If America isn’t viewed as credible in the diplomatic realm, how much incentive do other states have to come to the table and agree to change their behavior?
Today, America is facing a mischievous Iran, whose nuclear program was curtailed by the nuclear deal. This summer, the UN nuclear watchdog verified the country’s compliance with the agreement for the eighth time since its implementation started less than two years ago. The Islamic Republic remains a challenge in a number of arenas, including its human-rights track record, support for terrorist groups, and general regional activities, as Haley correctly noted in her speech. But as America’s allies and negotiating partners—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, along with China and Russia—have stated repeatedly, the deal is working in its narrow aim of limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Haley said as much when she stated that “the deal was constructed in a way that makes leaving it less attractive.” In other words, while the deal isn’t perfect, alternatives to it are far worse.
What’s more, the agreement has provided an opening for the international community to build on it to explore diplomatic solutions on other security challenges Tehran’s behavior creates. Importantly, as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini frequently reminds Trump, it is also is a multilateral agreement. That means it’s a commitment not just to Iran, but to the other parties to the agreement, whose interests are also implicated. None of them want to withdraw.
Despite all this, the Trump administration appears hell-bent on rocking the boat. All the while, America is facing down North Korea, a country whose brutal regime has acquired a small, but growing, arsenal of nuclear weapons—something Iran never achieved and that the Iran deal was designed, so far successfully, to prevent. North Korea has now tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, before detonating what it claims is a thermonuclear weapon. And as Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities have expanded, America’s foreign-policy toolkit for addressing it has shrunk. As Mark Bowden wrote in a recent issue of The Atlantic, “any effort to crush North Korea flirts not just with heavy losses, but with one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.” A military campaign on the Korean peninsula could cost hundreds of thousands of lives, just in its initial phase, and could very well drag on to become even more devastating.
This makes diplomacy, with both North Korea and China, an indispensable part of any solution. And it means that the best-case scenario for a peaceful resolution is a deal that looks a bit like the Iran deal—meaning a far-from-perfect arrangement involving economic inducements in exchange for a freeze on aspects of Pyongyang’s nuclear development—except that North Korea already has nuclear weapons.