The way the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal has consequences, but for the most part I’m less concerned about the local fallout than I am about the ripple effects beyond the Middle East. Let’s start in Europe.
The response from the European governing institutions to the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal can be best summed up as righteous indignation.
In part this is economic: the Europeans were fast to pour investment into Iran after the deal was codified and are not looking forward to rolling those efforts back.
In part it is political: the Europeans are signatories to the deal, working long and hard to show Europe could contribute to a strategic normalization beyond their borders. No one likes it when another country simply informs you that your efforts don’t matter to them and they are imposing their own reality upon a situation.
In part it is personal: French President Emmanuel Macron was sure he had a strong relationship with Trump, and his personal charm offensive a few weeks back was intended to sway Trump to keep the Iranian deal. Such a public rebuke has to sting.
In part it is institutional: bureaucrats are supposed to ignore politics and strategy when making policy, and the folks within the European Commission (said bureaucrats) are the ones most cheesed-off by the Americans’ dictating of Europe’s economic and security policies. Commission officials have been talking of counter-sanctions against the United States, as well as offering legal and financial guarantees to firms who still want to do business in Iran.
But the politicians are singing different tunes, not just from the bureaucrats, but from one another. Macron has, as expected, been if anything even more strident than the Commission. On the other end of the spectrum, a few Central European countries sabotaged a French effort to condemn the Americans for moving their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – in part to stick it to the French, in part because they plan to move their own embassies.
But as seems increasingly the case, the person who matters most is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While lamenting the end of the Iranian deal, she sees bigger forces at work than “merely” the future of the Middle East. American policy evolutions/gyrations under the Trump administration have adversely affected many, but none more so than the Germans.
Germany is individually powerful, but anything it does to enhance its national power tends to spark an alliance among its neighbors to tear it down – typically in a cataclysmic war. The only way the Germans – and by extension, the Europeans – have ever found around the problem is to bring in an external security guarantor who forces everyone to be on the same side. That’s the United States.
And so Merkel has watched in increasing horror as the Americans stop treating the Europeans as allies, or even partners, but instead as competitors. The prospect of American secondary sanctions must terrify the chancellor: Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter and nearly half of German goods are traded outside of the EU on markets that are managed by the SWIFT system the Americans plan to use to box Iran in. Even a minor application of American sanctions would be catastrophic to German economic and political stability.
To that end Merkel noted two days after the Americans withdrew from the Iran deal that “it’s no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us. Let’s face it, Europe is still in its infancy with regard to the common foreign policy.”
But while her words were a call for Europe to deepen its integration, her actions indicated something very different. If the Americans cannot be trusted to put Europe first, then the Germans have no choice but to act to prevent a broad-scale coalition from containing German interests. That means courting new allies… from beyond Europe. And so after making the comments that Europe needed to pull together, Merkel didn’t travel to Brussels. Or Paris.
She went to Moscow.
Now don’t overreact. I’m not saying that Molotov-Ribbentrop v2.0 is just around the corner. What I’m saying is that even with seven decades of the most favorable strategic environment the European continent could have ever hoped for, that a meaningful strategic and political merging of the European countries still hasn’t happened. That forces the individual powers of Europe to chart their own – individual – destinies. For the United Kingdom that means Brexit. For the Italians that means a new populist government that will veto any effort to further federalize the EU. For the French that means some serious globetrotting to build up an independent strategic position.
And for Germany it means putting some irons in the fire that have nothing to do with Europe whatsoever. That means economic and energy connections to Russia. That means at least giving Russian demands a hearing. That means taking Russian strategic interests into account as concerns the countries between Germany and Russia.
OK, maybe that does sound a bit like a Molotov-Ribbentrop redux.
Never forget that the founding concept of the EU and NATO were to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. All three of those pillars are gone.
History is moving on.
Next up:The Chinese discover they have no clothes.