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The Deal of the Century, by Ihab Shalbak

The fortune of a salesman and the fate of the Palestinians

Published: 27 Aug 2019

In her magnificent book Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe, Victoria de Grazia charts the distinctive character of the United States’ global hegemony as a market empire. De Grazia begins her book by citing the twenty-eighth American president, Woodrow Wilson, extolling the US virtues of trade and business acumen. In an address to the first World’s Salesmanship Congress in 1916, Wilson called for America’s ‘Democracy of Business’ to take the lead in the ‘struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world’. He exhorted his audience to ‘go out and sell goods’ and in the process of selling convert the warring people of Europe to ‘the principles of America’.

For De Grazia, Wilson’s call is a reflection of ‘the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium’—that is, it reflects an empire that conceives of itself, and the world, as a marketplace. This outlook supplied the basic ingredients of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. It laid the ideological foundations of an empire that elided the difference between values and interests. Liberty at home and free trade abroad were portrayed as one and the same. This ideological compound played a major role in shaping the institutional designs and normative assumptions that launched the career of the United States as the indisputable hegemon of the twentieth century. In this context, multilateralism and liberal internationalism emerged as two faces of the same coin.

Wilson’s principal institutional and ideological achievements were his advocacy for the League of Nations and his famous 1918 Fourteen Points speech, in which he called for ‘A general association of nations to be formed to guarantee to its members political independence’ and the ‘removal so far as possible of all economic barriers’. Wilson’s two proposals refashioned and globally projected the established US sense of exceptionalism; as Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad puts it: whereas ‘other states had interests, the United States had responsibilities’ to promote peace and prosperity.

Exactly one hundred years after the birth of the US market empire, Donald Trump—a man cut from market cloth, so to speak—is claiming that US foreign policy, as it has been pursued until now, no longer coincides with US interests. Trump, like Wilson, wants to preserve the essentials of the market empire. Unlike Wilson, though, he believes that the existing institutional arrangements have lost their relevance and that the orthodoxies of the foreign-policy establishment have lost touch with the original imperatives of US foreign policy. In particular, Trump rejects the moralism and globalism of this establishment. This rejection and reconceptualisation of foreign policy is clearly illustrated by the remarks of Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Herbert McMaster, Trump’s former national-security adviser. In a joint comment on the rationale for Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe in 2017, Cohn and McMaster declare that ‘The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it’.

Trump claims to speak from the vantage point of the great emporium. He stakes his reputation as a salesman versed in the ‘art of the deal’ to offer Americans and the world at large a new deal so that, as he puts it, ‘America will lead again’. For better or worse, Trump offered his skills as a dealmaker to hammer out the ultimate deal for the Israel/Palestine conflict. The details of Trump’s deal are not clearly discernible, but the series of actions that his administration has taken so far have led even pro-Israel members of the foreign-policy establishment, such as Martin Indyk, to charge Trump with undermining longstanding US policy in relation to the conflict. Contrary to Indyk’s contention, however, the historical record shows that the Trump administration, rather than undermining that policy, is introducing new moves within it. The Trump administration is faithful to the policy’s spirit but no longer follows its letter. The new moves are byproducts of a conceptual and strategic shift from multilateralism to bilateralism in conducting and projecting US hegemony. Focusing on this shift provides the scope to capture the long-term trajectory of US policy. And it provides a framework for understanding the logic behind recent US actions in the region.

For Trump, making America Great Again requires a reappraisal of the formative conditions that made the United States the indispensable nation of the twentieth century. According to De Grazia, there is a paradox in US advocacy of free trade, because the fact is ‘that throughout most of the twentieth century, the United States’ home market was the hardest to crack in the capitalist West’. Trump’s advisers McMaster and Cohn state this objective very clearly. For them the America First slogan ‘signals the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas—to use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world’.

The state of security at home in the early twentieth century made it possible for the United States to advocate a multilateral liberal international order under its own tutelage. The Wilsonian approach fashioned an image of the United States as the indispensable partner ‘in a new multilateral order founded on reciprocal adjustment and rational cooperation’. In practice, for most of the twentieth century US hegemony worked as ‘power to’ rather ‘power over’. Accordingly, Wilson’s salesmen sought to project US hegemony by forging attachment and cultivating consent. They worked to shape other countries’ political choices and orientations by combining inspiration, dependence and inducement with intimidation. For the most part, intimidation functioned as a reserve hard currency, only used in exceptional circumstances to reinforce the market empire. In a 1990 article Joseph Nye famously coined a term for this form of power: soft power.

According to De Grazia, the market empire ‘arose during the first decades of the twentieth century, reached its apogee during its second half, and showed symptoms of disintegration toward its close’. To a large extent, this disintegration is a product of the success of Wilson’s salesmen in spreading the reach of the market. As Europe consolidated its own market around the German economy, and Chinese products started making their way to Walmart’s shelves, US salesmen lost faith in their ability to act as an indispensable partner. For Trump to maintain the United States’ status as grantor and enforcer of the market empire in the current circumstances will require a drastic strategic shift from multilateral to bilateral arrangements.

Trump’s principal aim is the restoration of the optimal conditions that made the Wilsonian moment possible by leveraging the untapped potential of the US home market as the world’s indispensable financial and consumer market. In a recent Congress hearing Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s trade representative and a long-term advocate of bilateralism, said that his administration ‘wants to get to the position where the U.S. is competing with countries on a bilateral basis and on a no-barrier basis, and then let the United States, let pure economics make the decision’. Suggestively, Lighthizer here elides the difference between the United States and pure economics.

For Lighthizer the market empire still functions as the historical context in which the Trump administration’s policies are taking place. However, he suggests that the institutional arrangements—that is, the system of strategic control that regulates relations between international actors—have to be changed. Bilateralism as a system of strategic control is transformative by design and coercive by effect. That is, it makes it possible for the United States to transform existing arrangements largely by compelling ‘smaller economies to negotiate and settle trade agreements’. In this situation hegemony, as a balancing act of consent and coercion, is refashioned as dominance.

Trump does not dispense completely with soft power; rather, he wants to bring intimidation to the fore. It could be said that in international relations the Trump administration represents the hard edge of the US soft-power approach. This hardened approach yields different outcomes. It limits the scope for other strong economies like Germany. However, for a small people like the Palestinians the hard edge of Trump’s soft power turns intimidation into outright bullying.

Since coming to power, the Trump administration has adopted a two-track strategy in the Middle East. This strategy demonstrates the transformative logic of bilateralism and expresses its coercive effects. The first track is the tacit adoption of the outside-in approach, which maintains that the focus should be on normalising relations between Israel and the Arab world as a necessary first step towards solving the Palestinian question. The ‘Peace to Prosperity’ workshop that Jared Kushner convened in Bahrain last June without the participation of the Palestinians is the latest example of this approach. The second track is a series of punitive and preemptive measures against Palestinians, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In both cases, bilateralism coincides with Israel’s long-held view that rejects multilateralism and prefers creating ‘facts on the ground’ and sidestepping the Palestinian people.

It is important to note here that the two tracks do not deviate from the formative premise of US policy with regard to the Palestinian question. US policy has long viewed Palestinians as a surplus population that is best accommodated or absorbed through multilateral regional arrangements, regardless of the political aspirations of this population. The transformative and coercive effects of Trump’s bilateralism bring US policy to its logical conclusion.

The Palestinian people had their first direct encounter with US foreign policy after the First World War. In 1919 President Wilson dispatched the King-Crane Commission to Syria (including Palestine) to hear the opinions of the largely Arab population of the region regarding their wishes. In the words of sociologist Lori A. Allan, ‘Arab spokespeople drew on Wilson’s language of justice as a validating pillar of their political demands’. Some members of the King-Crane Commission wore a piece of cloth on their arms with the Arabic word meezan (which means ‘scales’ or ‘balance’) to indicate ‘that “justice” was a guiding principle of their work’. Nonetheless, the Wilson administration doubted the intentions of the local population and betrayed their political aspirations by yielding to British and French demands. The King-Crane Commission inaugurated a century-long policy trajectory in which various US administrations turned the power of listening into a tool of leverage to judge the Palestinian people and adjudicate the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Palestinian choices ranged from assenting to the United States’ self-assigned role as an ‘honest broker’ to acquiescing to US coercion as the ‘indispensable broker’. This early encounter established a familiar pattern in US foreign policy according to which the Palestinian issue was subordinated to wider geopolitical considerations.

The historical predicament of the Palestinian national liberation movement is that it has had to contend with the global and regional consolidation of the US empire, particularly after the 1967 war. Regardless of who occupies the White House, US regional order fundamentally depends on two pillars: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Maintaining this regional order is the primary concern of US policymakers. This basic fact is demonstrated by the Obama administration’s 2016 decision to grant Israel $38 billion in military assistance (the largest amount of military aid ever given to any country) with no political conditions attached—despite Obama’s loathing for Netanyahu. In general, US policymakers saw Palestinians as obstacles in their too-big-to-fail game. More than aspiring to solve the Palestinian question, the policymakers simply wished it away.

Trump is determined to use the Middle East as a proxy site to enhance the United States’ global hegemony. Iran is the cornerstone in his regional strategy. By withdrawing from the joint Iran nuclear agreement Trump aims to transform the arrangement that sought to regulate regional actors’ relations within a multilateral international framework. In the current scramble over the Middle East, Iran is viewed by Saudi Arabia as a mortal threat, by Israel as a formidable regional competitor and by the Trump administration as a strategic device to rejuvenate the fortunes of the market empire. In this reconfigured game, Israel uses Saudi Arabia as a proxy in its efforts to diminish Iran, while Saudi Arabia has turned the civil war in Syria into a proxy war to defeat the Iranian regime. And for Trump, Iran is a convenient proxy in his fight against the growing economy of Germany and the rise of China—two of the main strategic and economic beneficiaries of the nuclear deal with Iran.

The new realignment deprives the Palestinians of the capacity to manoeuvre. It furthers their marginalisation at the regional level and it brushes off the worn-out language of the Oslo Peace Process. After the implosion of the Arab regional system, the Palestinians have to deal with an aggressive Saudi Arabia that has positioned itself as the Arab world’s indispensable state. Trump’s resort to coercion at the expense of consent means that the civility that typified the international liberal order has lost its purchase; Palestinians are no longer able to refer to the illusive justice sign that the members of the King-Crane Commission once wore to state their claims. Israel is now doubly free of the regional and international vestiges that constrained its policy with regard to the Palestinians over the past fifty years. The Gulf States have completely forsaken the Palestinians and the United States is punishing international institutions such as UNESCO for upholding Palestinian rights.

In this transformative context it is no longer possible to distinguish US from Israeli policy. As we know, Trump appointed his son-in-law, a real-estate developer, as his principal aide on the Israel/Palestine conflict. He also appointed his bankruptcy lawyer as ambassador to Israel and as his chief peace envoy. Ostensibly the salesmanship and business acumen of the two men is what was missing in previous efforts to hammer out the ultimate deal. The irony is that both personalities, as Age journalist Maher Mughrabi astutely observed, ‘are not only Jewish but also known supporters of the settler movement in Israel’. The two appointments confirm the contention of Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, that ‘what we have seen is a change in US policy, from becoming a tireless advocate and uncritical defender of Israel policy to what might better be characterized as an implementer of Israeli policy…’.

Palestinian officials repeatedly claim that they have never received any specific details of the supposed Deal of the Century. Birzeit University academic and member of the Palestinian National Council Ahmad Azem claims that this deal exists only as a series of gradual measures that aim to remove crucial issues from the negotiating table in order to impose new facts on the ground. Kushner’s leaked emails regarding ‘disrupting’ the work of the UNRWA and the subsequent US decision to cut that agency’s funding reveal as much.

More than reversing principled US policy with regard to the Palestinian question, the transformative logic and coercive effects of Trump’s policy conclude the Oslo chapter in the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict. For the twenty-five years of this chapter, various US administrations took the Wilsonian approach and used a combination of inducement, dependence and intimidation to shape the choices of the Palestinian leadership. The Trump administration has maintained the basic premise of US Middle East policy—namely, that the Palestinians are always a secondary factor in determining this policy—but Trump seeks to transform the rules of the game. His new rules invalidate the liberal vocabulary that, for a century since the King-Crane Commission, have entrapped the Palestinian leadership in an endless search for the right language to meet the US criteria that would make them deserving of justice.   

To conclude, Wilson and Trump are two tendencies within the framework of the US market empire. Both are driven by the same imperative: making America great as a global hegemon. Wilson gave impetus to almost a century of multilateralism—a policy framework that served the consolidation of US hegemony. Trump’s main innovation is the introduction of bilateralism as a transformative strategy in international relations to restore the glory of the market empire. For the wretched of the earth, Wilson with his fourteen points was a brief inspiration and a lasting disappointment. Trump with his art of the deal and bilateralism is a menace and a threat to the same category of people. As such, for the Palestinians, Trump adds menace to disappointment.

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