite is happening.
Ilter Turan: Indeed, sometimes the measures you take to achieve your own goals produce the opposite of what you intended. With the Americans behaving the way they are, everybody is trying to find ways to build rival or alternative arrangements such that they are no longer obliged to go by American dictates. In our earlier conversations, we had talked about the fact that the E.U. was trying to develop a payment system so that payments to Iran would fall outside the American banking system. China, I’m sure, is considering similar measures to avoid American sanctions. Much of the rest of the world is also interested in following the developments. Thus, in the process of trying to dictate to the rest of the world how it should behave toward Iran, China or other countries, the U.S. may well be undermining its own ability to wield influence.
Turkey has some experience with this. During the construction of the Ataturk dam in the 1980s, the greater powers tried to prevent the Turkish government from building it by withholding financial resources and technological support. The end result was that Turkey developed the capacity to build large dams, and now it has become one of the few countries in the world that has that capability.
►Adnan R. Khan: Necessity is the mother of invention, and Iran is trying to capitalize on the need for the world to look past the U.S. for leadership. Essentially, the U.S. created this crisis. It used to be at the center of the international order but now that position is slipping. What does that shift mean for the international system and for the U.S. in particular?
Ilter Turan: It does appear that the U.S., rather than trying to build consensus among its allies which used to be its strategy, has chosen to go it alone. This is proving to be a highly problematical approach because then only the presumed American interests addressed and those of America’s allies are fully ignored. There also seems to be a question of American credibility since sufficient evidence that Iran is violating the terms of the agreement is lacking.
The credibility issue has a historical precedent: The U.S. argued that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, which turned out to be a total lie but the allegation was used to legitimize America’s intervention in Iraq. Currently, there is a general concern that the U.S. is pursuing self-defined interests and is trying to drag its allies into unwanted conflictual relationships in the process.
There is no question that the end to the Iranian nuclear agreement and another round of “the West against Iran,” moves would create a highly destabilizing environment in the Middle East. The only allies in the region the U.S. seems to have – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – have their own interests in containing Iran. They are pushing the U.S. to pursue a harsh policy irrespective of the extent of the intensity of the need to constrain Iran. But, that should not mean that the U.S. can engage in arbitrary decisions and then demand that the rest of the world comply?
►Adnan R. Khan: It’s interesting because it seems to me that the Trump administration is listening to these questionable leaders in the Middle East, whether it’s Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, or Sisi in Egypt, or Netanyahu in Israel, and ignoring the advice of its historical allies in Europe and in other parts of the world.
Ilter Turan: In fact, this is part of a much broader package. From the very beginning, the U.S. under Trump, began to question whether the Western alliance was serving America’s interests. His predecessor, Mr. Obama, felt that the American interest lied in working with the Alliance, but now Mr. Trump, with his go it alone mentality, is not interested in extending any support to Europe because he feels that Europe should contribute more to its own defense. This of course is wrong from a variety of perspectives. Europe is the front line defense for the U.S.as well; and by protecting Europe American interests are also served because Europe is America’s major trading partner and part of the global liberal economic and political order. I do not see how picking a fight with Europe would advance the interests of the U.S.
►Adnan R. Khan: Daniel Drezner at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has argued that there are some really disturbing similarities between what’s happening today and what happened in the lead up to WWI, and by corollary, WWII. He claims essentially that the breakdown in the international order - negative reactions to globalization and technological advancements at that time - directly led to the war and he’s worried that a similar process is happening now. Would you be so alarmist as Drezner or is that quite a pessimistic view.
Ilter Turan: I think we can always find similarities in history but history never repeats itself in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, I feel that there may be an important point in this argument. We have come to a stage where the American century, that is to say the world order built by the U.S. after WWII, is coming to an end. What we do not know is whether change will be peaceful or violent.
►Adnan R. Khan: And the question then is: During the transition to a new world order, will there be a period of chaos and how destructive will that chaos be?
Ilter Turan: Yes, and will this chaos actually lead to a third world war? Will nuclear weapons stand in the way of global destruction or will they be the instruments through which global destruction will happen?