(Bloomberg Opinion) — A dispute over an obscure African territory is revealing clashing visions of American power.
Largely overlooked amid a turbulent presidential transition and worsening pandemic has been a wholesale change in U.S. policy toward Western Sahara. While it likely appears trivial to most Americans, the shift highlights a larger philosophical question posed by Donald Trump’s presidency — whether the rules, norms and institutions at the structure of the postwar international order empower or enfeeble the U.S.
Western Sahara may seem like an odd place for that debate to play out. After the end of Spanish administration in 1975, Morocco established de facto control over most of adjacent Western Sahara, an area about the size of Colorado that reaches from the Atlantic Ocean deep into the Sahara Desert.
The U.S. and the United Nations never formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, on grounds that it had been acquired by force and the self-determination of its people had been abridged. This is the same reason Washington has never acknowledged Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 or — until recently — Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, won from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967.
But Trump reversed longstanding U.S. policy on the Golan Heights. He is now doing the same with Western Sahara, using recognition of Moroccan sovereignty as a diplomatic payoff for the Moroccan government’s partial normalization of relations with Israel. That bargain continues Trump’s streak of lubricating, with arms sales and other incentives, diplomatic rapprochements between Israel and Arab countries. It also brings into focus two conceptions of international order and U.S. power.
U.S. policy toward Western Sahara had traditionally been rooted in the first vision, often described as liberal internationalism. Liberal internationalists hold that the great achievement of the postwar era has been to mitigate the traditional anarchy of global affairs. This has required building institutions, such as the UN and World Trade Organization, that facilitate cooperation on shared challenges, and enshrining principles, such as the idea that the forcible conquest of territory should not be legitimized under a might-makes-right geopolitics.
This approach, liberal internationalists believe, is also good for the U.S. Sure, the mightiest country could get along in a world where raw power was the arbiter of every dispute. Over the long term, however, it will fare better by backing a concept of world order that other nations have reason to support.
Limiting “the returns to power,” as political scientist G. John Ikenberry put it, is actually a way of generating the international buy-in needed to enhance the stability and extend the lifespan of the U.S. system.
The Trump administration has taken a different approach. International politics remains a nasty game, it argues, and the U.S. must act assertively, even ruthlessly, to defend its interests.
The world is not a “global community” but an “arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council head Gary Cohn wrote in 2017. “We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength.”
The trouble, in this view, is that aspects of the order the U.S. created were now constraining the employment of that strength. International organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council and World Health Organization, had been captured by corrupt autocracies. American economic power was being blunted and U.S. sovereignty infringed upon, Trump alleged, by the rules of the WTO.
Much of the Trump administration’s diplomacy can be seen as an effort to squeeze greater geopolitical advantage out of American power — and break free of the norms, institutions and arrangements thought to be making U.S. influence harder to wield.
The shift on Western Sahara is part of this approach. Yes, Trump is scrambling to cement a legacy on Arab-Israeli issues before leaving office. But his willingness to recognize the acquisition of territory by force bespeaks a familiar Trumpian disillusion with some core principles of the postwar order.
There is a certain argument for this approach. Formalizing cooperative relationships between Israel and Arab countries won’t transform the strategic environment in the region, but it is a worthy endeavor. Norms and institutions are not, moreover, ends in themselves: They are means to securing U.S. national interests, meaning that their relative importance can reasonably be revisited from time to time.
The problem, though, is that the Trump administration’s approach is unlikely to serve those interests well.
Viewed simply in transactional terms, Trump has given a major payoff for a minor concession, given that Morocco already had relatively cooperative, if quiet, ties to Israel. Blowback is also possible, in the form of heightened tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a political movement of the indigenous Saharawi people that many African nations consider the legitimate representative of Western Sahara, or between Morocco and Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front.
The larger danger is that U.S. policy will legitimize just the sort of behavior Washington ought to oppose. A world in which countries can conquer territory by force, and have those conquests legitimated by the international community, is a world that will be far more favorable to authoritarian predators than stability-minded democracies.
Even if the U.S. only blesses this practice in some cases, that will make it harder to oppose in others. And if America signals that it is increasingly acceptant of a might-makes-right approach to international affairs, then its leadership will look less principled, and less attractive, to other states that have traditionally supported U.S. primacy.
It is revealing, in this connection, that former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who represent very different strains of Republican foreign policy, have sharply criticized Trump’s decision. A superpower, they recognize, has less need of international law and international order than other nations. But not even the U.S. will prosper from consistently degrading the world it helped to build.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”
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