Alone in the World: Trump's Jerusalem

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been derided by reporters, pundits, diplomats, scholars, casual observers, and residents of the world in general. However, many Trump supporters, Evangelicals, and Americans who do not follow developments in the Middle East outside of the reasonably well-publicized outbreaks of violence seem to be somewhat supportive of the decision. This embrace is strengthened for those that buy into the narrative that Trump enjoys spewing, namely that Muslims and Arabs are inherently dangerous. Also, in my experience, I know there are people who confuse or conflate the idea of the Palestinian National Authority with Hamas because they have not taken time to understand the political structures of Palestine. They therefore think that anything that advances the Israeli government’s ambitions strikes a blow against terrorism. It doesn’t. I would advise these people to do some research on Palestinian politics before they continue to make these unfounded assertions. Also, while Hamas is an officially recognized terrorist body and a fundamentalist political group, Hamas is not supported by all Palestinians and is in fact rejected by many.

The Palestinians as a people should not be seen as terrorist-sympathizers. That misinformed and malicious narrative needs to end. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is complex, as are most geopolitical conflicts, and one thing to remember is that innocent civilians are often caught in the middle and countless lives are ruined. The peace process is important, not only for the security of the states in the Middle East but also for the security of people on the ground. Trump’s decision will not just affect the state powers in the region; it will impact people’s lives.

I have a number of issues with the decision to recognize Jerusalem, but many of them have already been voiced in the media and I do not want to repeat them here. Instead, I want to look at the different schools of thought in international security studies and evaluate Trump’s decision from there. The major theoretical schools like Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism do not explicitly take individuals into account but keep them in the back of your mind.* The decision itself primarily impacts interstate relations, and so we’ll simply be looking at the idea of why this choice is a poor move for a state to make.

Photo by Wayne McLean


UN Security Council, Photo by Neptuul on WikiCommons

The Realist school is seen as old-fashioned to some but timeless to others. At its core, Realism assumes that states are all out to ensure their own survival and the best way to do that is to be strong enough to overcome threats from other states. According to the Realist school, states are the only actors in the global system, and nothing exists above them, leaving states in a perpetual state of anarchy and competition. The Realist also believes states behave as rational actors with their security being the end-goal of all their decisions. While there are several divisions of Realist thought, including neorealism, classical realism, and neoclassical realism, they all make the same basic assumptions of the world order. Neorealism can be further broken down into offensive and defensive realism, popularized by prominent scholars John Mearsheimer and Kenneth Waltz respectively. Rather than go through every branch of Realism here, I choose to treat Realism as one school by addressing their core tenets.

John Mearsheimer, Photo by Chatham House, London

The classic example of a Realist attitude in an anarchical system comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides in The Melian Dialogues chapter of the History of the Peloponnesian War (1). During the Peloponnesian War, city-states Athens and Sparta were at war with each other and were engaged in building strategic alliances and attacking the other. Athens had a clear superiority at sea and adequate defense, but Sparta generally got the better of the exchanges on land. Melos was a mostly neutral island that had ties to Sparta through ethnicity but had little involvement outside some financial contributions to the war. Athens demanded Melos’s surrender, but Melos eventually chose to resist in the hopes that Sparta would intervene and protect them.

Athens would have either stripped Melos of its independence or would have killed all the men and enslaved the women and children. In either case, Melos as a state would not have survived. At least in resisting and hoping for a Spartan intervention, there was a chance for their survival, which is why Melos chose this. The Athenian delegation specifically outlined the Realist understanding of interstate reactions though: “The Strong do what they can and the Weak suffer what they must.” All states will choose to survive, the strong state will do this through the pursuit of strength, and the weak state will do whatever it needs.

America is strong. This is not some nation-aggrandizing platitude; it is a plain and simple statement. In the international arena, America is strong. It is an influencer for other nations, it holds alliances because it has strong economic and military power, and in the past, America has been able to produce the materials needed by countries around the world. A Realist would suggest that a significant shift in policy, such as naming a controversial and highly symbolic city the new capital of a country in a highly strategic geopolitical position, would require there to be some advantage in continuing America’s survival or position of power. But naming all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not bring much to America. For example,