President Donald Trump’s foreign policy does not reflect an understanding of the political complexities of rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
In addition, his approach to foreign policy hinders efforts to affect the internal politics of the two countries and hinders arms control efforts. If the Trump-style of diplomacy toward Iran and North Korea continues, it could change the nature of our country as well as our economy.
Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal is an obvious security issue for the rest of the world, especially given the isolated, theocratic nature of the Iranian government and its support of terrorist factions. President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action provided a framework for the monitoring of Iran’s nuclear arsenal. The JCPA also provides a bridge for the Iranian people to the Western world – a bridge the younger segments of society are currently walking across. Trump has voices support for leaving the JCPA – a change in U.S. foreign policy that would lead to a less secure world.
In the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran turned away from an authoritarian dictatorship to an Islamic theocracy. Iran’s form of government has isolated the country from the Western world since that time. The main difference between a theocracy and a Western democratic republic is the source of power. In a theocracy, the government derives its power from a supernatural being while in a democratic republic the government derives its power from the people.
Some have noted a trend of opposition to theocratic government among young people in Iran. (1) Last summer, Iranian schoolgirls organized to celebrate the end of the school year with schoolboys, despite opposition from the government. Of course, this celebration of freedom was opposed by the more conservative elements of the society. The conflict between the government and the adolescent boys and girls illustrates the clash between Iran’s theocratic culture and a younger generation that wants to be free of the restrictions the clergy has imposed on them. The centrist government of Hassan Rouhani expressed sympathy for the young dissenters.
The conflict between modernizers and conservatives comes as a result of a society that is becoming more modern and has an increasingly educated female population. The modernization can be seen particularly in Iran’s urban areas. Others have noted Western style behavior in Iran’s youth. (2) In recent years, young women wearing makeup, unmarried couples holding hands in public, females wearing their hijab’s in a way that displays their hair, and listening to Western popular music have become more common. Young people in Iran’s urban areas are talking openly about the quality nightclubs in their respective cities. Reformist elements in Iran’s governing class, like Rouhani, have expressed support for change in Iranian life, but the young say there hasn’t been enough change. Because of their sheer numbers, the young in Iran are a very potent force. Seventy percent of Iran’s population is under 35-years-old. On the other hand, reform elements have a rough battle to fight. Since 1999, 200 pro-reform newspapers have been shut down, 4,000 pro-reform candidates have been barred from Parliament and thousands of dissenters remain in jail (2).
Rouhani isn’t the first reform leader Iran has elected. Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 and a pro-reform parliament followed the elections of 2000. Like any society who adapts ideas from outside their own culture, Iran has to have a source of adaption and naturally the West serves as that source.
Khatami’s campaign for President of Iran included promises to make the country democratic and tolerant, or more Western. Among his campaign promises were giving newspapers a chance to express a wide variety of viewpoints, reopening embassies in all European countries, reinstating a dialog with people of different faiths inside and outside Iran and calling on people to criticize high ranking authorities. His Presidency, as well as Rouhani’s, shows the extent to which some in the Islamic country want a dialog with the Western world.
JCPA serves as a connection between modernizing Iran and the Western world. If we leave JCPA, then the hardline faction in Iran would be empowered. The hardline faction feels that Rouhani has been too friendly with the West. Iran’s hardliners are already calling for their country’s nuclear arsenal to be fired up again. This would mean more nuclear proliferation in Iran. This would also tell North Korea that the United States can’t be trusted.
In order to secure North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the United States needs to be trusted. Like Iran, North Korea has traditionally been a closed society, although the country is even more closed than Iran. To understand the power structure in North Korea, one must understand the extent that the Korean War (1950-1953) is still being used to control the populace. The North Korean regime uses imagery from the Korean War (the United States as the enemy) to keep its county in a state of war with our country. The citizens of the country are told that they must back its leader or the enemy will be in their back yard.
Former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and former Navy Admiral Mike Mullen drafted an op-ed on how to manage the situation in North Korea (3). In the op-ed the two acknowledge the power that the Korean War has on the power structure in the country. The United States has had troops in South Korea since the end of the war, as a security contingent against the power of North Korea. One of the planks of the Nunn/Mullen plan is offering North Korea the opportunity to end the Korean War in exchange for a change of behavior on the part of the rouge state. The two stated that North Korea would receive the benefits of normalized relations with the United States in exchange for a freeze in the country’s nuclear and conventional missile programs. In order to achieve this type of arms control, our country must be trusted. No arms control agreement is successful without some element of trust.
What if we were able to change the psychology of the country through the measures outlined by Nunn and Mullen? If North Korea were allowed to trade with the United States and the outside world it would expose the country to outside influences (similar to Iran) and break the regime’s grip on its own people. Over the years, the world has seen something similar to has happened in the People’s Republic of China. China started out a hardline Maoist country and now practices a form of economics called by its leadership as “market socialism,” or a mixture of capitalism and communism.
What if the Korean people experienced a new sense of security with a nuclear free North Korea via arms control agreements with the United States? Like the influence of trade, this security would also serve as a door to the outside world. A more open and less dangerous North Korea would emerge in time.
President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea only serves to strengthen Kim Jong Un’s regime. His language is confrontational and makes it easy for the leadership to portray our country as the bad boy in the room. The problems in establishing a dialog with North Korea didn’t start with Trump. President George W. Bush’s placing North Korea in an axis of evil and his unilateral invasion of Iraq also provided good propaganda for the country’s ruling elite in portraying the United States as an intervening power.
What will failure to maintain and keep quality arms control agreements mean to the United States’ diplomatic standing? Our country’s partners in JCPA would not see us as a reliable ally. Without a reliable instrument to enforce international law in relation to this treaty, there would be a less orderly Middle East. The United States would become known as a state that doesn’t support law, peace and order.
Even if Trump-style diplomacy does not lead to war, it could lead to a more armed and less lawful world. Trump’s style of making threats, including threats to nuclear armed states like North Korea, is not a style that builds trust with other states-friend of foe. This style will encourage other states to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said that since the United States won’t be willing to sacrifice its cities to save South Korea that South Korea and Japan should develop its own nuclear arsenals to defend themselves against North Korea. Former CIA director John Brennan said that if the United States abandons the Iran deal then there could be an arms race in the Middle East. While President Barack Obama called for nuclear modernization, he also promoted nuclear non-proliferation in other areas. Trump wants a more powerful nuclear arsenal with less non-proliferation.
With the Trump Administration’s negative attitude toward arms control agreements, one can imagine a world where more and more states acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves. In such a word, conflicts might more easily escalate into a nuclear war. Even if there is no nuclear war, a world armed with nuclear weapons will have political ramifications that spread far and wide. Vast amounts being spent on arms will drain respective treasuries of money that could be used for domestic problems.
Some in the political arena use Iran and North Korea as examples of states that our country shouldn’t engage. However, both are isolated states. They are not projecting their power beyond their borders in a way that threatens the security of the United States. While the Axis powers in World War II and the Soviet block in the Cold War had imitator states, or countries that were trying to emulate an earlier model, North Korea and Iran have no imitator states. North Korea’s economy is so weak that it cannot produce enough food for its own populace. The fact that both states are isolated makes them easier to manage diplomatically.
What impact could a more nuclear armed world have on the internal politics of the United States? The political zeitgeist could change. An even more nationalistic United States could emerge in a more nuclear armed world. Our country would try to add more to its nuclear arsenal in a world of more nuclear arsenals.
With an even greater arsenal, our economy would look less and less like a peace economy and more and more like an economy designed to produce as many nuclear weapons as possible. If a massive increase in nuclear weapons occurs, then the companies that produce nuclear weapons and parts for nuclear weapons will become more and more dependent on government spending and more Americans will become dependent on jobs in this sector.
- “Iran’s Aspirant Youth,” Financial Times, June 2016, Najmeh Bozorgmeher.
- “Iranian Youth Challenge Strict Islamic Code,” February 2016, ABC News, Jim Sciutto,
- “Mike Mullen and Sam Nunn: How to Deal with North Korea,’ September 16, 2016, Washington Post, Samm Nunn and Mike Mullen.
- “The Real Danger of Trump’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Armageddon,” New Republic, October, 24, 2017,