US Sanctions Against Iran and the Future of the JCPOA: A View From Tehran and Moscow
Joseph Biden’s victory in the US election raised hopes for a revision of the American approach to the Iranian nuclear deal. Washington unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, renewing massive economic sanctions against Iran. The subsequent extraterritorial application of US sanctions forced a significant number of foreign companies to leave Iran.
Companies from the EU have suffered the most. Moreover, during the presidency of Donald Trump, the volume of restrictive measures against Iran was increased by Presidential Executive Orders No. 13846, 13871, 13876, 13902 and 13949. In turn, Tehran began to gradually withdraw from its obligations under the JCPOA, taking into account the renewal and amplification of the American sanctions. A feature of the US approach during the Trump era was the mixing of nuclear issues with other issues and linking of sanctions relief with them. Such issues include the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the release of US citizens and citizens of US allies, the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, the end of support for the Houthis in Yemen as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc. Washington was criticised by all permanent members of the UN Security Council (the JCPOA received international legitimation, including within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2231). The European Union also criticised the United States, but could not influence its American ally. The United States even maintained a strict sanctions regime during the COVID-19 pandemic. No serious humanitarian exemptions have been made for Iran.
The renewal of US sanctions appears to have caused significant economic damage to Iran. However, Washington has also largely found itself in diplomatic isolation. While the United States could simply ignore the views of its allies and partners in the “nuclear deal,” the JCPOA remained important for two reasons. The first is Iran’s activity to resume its nuclear program. Unilateral US sanctions are damaging Iran’s economy, but they are unlikely to force Tehran to abandon nuclear development. The United States runs the risk of another round in the development of the Iranian nuclear program. Unlike the 2000s, it will be much more difficult for Washington to assemble an international coalition to thwart such a program, especially considering that the Americans withdrew from the JCPOA themselves. The second reason is the prospect of large-scale supplies of conventional weapons to Iran, which until recently was prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Although Trump’s executive order No. 13949 threatens with sanctions to suppliers of conventional weapons to Iran, such supplies may well become a reality, especially from Russia and China.
In other words, the return of the United States to the JCPOA discussion is determined not only by the new president’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy, but also by quite pragmatic reasons. However, this does not mean that the United States will agree to return to the status quo. The Americans will conduct tough negotiations, trying to squeeze the maximum concessions from Iran. The “lowest denominator” set by Trump is more likely to play into the hands of the new administration. Even in the event of certain relaxation, the new realities are unlikely to be similar to the period that preceded the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.
The diplomatic marathon to reset the JCPOA started immediately after the new president of the United States took office. The first stumbling block was expectedly the sequence of actions. Tehran declares its readiness to return to the implementation of the JCPOA only after the lifting of US sanctions. Washington takes the opposite position—first, compliance with the terms of the deal by Iran, and only later—the resolution of the issue of sanctions. Simultaneously, both parties launched a series of consultations with other parties. China has declared the advisability of multilateral negotiations. This proposal was supported by Russia as well. The European Union volunteered to be a mediator in the negotiations, but at the end of February Iran refused an informal meeting with the US, mediated by the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell.
The Russian position on the JCPOA suggests the following. First, Moscow welcomes the very fact of a return to negotiations. Second, Russia insists on the need to separate nuclear issues from other topics. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching any compromises becomes extremely doubtful. Third, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a “synchronised approach”. That is, Washington and Tehran must synchronise their concessions: the former unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, the latter is gradually returning to the terms of the deal.
At the same time, much will depend on what exactly the “synchronised approach” will consist of. For example, the United States could reverse Trump’s 2019 and 2020 executive orders, but keep in effect all sanctions renewed in 2018. Under these conditions, Iran is also unlikely to return to full compliance with its obligations. Timing is also important. The process of returning to the JCPOA could be almost endless. External factors must also be taken into account. Even if it is possible to separate the JCPOA from other issues, they will still have a background influence on the negotiations. The situation in Syria, Yemen and other points of contention that underscore the US-Iranian conflict remain unstable.
Domestic political factors must also be taken into account. The upcoming elections in Iran may affect its diplomacy, which could become less amenable to compromise. In the United States, the political cycle has just begun. But the specificity of institutions remains an important factor. Even if Joe Biden with his orders cancels Donald Trump’s decisions and returns the US to the status quo, he will not be able to change a number of US laws on Iranian issues. The President will still have to regularly report to Congress and “certify” the implementation of the JCPOA. It is possible that the next president will abandon the “certification”, as Trump did in 2018.
From our partner RIAC
For U.S. politicians, a free Honduras should be a bipartisan priority
Since Xiomara Castro was sworn into office as Honduras’ first female president, she has chosen to align the country with backward regimes such as Cuba and China. At the same time, she appears to be moving away from trade partnerships with forward-thinking countries like the US and Taiwan.
If Castro is successful, it would be an unmitigated disaster for Honduras and the entire free world, reversing decades of economic and social progress that the country has made.
It would also be a hammer blow for the US, both politically and economically. After all, America is Honduras’ biggest trading partner, accounting for $5.2 billion in exports and $6.4bn in imports in 2021, while it also provides a host of much-needed educational opportunities.
In addition, it would play right into China’s hands as the global superpower strives to broaden its geographic footprint and influence. Were Castro to get her way, it would also undoubtedly result in a mass exodus of Honduran migrants, who would head straight for the US border in search of a better life.
US should support a free Honduras
The only way to stop Honduras from going down the same path as some of its neighbors is for the US Republicans and Democrats to join forces to defend the country’s freedom. Only the newly-elected speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, has the power and drive to bring the two sides together to save the Honduran people from their perilous plight
Only through public diplomacy can the US Government alter Honduras’ economic course for the better. But it needs to make sure that it works alongside and cooperatively with President Castro. A recent letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren and more than 30 anti-trade Democrats urging the U.S. Government to intervene against fellow Americans in a case brought against Honduras by American firm Honduras Prospera has only served to worsen the ongoing dispute.
Castro has already taken steps to shut down foreign investment in Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs), signing a measure to repeal the legislation governing them. The direct result has been to economically disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of hard-working Hondurans and, in effect, stall the economy.
The fact of the matter is that ZEDEs will raise the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to $36,000 by 2050. That’s more than 10 times above the current GDP of $2,772.
ZEDEs are already having a big impact on Honduras’ economy, driving GDP per capita growth by 17% between 2020 and 2021. A shining example of this is Prospera, a ZEDE on the island of Roatan, which has attracted almost $100 million in US private investment, with that figure expected to reach $500m by 2025.
The bottom line is that free trade zones are key to attracting foreign investment, and creating jobs and prosperity in developing countries such as Honduras. This investment is vital to kick-start a flagging economy that is still getting over the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Castro’s plans to close ZEDEs are ill-conceived and, if followed through with, they will cause untold damage to both the economy and jobs. They will also scare off any potential long-term investors looking for a stable environment in which to do business that abides by the rule of law.
Honduras’ future is in the balance. It can’t afford to make the same mistakes as its Latin American counterparts Venezuela and Bolivia, both of which are now mired in poverty and corruption after decades of mismanagement by the government.
ZEDEs represent a unique opportunity to lift millions of Hondurans out of poverty. Shutting them down will only put their workers back to square one, at the worst possible time, with the world facing 40-year record inflation and a deep cost of living crisis.
America Vs America
A novel global landscape is currently being forged, and the United States, recognized as the unequivocal leader of the preceding world, understandably harbors concerns regarding its ability to uphold its established position within the emerging order. In the ongoing discourse that has persisted since the conclusion of the Cold War in the late 1980s, a wide array of divergent proposals have been put forth to address this apprehension. Some have advocated for the containment of potential adversaries, while others have advocated for the division of the world into distinct civilizations, necessitating confrontations with each. Consequently, the question arises: What measures can America adopt to sustain its global leadership in this new era? Conceivably, the answer may still reside within the annals of America’s own historical trajectory.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his armies to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1990, he could not have imagined that the whole world would unite against him. The unanimous backing of all permanent members resulted in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolution 678, authorizing a collective intervention against Iraq. As the United States deployed troops during the Gulf War of 1991, an overwhelming majority of nations rallied behind the military intervention. No American foreign intervention has ever been done with such great consensus. The level of agreement achieved was so extensive that it surpassed even the united front against Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War. Excluding instances like Yemen and Cuba, it could be argued that, perhaps for the first time in human history, all nations were uniting against a tyrant, with the U.S. spearheading the effort.
In the realm of International Relations literature, the extraordinary consensus witnessed during the Gulf War is often attributed primarily to the conclusion of the Cold War. While this assertion holds some truth, it alone falls short of fully elucidating the remarkable unity witnessed during the initial Iraq War. In addition to fortuitous circumstances and unfolding events, the significant role played by the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon in fostering the extensive consensus cannot be understated. Diplomatic efforts were deployed, accompanied by a range of incentives, promises, and even veiled threats, aimed at securing a unanimous UN vote. As an illustration, the US achieved a noteworthy agreement whereby the Saudi government committed to providing $1 billion in aid to the Soviets throughout the winter. (1)
Although certain endeavors may be deemed unethical, I find the United States’ pursuit of global approval commendable. Prior to and during the operation, President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) and the secretaries engaged in dialogue with key Middle Eastern leaders, emphasizing the significance of consultation. As an illustration, Turgut Özal, the Prime Minister of Turkey at that time, took pride in being seen as a guiding influence to the US President due to their frequent bilateral phone calls and in-person meetings. Özal‘s sentiment was not unfounded, as President H. W. Bush demonstrated a genuine concern for the perspectives of Middle Eastern nations and the international community regarding the Iraq War, readily engaging in consultations with global leaders.On November 29, 1990, the United States secured the approval of a resolution from the UN Security Council, authorizing the use of “all necessary means” should Iraq fail to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991.
Upon obtaining UN support, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney expressed the view that he did not require Congressional approval. Cheney’s rationale behind this stance was to avoid unveiling anti-war sentiments and potentially reawakening memories of the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, President H.W. Bush demonstrated wisdom in rejecting Defense Secretary Cheney‘s perspective. In embarking on the path to war, the President endeavored to secure not only global support but also the backing of American society and institutions. Ultimately, Congress sent a powerful message to the world by granting approval to the President’s request. In fact, what President H.W. Bush accomplished in the early 1990s was akin to “winning hearts and minds,” a feat that subsequent U.S. Presidents, including his son, George Bush, should have pursued in the 2000s but unfortunately fell short of achieving.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the sole and unrivaled global superpower. Such was its dominance and influence that even French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, in the late 1990s, referred to the United States as a “hyperpower,” underscoring its unparalleled standing in the international sphere. (2)
CLINTON ERA: A HUMANITARIAN FOREIGN POLICY?
Regardless of whether labeled as “super” or “hyper,” the US foreign policy during the 1990s was not characterized by aggression or arbitrariness. Quite the opposite, under the presidency of William J. Clinton (1993-2001), the United States predominantly pursued its objectives through peaceful and soft power means. Bill Clinton‘s foreign policy was marked by a notable emphasis on international engagement, diplomacy, institutions, values and multilateral approaches.
Clinton was the president of the only hyperpower on earth, and the power he controlled was incomparable to the power of any state. However, during his presidency, the United States did not appear to wield this power arbitrarily or solely for its own interests. Clinton‘s foreign policy agenda encompassed several crucial elements, including the promotion of democracy and human rights, bolstering international trade, facilitating the integration of global markets, pursuing diplomatic resolutions to conflicts, and participating in humanitarian interventions. Similar to his predecessors, President Clinton authorized military operations in various regions across the globe and assumed a role akin to the world’s police force. Nonetheless, unlike previous instances, the United States’ foreign interventions during the Clinton era were perceived as displaying less arrogance and self-interest.
Indeed, in Kosovo, Bosnia, and numerous other instances, American military interventions were designated as “humanitarian interventions,” and the concept of “humanitarian interventionism” gained prominence within Clinton’s foreign policy framework. The Clinton administration displayed a readiness to engage in situations where they perceived humanitarian crises to be unfolding, especially in instances involving genocide, ethnic cleansing, and severe violations of human rights. In the instances of Kosovo and Bosnia, the United States demonstrated a remarkable departure from religious solidarity norms by daring to challenge another taboo and providing protection to oppressed Muslims who were facing oppression from Christians. Regrettably, such instances of principled action are seldom witnessed throughout the annals of human history. These interventions were motivated by the conviction that the international community held a duty to safeguard civilians from egregious human rights abuses, and that the use of military force could be warranted to prevent or halt large-scale atrocities. The US doctrine of humanitarian intervention faced criticism from various quarters, particularly due to concerns over disregarding the sovereign rights of nations. Nevertheless, it also fostered aspirations that humanity could unite in a collective effort to safeguard and uphold human rights.
Undobtedly, certain circles labeled American foreign interventions during the Clinton era as “inhumane” or even “colonial.” Anti-American sentiment was pervasive worldwide, as is often the case in any given period. However, such criticism, when compared to the anti-American movements observed before and after that time, largely remained ineffective and marginal.
Under the Clinton administration, a remarkable wave of optimism and hope surged regarding the future of global affairs under American leadership. The average American saw themselves as citizens of the world’s sole hyperpower, unaware of the potential vulnerability and eventual decline of American power.
9/11: DEVASTATING ATTACKS THAT ALTERED THE COURSE OF A GLOBAL POWER
On September 11, 2001, the United States was subjected to a series of meticulously planned and coordinated terrorist attacks. Perpetrated by the extremist group known as al-Qaeda, these attacks involved the hijacking of four commercial airplanes. Targeting iconic structures that symbolized American power, the assailants strategically deployed the hijacked planes. Two of the aircraft, namely American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were deliberately flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in the catastrophic collapse of both towers within a matter of hours. Another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was intentionally crashed into the Pentagon located in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, intended for a target within Washington D.C., ultimately crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks were appalling, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including individuals from various backgrounds and professions. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in world history and had a profound impact on global politics, security measures, and international relations. An additional significance of these attacks lay in the stark reality that enemy forces had struck the previously sheltered American homeland with unprecedented force and clarity. Even during the conflicts of World War II, the United States had not been subjected to such open vulnerability. Moreover, the U.S. experienced this attack at a time when it felt most powerful and unrivaled. The assailants nearly entangled the shoelaces of the colossal U.S. entity and successfully disrupted its entire equilibrium. The entangled giant, the United States, proceeded to respond precisely as desired by the attackers, fueled by anger and a thirst for vengeance, instead of employing rationality, reason, and caution as it should have done.
Right after the attacks, the sympathy of the whole world was with the Americans. While the attacks were taking place, I was on the streets of Türkiye and I did not see a single person rejoicing at the attacks. Instead, people were filled with compassion, offering their condolences and even uttering prayers for the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and their bereaved families.
A substantial majority of the global community, particularly the nations affiliated with NATO, elected to engage in cooperation with the United States and formally expressed their endorsement. But all these warm feelings did not satisfy the U.S. administration and President George Bush chose a confrontational language and said during his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” as part of his declaration of a global War on Terrorism. Although the term “war on terror” is used very often, in practice this war cannot be waged against a concrete enemy. Terrorism embodies an elusive nature akin to that of a specter. Engaging in armed conflict against it not only fails to eradicate terror but inadvertently nourishes it, often resulting in harm to numerous innocent civilians. Interestingly, the United States had previously proffered such counsel to developing nations grappling with terrorism. However, when confronted with a similar predicament, Washington D.C. seemingly disregarded these fundamental truths, opting to combat terrorism through conventional methods of warfare. The endeavor, referred to by President Bush as the “war on terror,” resulted in the military interventions in Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq. Regrettably, in both conflicts, the United States failed to sufficiently prioritize the task of garnering global goodwill and public support. Largely attributing its actions to the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the US exhibited a sense of entitlement rather than diligently seeking to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide. President George Bush, in contrast to his father’s diplomatic and political endeavors prior to the 1991 Gulf War, did not demonstrate an equivalent level of commitment in persuading the international community and the American public.
Thus, with a controversial decision taken from the U.N. and under the protests of millions of people, the US launched an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. The number of Americans who died in the invasion of Iraq even exceeded the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims lost their lives in Iraq, millions of people were displaced from their homes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States found itself grappling with intangible adversaries, as its intent was to combat terrorists. Paradoxically, this inadvertently aligned with the terrorists’ objectives, leading to the inadvertent infliction of harm upon innocent individuals unaffiliated with terrorism. The American expenditure in Iraq amounted to trillions of dollars with little to show in return. Furthermore, allegations of corruption within the armed forces came to light, further exacerbating the situation. The U.S. gave a very bad test in Iraq:
The utilization of waterboarding, a practice commonly deemed as highly prohibited and classified as an extreme form of torture, emerged as a contentious issue in the United States during the 2000s amid the War on Terror. Following the revelation that the CIA employed waterboarding on certain Al-Qaeda suspects, media reports indicated that additional forms of torture were utilized on detainees in designated partner nations. Furthermore, American officials orchestrated covert transportation of suspects aboard planes to circumvent domestic laws and subject them to mistreatment. The disclosure of images depicting torture by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, along with reports of human rights violations in Guantanamo Base during the United States’ administration, received widespread coverage in the New York and Washington press, leading to the rapid erosion of global sympathy for America and the emergence of hostile sentiments. It became evident that Americans were conforming to the terrorists’ methods, as the unresolved anger stemming from the 9/11 attacks persisted, clearly influencing the behavior of American officials. In the misguided pursuit of revenge, America, like other states engaged in misguided counterterrorism efforts, compromised its own principles and values.
AMERICA vs. AMERICA
Despite being underestimated, American moral values and democratic institutions serve as a significant source of power, setting an exemplary standard for the world. Many countries around the world teach how Congress, courts, and other American institutions work in their political science schools, and most other country elites feel that they need such institutions and living principles to be strong, like the United States.
However, as the media portrayed the ugly realities of the Iraq War and exposed instances where certain American officials failed to adequately uphold their own values and institutions, the Congress building gradually lost its symbolic significance of representing freedom and the rule of law, particularly for many individuals in the developing world. The once-celebrated notion of the United States as a “superpower” in the 1990s crumbled amidst the rubble of Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, perceptions of the United States began to shift, characterizing it as a more ordinary power. These sentiments were not limited to international perceptions but were also observed within American society itself. This ongoing process can be described as the erosion of American institutions and values. America, driven by panic following the destruction of buildings on 9/11, inadvertently weakened its own power by undermining its foundational principles, values, and institutions. Remarkably, at that time, few were cognizant of the unfolding repercussions of these actions.
The terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, with their aim to manipulate America’s conduct through the destruction of symbolic and monumental structures, unfortunately accomplished their objective and achieved success. The fabric of American society underwent a decline as its behavior shifted, characterized by a disposition towards anger rather than rationality. The once prevailing perception of America as an invincible force began to wane globally, but notably, it also diminished within the hearts of the American people themselves.
THE DECLINE OF AMERICA: REALITY OR ILLUSION?
In my scholarly perspective, the emergence of the “American decline literature” within the American press, political arena, and academic spheres during the 2000s can be attributed to a perceptual construct rooted in psychological traumas rather than materialistic factors.
The comparative economic and social analyses conducted for the aforementioned years fail to substantiate the alleged decline. Undoubtedly, the American economy experienced significant fluctuations during the 2000s, characterized by both favorable and unfavorable trends. However, it would be erroneous to interpret these oscillations as indicative of a sustained and irreversible “decline.” The occurrence of issues like the 2007 financial crisis cannot be attributed to the downfall of America as a civilization but rather to intermittent errors and unforeseen incidents. Empirical economic indicators consistently demonstrated that the United States remained the most prosperous, advanced, and productive nation globally.It would be unrealistic to talk about the economic collapse of a country whose GDP is higher than that of Japan, Italy, even in its poorest state, Mississippi
Indeed, it is verifiable that certain conventional manufacturing facilities have undergone closures, and several labor-intensive enterprises have opted to relocate to foreign nations, such as China, with the intention of mitigating costs within the United States during the 2000s. Nevertheless, contemporaneously, the American economy demonstrated remarkable ingenuity, emerging as the preeminent global creative economy: Prominent entities such as Apple, Amazon (established in 2006), Google (1998), Tesla (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Instagram (2010), Uber (2009), Netflix (1997), Microsoft, and numerous other renowned brands have exemplified the formidable potency of American creativity and entrepreneurial prowess. These enterprises have successfully engendered nascent industries hitherto inexistent, thus yielding substantial contributions comparable to the economic output of a medium-sized government to the American national economy. American companies have proven how dynamic humanity is still with discoveries never known before. As previously elucidated, it is incontrovertible that the American society, political landscape, and economy encountered a series of crises and confronted significant challenges during the aforementioned timeframe. However, these circumstances should not be regarded as substantiating evidence to support the assertion that the United States has undergone a state of collapse. Concurrently, it is evident that China and certain other competitor nations experienced a substantial upsurge in economic advancement. Nevertheless, the progress achieved by rival nations does not substantiate the notion that the United States has succumbed to decline or disintegration.
To summarize, the apprehensive assertions made during the 2000s, suggesting that “America is in decline” or “America’s societal and cultural hegemony is waning,” can be primarily attributed to psychological factors rather than being grounded in tangible evidence. These psychological factors stem from the profound impact of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which proved to be not only unnecessary but also excessively burdensome in terms of cost. Following the catastrophic events of 9/11, the United States, driven by a vengeful sentiment, regrettably undermined its own foundational values and sources of power. Consequently, a disconcerting phenomenon unfolded, wherein the nation initiated an internal conflict against itself. In such circumstances, the predictable outcome of such a self-destructive war becomes apparent, as history demonstrates that defeat is inevitable in such situations.
A NEW COLD WAR?
Due to the Ukrainian War’s influence, the world is increasingly concerned about the possibility of a new cold war, and perhaps even a hot war. In Europe, countries are already experiencing a standoff between Russia and the US. However, it is the growing power of China that particularly concerns the United States. China, having emerged as the world’s second-largest economy through remarkable growth in recent decades, instills fear among its adversaries due to its substantial military investments, amounting to billions of dollars. Recognizing China as its potential global rival, the US is actively seeking methods to prevent China’s involvement in the production and supply chains of strategic products, such as semiconductors and chips.
It seems that the U.S. is trying to implement the old strategy of the Cold War years, namely the containment policy, against its new rival, China. China, on the other hand, is developing special friendships with strategic countries in very different geographies such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Republic of South Africa, as if to nullify such siege efforts. In contrast to the containment of the Soviet Union, isolating China does not seem like a straightforward task. Unlike the Soviets, China actively engages in the capitalist system, adhering to its rules and avoiding self-imposed isolationist errors.
Another concept influencing American foreign policy today, similar to the “containment policy,” is the notion of “the West and the rest.” This approach suggests that the West stands alone against the rest of the world, relying solely on itself for support.(3) As I previously attempted to explain, this assumption lacks factual basis and is merely an illusion. If the West succumbs to an idea that divides the world into factions, it will harm both itself and the global community. In the emerging nebulous world order, what the U.S. and the West will require most is not adversaries but rather new allies and friendships.
The concept of “winning hearts and minds,” which was commonly employed in the 2000s but fell short of achieving its goals, is the policy that the U.S. will require the most in this new era. In this context, the Middle East and the Islamic world, which the U.S. appears to have overlooked in recent years, also hold significant importance. I acknowledge that there exists considerable frustration and disillusionment within the American government and the Congress regarding the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sense of defeat is causing American policymakers to lean towards isolationism or harbor a hostile perception of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, it appears that Middle Eastern states and Muslim nations as a whole will wield a significant influence on establishing equilibrium in the emerging global order. This may explain why China is placing special emphasis on forging alliances with Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Muslim nations, possessing abundant natural resources and comprising a quarter of the world’s population, form a collective that any aspiring global leader would seek as a partner. While the Asia-Pacific region may serve as the focal point of the new global contest, it seems implausible to achieve success in this competition without securing the support of the Middle East, regardless of where the global rivalry unfolds.
NOT “WEST AND THE REST”, BUT “WEST AND THE FRIENDS”
In summary, the United States is not in decline. On the contrary, during the post-Cold War era, the U.S. successfully revitalized itself across various domains and retained its position as the world’s leading economy and political power. However, the global landscape is changing, with other nations experiencing growth and development as well. Given the rapid advancements in technology and evolving nature of global economic relations, the world has become too intricate for a single dominant state to manage alone.
In today’s interconnected world, the mere accumulation of power by the United States or any other global superpower is insufficient to address the collective global challenges. Consequently, both the U.S. and potential rivals require the involvement of regional powers and pivotal countries. The U.S. must now strive to win over more hearts and minds than ever before.
While it remains uncertain whether the newly emerging world order will be a multilateral world order in the classical sense, or whether a variant of the multilateral that we do not know is emerging. But one thing is certain; The United States must strengthen the values, principles, rules and institutions that have made it strong in the past.
An approach that divides the world along hostile civilizational lines, as suggested by Huntington and other thinkers, does not serve the best interests of the United States. On the contrary, it undermines its power. Similarly, it would be excessively optimistic to solely approach the newly formed world order with Cold War reflexes and hope for results by economically and militarily containing potential rivals. Washington must prioritize building friendships before fostering enmities to uphold its global leadership, adopting a mindset of “the West and its friends” rather than “the West and the rest.”
(1) Thomas L. Friedman, “How U.S. Won Support to Use Mideast Forces the Iraq Resolution: A U.S.-Soviet Collaboration”, The New York Times, 2 December 1990, A.1
(2) “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower'”, The New York Times, 5 February 1999.
(3) Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2002).
Building a Global Agenda for Democracy
Authors: Otto Saki and Scott Warren*
The Biden Administration recently held its second “Summit for Democracy,” bringing together governments, civil society leaders, and the private sector in late March in an attempt to demonstrate how democratic governance can deliver for citizens across the world. Alongside co-hosts of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia, the United States attempted to broaden the first iteration of the Summit, held in December 2021, by elevating country-specific commitments, and subsequent progress, on issues like election integrity and combatting transparency. The Summit also aimed to foster collaboration with civil society through thematic cohorts on issues like youth political engagement and combating the closure of civic space.
At a time in which the concept of democracy around the world is at a precipice moment, the energy behind the initiative is welcomed. At the same time, the Summit received some criticism for its lack of focus and the challenge of determining which countries were actually invited, with concerns of potentially dubious invitations.
As a grantmaker and practitioner in the democracy space, our objective in this piece is not to add to the criticism of the Summit itself, which has arguably provided needed momentum and energy into the democracy field. We believe, at a moment in time in which alternative government forms are gaining traction, that the Summit has served as a useful, necessary catalyst in spurring a conversation on the importance of democracy as a system of government that is best at guaranteeing freedom and rights for individuals. At the same time, itt goes without saying that general summits, whether they be the UN General Assembly Meetings or other global convenings, as stand-alone events are insufficient to stem the democratic regression tide. Too much energy should not be spent from governments and civil society alike, on a singular event.
Instead of focusing on the importance of a Summit itself, there is value, and perhaps necessity, in promoting a broader Agenda for Democracy. This Agenda should focus on furthering an global l movement focused on democratic renewal through simultaneously strengthening grassroots activism and providing support and accountability to governments who claim to support democracy.
This is a moment for democracy. After almost two decades of persistent gloomy news on global democratic trends, we are seeing potential signs of hope. The most recent Freedom House report indicates that the gap between the number of countries where freedom has improved, and where it has declined is at its narrowest point in 17 years. In the last year, freedom declined in 35 countries, like Peru and Thailand, while it improved in 34 countries, like Kenya and Brazil. This compares to 73 countries that saw declines in 2020, with only 28 seeing improvement. At the same time, we have still seen 17 straight years of democratic decline, and the emergence of non-democratic governance models that portend to deliver economic benefits, like in China and Singapore, provide a grave threat- to say nothing of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
The promise and precariousness of this moment for democracy requires an ambitious agenda. But what does an Agenda for Democracy, what does it actually look like? How can it avoid falling into the same traps as the Summit for Democracy? How can an Agenda be forward looking and ambitious without being overly driven by the United States and the broader Western world? How can it be more than just talking points or broad commitments?
We do not have all the solutions, and hope that the concept of defining an Agenda can be a collective exercise led by friends of democracy throughout the world. We also believe that it is critical to acknowledge that democracy is not a perfect system of government, and that countries in the Global South are and should be focused on economic development as a top developmental priority. To that end, it is critical to make the case that democracy is the best form of government at both guaranteeing individual rights, and pursuing equitable economic outcomes. We do have a few ideas on how to start formulating this Agenda for Democracy.
Firstly, it is incumbent to create a more positive vision for democracy. Democracy can, and must, be aspirational, rather than simply a cudgel against countries like China and Russia. Across the world, citizens in countries like Peru, Zimbabwe, and Ukraine, are literally putting their lives on the line for the very concept of having a say in their own self-governance. We need to tell their stories, and why democracy means so much to these people. These individuals, more so than governmental leaders, or funders and academics like us, are the best purveyors of the power of democracy.
Secondly, we need to embrace innovation in democracy. Across the world, individuals are increasingly distrustful of formal institutions that they do not feel deliver results. Faltering confidence in democracy itself provides the opportunity and perhaps obligation, for entrepreneurial solutions. Ideas like citizen assemblies, in which randomized individuals make political decisions, and participatory budgeting, where community members allocate funding to agreed upon priorities, are worth experiments that provide autonomy and agency to people who feel like their voices have been neglected. There are no silver bullet solutions to better democratic results around the world, so an approach based on experimentation is necessary in an attempt to reimagine democracy itself.
And finally, we need to prove that democracy can still work. There is a reason that so many throughout the world are questioning the governance concept- historic economic inequality and a global elite that seemingly focuses more on consolidating power than expanding rights provokes frustration and doubt. Building on the work of the Summit, research institutions can demonstrate which types of commitments lead to concrete and durable democratic gains. And special attention should be made to examine the intersection of participatory democracy and equitable economic gains.
The Summit for Democracy has led to a burgeoning and needed conversation on the importance of the democratic governance concept around the world. Let’s not keep focusing on an individual event. An aspirational, innovative, research-backed Agenda for Democracy is needed to help build, and consolidate, the democratic gains of the moment.
*Scott Warren is a Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on building pro-democracy coalitions in the US, and around the world.
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