Many eulogies of Brent Scowcroft, president George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor who died on August 6, have referred to him as a foreign policy realist. Whereas the question of his putative realism boils down to how you define the term, it is very clear that Scowcroft was an institutionalist.
His institutionalism passed away at the UN Security Council last Thursday.
As one of the chief architects of the United States’ post-Cold War foreign policy, Scowcroft believed the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry ushered in a new period of great power comity that would enable international institutions—first and foremost, the United Nations—to replace states as the primary actors on the world stage.
In a 1999 interview, Scowcroft explained that he reached this conclusion after the Soviets supported U.S. condemnations of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In his words, “I hypothesized that the fact of the Soviets standing up beside us and denouncing [Iraq’s] aggression in Kuwait was a seminal event in the world. We had set up the United Nations in ’45 with the notion that the Great Powers would really have responsibility for security around the world. It had never worked. We [the U.S. and the USSR] came up on the opposite sides of every crisis. Maybe that was ending. If that was ending, could we look forward to a world where the kind of naked aggression that had been the bane of mankind could be ended, that the Great Powers could actually act as the framers of the U.N. had in mind?”
The Soviet support for the U.S. at the UN in the lead-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War fed the hopes of Scowcroft and his colleagues that we were indeed witness to the UN’s emergence as the central instrument of a cooperative post-Cold War “New World Order.”
But far from a seminal event in world history, the Kremlin’s support was an expression of profound, albeit momentary, weakness. Months after the Gulf War, the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced by the Russian Federation. As Russia emerged on the world stage, like the Soviet Union before it, it built its power and position as a superpower in opposition to the U.S.
Scowcroft’s institutionalist legacy of U.S. action in the framework of the UN Security Council died last Thursday, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that in light of Iran’s substantive breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA, i.e., the Iran nuclear deal), the U.S. is triggering the so-called “snapback” clauses of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
Resolution 2231, passed in 2015, serves as the legal anchor to the JCPOA, which was itself an informal, unsigned agreement between Iran, the U.S., the EU, Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany.
Resolution 2231 empowers parties to the resolution to inform the Security Council if Iran is in breach of the limitations it accepted on its nuclear activities in the JCPOA. Iran began openly breaching the deal’s limits last year.
Under the so-called snapback clauses of Resolution 2231, 30 days after a party to the resolution informs the Security Council of Iranian breaches, Security Council sanctions that were suspended with the implementation of the JCPOA are automatically reinstated.
Rather than respect 2231’s snapback clauses that the U.S. triggered last Thursday, Russia, China, the EU, the U.K., France and Germany responded to Pompeo’s announcement by claiming that the U.S. lacks the power to trigger the snapback sanctions because the Trump administration abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.
We now face the prospect of the UN breaching its own binding resolution to block the U.S. from using the power the resolution unambiguously granted it. Washington is likely to ignore the Security Council’s action and enforce the UN sanctions with assistance from allies. To this end, Pompeo is traveling through the Middle East this week to expand the alliance initiated by Israel and the United Arab Emirates two weeks ago to include other regional actors and neighbors of Iran, including Sudan, Bahrain and Oman.
Administration critics claim that Pompeo’s action at the UN undercut U.S. veto power and weakened the U.S. going forward, because a precedent of ignoring U.S action at the Security Council has now been set. Consequently, future U.S. vetoes may be ignored.
It may be true that the Security Council will repeat its rogue action. But it will be the UN and the states that use the UN to leverage their power against the U.S. that will themselves be harmed.
The three presidential administrations that followed George H.W. Bush shared Scowcroft’s foreign policy institutionalism. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all aspired to carry out U.S. foreign policy in the framework of the UN, which they accorded vast legitimacy and prestige. Clinton and Bush’s efforts were both met with failure.
As Russia rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, in 1998 it blocked Clinton administration efforts to pass a Security Council resolution authorizing the bombing of Serbia. The second Bush administration expended massive efforts and prestige in its failed bid to secure Security Council support for its invasion of Iraq.
The Clinton administration was compelled to operate in Serbia under the NATO umbrella.
With its Iraq plans blocked at the UN, George W. Bush formed a “coalition of the willing” to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
These rejections didn’t temper either administration’s desire for UN approval. For instance, instead of supporting Israel in its war against Hezbollah in 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked with France and the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government to negotiate a ceasefire deal through the Security Council. Resolution 1701 enabled Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon in the 2008 coup by treating the Iranian terror proxy as a legitimate geopolitical actor. The resolution expanded UNIFIL, the UN force in Lebanon, in a manner that ensured it would serve as a cover for Hezbollah’s rearmament and control over the border with Israel.
Rather than ditch the ceasefire talks as they led to a resolution that strengthened U.S. enemies Iran and Hezbollah at Israel’s expense, Rice put process before substance and hailed 1701 as a triumph of U.S. diplomacy.
For its part, the Obama administration viewed the Security Council as a means to weaken its political opponents. The purpose of Resolution 2231 was to subvert the Senate’s constitutional power to ratify treaties. As Henry Kissinger noted at the time, the JCPOA, which legitimized the greatest state sponsor of terrorism’s illicit nuclear weapons program, upended 70 years of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts. By presenting it as an informal agreement, and then giving it the force of a Security Council resolution, Obama effectively compelled Congress to treat the JCPOA as if it were a ratified treaty.
The Trump administration is the first post-Cold War U.S. administration that has forthrightly and consistently rejected Scowcroft’s international institutionalism, preferring instead President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
Trump’s foreign policy has been condemned by its critics as immoral for its preference of transactional partnerships based on common interests over permanent, treaty-based alliances. But as the Security Council members’ responses to Pompeo’s triggering of the snapback sanctions last Thursday makes clear, the opposite is the case.
China and Russia wish to give Iran a pass for its illicit nuclear activities because they want to make money on weapons deals with Tehran. Unlike the U.S., they are not concerned about Iran’s support for terrorism or pursuit of nuclear weapons because they don’t believe Iran threatens them.
The Europeans side with Russia, China and Iran against the U.S. for many reasons. None are moral. Chief among them is their certainty that the U.S. will block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons regardless of what they do. Operating as free-riders, the Europeans feel safe appeasing Tehran at Washington’s expense.
In contrast, both the Trump administration’s decision to walk away from the JCPOA and reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran and its efforts to reimpose UN sanctions against Iran under Resolution 2231’s snapback clauses reflect the administration’s deep-seated commitment to preventing a rogue regime, which has pledged to annihilate Israel and aspires to destroy the United States, from acquiring the means to build a nuclear arsenal. Obviously, it is not the Trump administration that is behaving immorally.
The Trump administration’s contempt for international institutionalism doesn’t translate into sanctifying unilateralism. To the contrary, by strengthening foreign partners that share its interest in blocking Iran’s nuclear project rather than tying itself to an institution that supports Iran’s nuclear program, the administration is employing multilateralism effectively.
Scowcroft is remembered as a foreign policy realist, but his institutionalism bound the U.S. to international bodies that did not share its real national interests. The Security Council’s rejection of America’s self-evident right to trigger the snapback clauses in Resolution 2231 has triggered the end of Scowcroft’s institutionalist post-Cold War foreign policy. Its demise is not a blow to the U.S. Rather, it is a blow to the prestige of the experts who preferred UN action that harmed U.S. interests and undermined its goals over the transactional partnerships that advance them.