16 May 2018
Triumphant celebrations were expected in Jerusalem following Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy and recognise the city as Israel’s capital, but these were joined this week by scenes of deadly chaos in Gaza. In an episode as laden with symbolism as the embassy itself, television broadcasts switched to split screen: pomp and pageantry in Jerusalem on one side, tear gas and bullets in Gaza on the other. It was a reminder of the conflicting accounts of nation and identity that run so deep in the Middle East, and of the enormous difficulty of reconciling them.
But the embassy move also pointed to an emerging – and highly risky – style of Trumpian diplomacy.
Trump is overturning a practice long held as central to US statecraft: the use of carrots and sticks. Instead, Trump leaps ahead to the finishing line, dispensing with details, and positions himself in that delicate zone where deals are closed. It is a risky approach: it was on display in Jerusalem this week, and it could add to anxieties in Australia and the Asia-Pacific if, or when, he applies it in this unstable region.
Trump’s endgame model of diplomacy was evident in his abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, which took years of delicate diplomacy to negotiate. But he preferred to nix it, rather than – as European leaders suggested – fix it. The deal, signed in 2015, was a compromise, as deals often are. Trump believes he can restore sanctions, expand them, and up the pressure on Iran’s leaders, who will eventually come back to him for a new deal. “When they do, I am ready, willing, and able,” he said.
Then, he fixed a date for a meeting with Kim Jong-un, even though previous US leaders had rejected meeting with North Korea’s leader until Pyongyang had demonstrably changed its behaviour. In 2000, for instance, Bill Clinton sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang but later decided not to visit because he was not convinced that North Korea would give up its missiles. “The Clinton administration knew that the visit was the big deliverable and they wanted to spend it very carefully,” Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert, told CNN earlier this year.
And now Trump has opened the Jerusalem embassy, long a stated goal of US presidents and policymakers – the relocation has been a law of Congress since 1995 but was waived by successive presidents.
The embassy move was always seen as an endpoint of negotiations, a reward for Israel, perhaps to be matched with the opening of an embassy in the capital of a newborn Palestinian state. This was the rationale that has long underpinned the approach of US leaders – and the international community – to resolving the conflict. This reasoning was also evident in Malcolm Turnbull’s comments this week on his objection to moving Australia’s embassy from Tel Aviv. “We have taken the view – as, indeed, most countries have – that it’s more conducive to the peace process to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv,” he said. “Obviously, the status of Jerusalem and negotiations relating to Jerusalem are a key part of the peace negotiations, which we wish the very best for and which we support.”
But Trump believes the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem now (as does his conservative voter base), so he moves it.
In long-running international conflicts, such as those in the Middle East, any such change in policy comes with an apparent inbuilt rationale: those making the change can always argue that the previous approach failed. Explaining his decision to relocate the Israel embassy in December, Trump said: “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.”
But his move may be no less of a folly. Overturning a policy that has not succeeded does not mean that the reverse approach will have the opposite result. Conflicts can worsen, or move further from the possibility of resolution.
The risks will become evident for Australia as Trump handles tensions in Asia. China’s rise and growing muscle is causing unease and could lead to stand-offs, direct or indirect, with the United States and its allies. The mechanics of Trump’s approach are becoming clearer, even if the outcome is still emerging.
Even though for now the embassy is just a plaque and some office space, relocated from Tel Aviv, a 45-minute drive away, the Jerusalem move is symbolic.
But the violence on the other side of the screen will not be replaced by symbols: it will only end – eventually, as conflicts do – through painstaking and laborious diplomacy, negotiation and difficult concessions, or with the use of overwhelming force. Trump, so far, has engaged in neither.
It may be that some of Trump’s diplomatic calculations pay off. Perhaps his unilateral moves will change positions in ways that tilt negotiations towards a desired outcome. But these are stark and difficult conflicts with a poor record of lasting advances or breakthroughs.
And the risk is that bypassing the old carrots-and-sticks approach may have the reverse effect. Worse, and perhaps more likely, it may reduce the incentives to negotiate and lead both sides closer to the only other outcome.