Stephen Gottlieb: Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 22, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of  the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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