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O Jerusalem! – OpEd


By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Much has already been written about US President Donald Trump’s overnight recognition of all of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and on the subsequent UN debate and resolution, criticising Washington, to the point of condemning its ‘unilateral’ decision, which has larger consequences to the immediate West Asia/Middle East neighbourhood and even beyond. It also goes beyond the veritable media/analysts’ criticism of US Permanent Representative Nikki Haley for using ‘Cold War’ era language at member-nations and continuing with the post-Cold War American attitude and behaviour towards international organizations starting with the UN.

True, Trump’s Jerusalem announcement might have flowed from a US congressional resolution of years and also his own poll promise of the previous year – and may thus be ‘justified’ though unexpected still. Nikki Haley also offered justification for the decision while addressing the UN and threatening funds-cuts, saying that the US had a ‘responsive government’ unlike some member-nations and the administration was answerable to public opinion. It again boils down to the all-American administration hobby of ‘domesticization’ of foreign policy issues whenever an incumbent President is threatened with a possible poll-loss nearer home, or a few more points than the inevitable anti-incumbency would justify in opinion polls.

Yet, Trump’s decision wreaks of the all-time American temptation to invent and re-invent troubles where none may exist or erupt afresh and then act all-out the flames that it had ignited, inadvertently or otherwise, and cry foul at others, and cry out ‘Help’ at all-comers, to try and create a new alliance that it can vaguely market to a local constituency, already steeped in their own domestic issues and household problems of health insurance and the like. Predecessor Bush, Jr., did it with Iraq and Afghanistan (the former more unjustified than the latter, where the 9/11 cried for pro-active and punishing American action without fail and in quick time).

After respected ex-Army veteran, Gen. Colin Powell, had misled the UN and US allies alike on the Bush Administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of WMD, it was time for a new Republican President to try and redeem the party’s international image, if not to levels that existed under President Ronald Reagan, decades earlier. But the present Haley shot, that too when Europe does not have a loyal ally like then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, can make cross-Atlantic NATO nations take a fresh look at their own geo-strategic priorities.

Turbulent region

If nothing else, the Trump declaration has brought back turbulence, and possible violence and war (the latter, if only if a relatively distant future), to a region that was already finding new internal problems of the Saudi-Qatar and reviving old ones like the Saudi-Iran sectarian kind, and could do well without a return to the Arab-Israeli conflict which had got itself into the back-burner over the past years of American action – or, inaction.

Incidentally, the US’ Jerusalem decision may help America’s unsure friend, Saudi Arabia, to try and carve out a new leadership niche for itself in West Asia, going beyond the tradition of playing second-fiddle to Washington even while wanting to be seen as being ‘assertive’ about its Islamic leadership role the world over in private conversations with Washington. Given however the ‘reformist’ agendas that self-imposed new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman, or MBS for short, has been imposing on what is still considered an ‘orthodox’ society, mandated to protect not only the holy shrines of Islam but also the ‘mandated’ Islamic lifestyle in the Wahhabi ways, going beyond the Sunni style that Saudi Arabia flags whenever Shiite Iran is on the other side, apart from massive corruption nearer home, the nation and the region could anticipate internal strife in the coming weeks, months and years, even without the ‘Jerusalem’ kind of American help.

Maybe, the US can do without Saudi/West Asia-Middle East oil, they having found a substitute in shale-oil, but much of the rest of the world still looks up there for quenching their energy-thirst. The US should be acknowledging this, but for which the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) does not hold the same geo-strategic attraction for Washington, and thus for an emerging Chinese rival and an unforgettable Russian replacement for the collapsed Soviet Union, not to mention Europe, which keeps looking for a new place and role for itself in the post-Cold War world.

‘Sovereignty’ questions

At the UN, Nikki Haley is reported to have cautioned nations voting against the US on Jerusalem, by declaring that the “President is watching…” Leaving aside the visible threat in the tone, the tenor of her observations makes one conclude that at least Establishment America wants the rest to believe that Trump was the ‘president of a non-existent global government’ than of the US of A – both a contradiction and misnomer from what Haley had said of responsive America that had to answer its people, ‘unlike some other nations here’.

However, this time round, more than any time in the past, American domestic ‘responsiveness’ of the kind is more removed from its international responsibilities. Even the Bush Administration, even while preparing and launching a massive war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was only using the UN and other international fora and friends to convince all, take all with it, not distance the self from the rest, and threaten others, as now.

The ‘Haley threat’ thus questions the ‘sovereignty’ of nations, big and small, to take political, diplomatic and strategic decisions as they feel necessary in their own ‘supreme self-interest’ as American may have theirs – and not decide for America and on America’s say-so. If one thought that jack-boot diplomacy died possibly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and contributing in a big way to the collapse, it does not seem to be so. Better or worse, such behaviour also reminds smaller nations, which have only ‘sovereignty’ to call their own, to ask how and why their equations and relations with bigger powers that continue courting them, keeps faltering all the time, despite their own best intentions and behaviour. Leave aside their immediate ‘Islamic compulsions’ nearer home as US may have theirs though of a diametrically opposite nature under President Trump, at least from now on, these nations are often reminded that big power equations flounder, not because they are falling off-line, but because the other invariably always took unilateral decisions and announced them unilaterally, too, expecting strict and unwavering compliance, as if their own domestic compulsions and historic compulsions of little or no consequence!

What was thus applicable to the Soviet Union yesterday and continues to be applicable to the US today may be true of an emerging China in the years and decades to come. For now however, Beijing is showing itself as defending the sovereignty of friends among small nations in the world, but come another time, another issue of the South China conflict kind, they may feel choked by China, too…

This article originally appeared in Ceylon Today.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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