The United States in a World Without Friends
US President Donald Trump addresses the UN Security Council meeting on Non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, at which he presided on September 26, 2018 // Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Lev Radin

Commentary by Gregory D. Johnsen

Over the past three-and-a-half years, the United States – under President Donald Trump – has extorted partners, belittled allies, and mocked international institutions. Not surprisingly, this sort of ‘America First, America Only’ approach to the world of international diplomacy has had serious and severe consequences. The United States, it turns out, cannot thumb its nose at one-time friends whenever it suits the president and then expect them to fall in line when asked. 

If the aspirational ideology of US foreign policy in the 20th century was “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the reality of the Trump administration has been “mock endlessly and tweet in all caps.” That approach may win a domestic election (though hopefully not two), but only serves to undermine the very international order the US helped to create in the wake of World War II, and which has benefited the US ever since.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than at the UN Security Council, where the US is casting about for participants in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. On August 14, the United States put forward a resolution that sought to indefinitely extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire on October 18. The US claims that if the conventional arms embargo is lifted and Iran is allowed to once again purchase weapons on the open market, some of these weapons will then be funneled to Iranian allies in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.[1] However, instead of receiving support for its proposal from traditional allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the United States suffered “an embarrassing diplomatic defeat.”[2] Indeed, of the other 14 members of the Security Council, only the Dominican Republic supported the US proposal. In all, 11 countries abstained, and both China and Russia voted ‘no’. (In order to pass, the resolution would have needed nine ‘yes’ votes and zero ‘no’ votes from any of the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US.) As UN votes go, the results were about as stark as they get.

In the Security Council, countries typically have a pretty good idea of how votes are going to play out before they are ever called. Which is why veteran observers like Julian Borger of The Guardian suggested that the US called the vote as a “ploy” in order to “open the way to more drastic action against Iran.”[3]

What this means is that the US is about to attempt something that will have serious and potentially long-term implications for the authority of the UN Security Council as well as for the ability of the United States to shape and lead the world. Basically, the US wants to trigger the ‘snapback’ mechanism within the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which would re-impose sanctions that have been lifted on Iran as part of that 2015 deal. The only problem, of course, is that – like the Paris Agreement, the Human Rights Council at the UN, and the World Health Organization – the US withdrew from the JCPOA under the Trump administration.

As with so much of foreign policy under the Trump administration, the US is attempting to have it both ways. It wants to be both out of the JCPOA – which Trump frequently calls that “terrible Obama plan” – and it wants to use aspects of JCPOA as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. 

In order to accomplish the two, the US is making a shaky legal argument that it is both not a participant of the JCPOA for the purposes of the agreement itself but, simultaneously, a participant of the JCPOA for the purposes of UN Security Resolution 2231, the resolution that endorsed the JCPOA and includes the ‘snapback’ provision. (For a fuller discussion listen to this podcast from Lawfare.) In other words, the US is arguing that even though it withdrew from the JCPOA, it retains the right to impose snapback sanctions as “an original member of the agreement.”[4] 

Further muddying the waters is the fact, as Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group has pointed out, that UN Security Resolution 2231 is “unique.”[5] Unlike most Security Council Resolutions, 2231 is not subject to a veto by any of the “permanent 5” members of the council; any participating country – defined by paragraph 10 of resolution 2231 as: China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, the US, and the EU – can call for snapback sanctions. (Unhelpfully, paragraph 10 does not state how a “participant” could lose its standing.) So, if the US is determined to still be a “participant” to the JCPOA it can call for snapback sanctions and neither Russia nor China would be able to veto the US decision.

And this is where the Trump administration’s behavior will come back to haunt both it and future US administrations. From its perspective, the worst outcome is not that the US would be deemed to be without standing to call for snapback sanctions – although who would adjudicate this question is far from clear – but rather that the US would call for snapback and both its allies and rivals would, as the International Crisis Group put it, “disregard a US ‘snapback’ … as ineffectual (and) obstruct attempts to implement it.”[6] If this, as appears likely, is indeed what happens, the US would lead but no one would follow. America would be first, and America would be alone. 

This commentary appeared in Hostage on the Red Sea – The Yemen Review Summer Edition, July-August 2020

Dr. Gregory D. Johnsen is a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and armed groups in Yemen. Prior to joining the Sana’a Center, Dr. Johnsen served on the Panel of Experts on Yemen for the United Nations Security Council. He is the author of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia’.


The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

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