WASHINGTON - Crises can throw up a great deal of smoke and confusion. But they can also show, with piercing clarity, the deeper dynamics that are driving global events. In this way, the standoff between the United States and Iran exposes a significant paradox: The Trump administration is simultaneously unleashing and diminishing American power.
In one sense, the Iran crisis has reminded the world just how much power the U.S. actually possesses. America’s outsized global influence comes not just from its material capabilities, but also from its position at the center of the world’s most important networks — the global financial system, the world trading order and a vast web of security alliances.
President Donald Trump has long believed that the U.S. had become feckless because it was gutless — his predecessors had been too timid in using the leverage this centrality conferred. One of the guiding themes of his statecraft has been a willingness to get rough with enemies and friends alike.
The administration has used the threat of abandonment to prod allies into spending more on defense. It has employed trade sanctions, or the threat thereof, to compel commercial concessions from South Korea, Mexico, Canada and other countries. It has put America’s dominance of the international financial system to work by leveling punishing sanctions against rogue actors such as Venezuela and North Korea.
Now we have the campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran. The remarkable thing isn’t that these sanctions are exerting excruciating pressure on the Iranian economy, which barely cracks the top 30 worldwide. It is how Washington has essentially forced countries around the world — allies and rivals — to go along with a policy that most of them opposed.
The European Union, China and other key players did not favor isolating Iran economically; they did not want to see Iranian oil driven from the market. Yet their reliance on the dollar and their need for access to the U.S. banking system has allowed Washington to confront foreign firms with the choice — which is really no choice at all — between doing business with Iran and doing business with America. That’s the sort of power only the U.S. can exert.
The Iran crisis, however, has also revealed a second reality of American power in the Trump era: The ability to hurt a rival does not necessarily translate into the ability to get one’s way.
Succeeding in coercive diplomacy generally requires matching the pressure one exerts to the objective one seeks to achieve. The Trump administration has, therefore, been fairly effective in coercing allies: It is easy enough get South Korea to cough up a bit more money for the privilege of hosting U.S. troops, or to wring modest trade concessions out of Mexico and Canada, if Washington is willing to hold its relationships with these countries at risk. But the administration has been far less effective in coercing American rivals, because it has pursued goals that are out of alignment with even the considerable pressure the U.S. has brought to bear.
For example, U.S. sanctions have further wrecked a collapsing Venezuelan economy, but they have not persuaded Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to commit political suicide. The U.S. exerted “maximum pressure” against North Korea in 2017 and early 2018, yet nothing short of military force would have persuaded Kim Jong Un to give up the warheads and missiles that guarantee his regime’s survival.
The administration is now encountering a similar problem with Iran. Here, Trump’s team has not even clarified what it seeks — a renegotiated nuclear deal, the rollback of Iranian power in the Middle East, or perhaps the collapse of the regime. More confusingly still, U.S. officials have recently argued that Washington’s goal is to force Iran to abide by the terms of a nuclear deal that the Trump administration previously discarded.
The Obama administration originally achieved that deal — imperfect thought it was — by exerting strong, multilateral coercion while also communicating that to Tehran that it was seeking only limited concessions. Trump, by contrast, has ramped up the pressure in the service of undefined but presumably maximalist ends. It is not surprising, then, that Tehran has responded not by caving in but by lashing out with attacks on oil tankers and shooting down a U.S. drone. In the near-term, this escalatory dynamic has raised the danger of a U.S.-Iran military clash. Over the longer term, Trump’s policy of unleashing American power may end up weakening it instead.
Trump has been able to wield American might so aggressively only because most of the world has long tolerated and supported Washington’s role at the center of global security, economics and finance. That tolerance, in turn, has been rooted in confidence that the U.S. will, more often than not, use its influence responsibly.
That confidence is waning fast: As the administration has behaved in ways that America’s closest friends find aggressive and promiscuous, those friends have begun to wonder whether Washington should be trusted with so much power and influence in the first place.
Close U.S. trading partners such as Mexico and Canada have begun working to diversify their trade patterns, so that they will no longer be so vulnerable to the whims of a truculent superpower. The Iran crisis has led key European countries to introduce an alternative payments system that is meant to allow European firms to continue doing business with Tehran. That particular effort is going nowhere for now: European governments can pretend it’s possible to circumvent the dollar, but European firms know it isn’t. But these stirrings of anti-hegemonic activity are important nonetheless. They tell us that a superpower that is seen to abuse its position of centrality may not enjoy that position forever.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.