Home/Daniel Larison/How ‘Maximum Pressure’ Poisons Diplomacy

How ‘Maximum Pressure’ Poisons Diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The official administration line on their “maximum pressure” campaigns is as delusional as one would expect:

The official defended the efficacy and rationale of the administration’s approach. “The United States is responding to legitimate threats against America and our allies and partners with highly effective maximum pressure campaigns,” the official said.

Like most statements coming from the administration, this isn’t true. The pressure campaigns against Iran and Venezuela have nothing to do with threats posed by those governments, but are instead focused on trying to force regime collapse to benefit regional clients or install a government more to Washington’s liking. The pressure campaign on North Korea does have something to do with a potential threat to the U.S. and its allies, but that campaign has been entirely ineffective in achieving the administration’s unrealistic goals. All of these campaigns have so far failed on their own terms, and they are all very likely to continue failing because the targeted regimes cannot give the administration what it wants without either ceasing to exist or surrendering things they consider to be essential to their security and survival. In each case, the Trump administration doesn’t understand how its own pressure and threats are perceived in these other capitals, and it doesn’t realize that the more that it tries to squeeze them the more they will struggle to deny the administration success.

Because the U.S. has left none of them with a face-saving way out of the standoff, the only real choice left to them is whether they should capitulate or resist. Given the nature of these regimes and their ideological views, resistance is the obvious choice for all of them. None of them is going to cooperate with the U.S. in bringing about their overthrow or disarmament. It is a measure of our government’s arrogance and its poor understanding of adversaries that anyone in Washington thinks this would happen. For their part, the North Koreans have no reason to think that their regime will be secure from U.S. pressure and threats in the future if they went along with disarmament. They can see how Iran has been treated after it negotiated in good faith and made substantial reductions in its nuclear program, and they know what the U.S. did to the Libyan and Iraqi governments before that. Our government’s track record on regime change and nonproliferation has to make Kim value his arsenal even more than he already does.

The U.S. went back on its promises of sanctions relief to Iran, and has embarked on a much more aggressive economic war in pursuit of maximalist goals that amount to regime change in all but name. Sanctions cannot provide leverage over the targeted regime if that regime believes it has nothing to gain from complying with our government’s demands. If a regime is being told that it will be strangled now or strangled later, its leaders may decide that they will take their chances and try to outlast the administration that is trying to strangle them. Other sanctioned governments can see that Iran gained nothing from complying with previous demands, and they can reasonably conclude that they won’t benefit from cooperating with the U.S. Beyond being a failure on its own terms, “maximum pressure” is poisoning the well for U.S. diplomacy for years to come and making it much more difficult for any government that faces U.S. pressure to believe that it can obtain relief by making an agreement.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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