Why Republicans Tend to Fail at Diplomacy

On Monday, the Trump administration restored some sanctions on Iran that had been lifted as a result of the landmark agreement to stop their development of nuclear weapons. The president followed up the announcement with this tweet:

It is categorically untrue that “these are the most biting sanctions ever imposed.” This is all you need to know to understand why that is the case.

The renewed sanctions starkly highlighted the divisions between the United States and its allies. The Europeans that were parties to the agreement said they would protect their own companies from legal reprisals and work to maintain Iran’s access to the financial system and its continued export of oil and gas that forms a large share of its income.

It has been established that Trump prefers to work unilaterally on foreign policy. But when it comes to sanctions, they don’t work when imposed by the United States alone, without the cooperation of other countries. We all should have learned that lesson long ago when it became clear that the unilateral embargo against Cuba accomplished nothing.

Here’s what John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, said about the renewed sanctions:

In an interview on Fox News Channel, Bolton said Trump is serious in offering to meet with Iranian officials to talk about Tehran’s nuclear program and regional activities.

“If the ayatollahs want to get out from under the squeeze, they should come and sit down,” Bolton said.

What he doesn’t understand is that Iran came to the negotiating table with the Obama administration because they had worked tirelessly to rally all of the major global economic players to join us in sanctioning Iran, including both China and Russia, who had previously been holdouts. Acting alone, the U.S. is actually a relatively small player when it comes to trade with Iran. Their economy won’t be severely affected by this recent renewal of sanctions, so they have no incentive to talk.

The fundamental thing that a lot of Republicans don’t understand is that this kind of diplomacy isn’t based on our ability to dominate others. Instead, it requires partnership. Obama laid out that concept early on during his 2009 speech in Cairo.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

When it comes to sanctions, they can be effective (i.e., “biting”) when they are imposed multilaterally by partnerships like the P5+1. But when they are imposed unilaterally by the U.S., they almost always fail. That is something that Trump and a lot of Republicans don’t seem to understand—which is why they so often fail at diplomacy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.