The Warsaw Conference and the Isolated Superpower

Mike Pence with Polish President Andrzej Duda at the Warsaw conference (State Department via Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

The Trump administration tried to make this week’s Middle East conference in Warsaw what the administration had intended it to be all along: an Iran-bashing exercise that would get Europeans to join in more of the bashing. But the conference instead became what most European governments—whose attendance at the gathering was spotty and often low-level—warned it would be: a demonstration not of U.S.-European unity on policy toward Iran but instead of disunity. That the conference’s final statement makes no mention of Iran has to be a major disappointment for the administration.

In its obsessive campaign of stoking maximum hostility toward Iran, the Trump administration is isolated except for partnering with Iran’s regional rivals, which means Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These regimes have their own reasons for keeping Iran a pariah—reasons that are distinct from U.S. interests and distinct from any fondness for peace and stability in the Middle East. These three states are responsible for much of the uninvited extraterritorial use of military force —apart from Saddam Hussein’s two offensive wars, the U.S. offensive war in Iraq and other interventions, and Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria—as well as more irregular methods of destabilizing other countries in the Middle East over the past 40 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be considered a winner at Warsaw for using the conference to show that he can rub elbows with Arab leaders. It was after a side meeting with the Omani foreign minister that Netanyahu commented in a Hebrew-language interview about Israel and Arab states sharing a “common interest of war with Iran.” Netanyahu’s office later altered its English translation to suggest that he intended only a metaphorical meaning of “war.” Regardless of the translation issue, Netanyahu’s government has escalated its already intense anti-Iran rhetoric, as it did in recently acknowledging for the first time its repeated airstrikes in Syria.

Netanyahu’s government highly values any overt dealings with Arab governments as demonstrating that it does not need to end the occupation of Palestinian territory to conduct worthwhile business with regional neighbors. The Trump administration is pointing to such dealings in claiming a success at Warsaw. Deflecting international pressure to end the occupation pervades almost all Israeli diplomacy and includes an East European dimension. Offsetting West European opposition to the occupation is the main reason for Netanyahu cozying up to the Hungarian regime of Viktor Orban, notwithstanding Orban’s authoritarianism and habit of blaming George Soros for anything bad in Hungary.

The Warsaw conference leaves the world with the same old stuff regarding the campaign of maximum hostility toward Iran and the Trump administration’s lining up behind a few regional rivals of Iran even when this means lining up against the rest of the world. But despite this relative isolation and the small ball the administration is playing on this issue, it still speaks as if the United States can dictate what the rest of the world should do. This tone pervaded Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the conference, in which his complaints about European governments not being “cooperative” with U.S. sanctions sounded like a schoolmarm scolding pupils for evading discipline. Unstated in the speech is that the United States—not the Europeans and not Iran—is in blatant violation not only of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) but of the unanimously enacted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which is the international community’s endorsement of the JCPOA. Pence was calling on European governments to violate their own obligations and to show as much contempt for the Security Council as the Trump administration does.

Pence also had harsh words about the recently established “special purpose vehicle,” a kind of barter clearing house that the Europeans hope will enable at least humanitarian goods to be sold to Iran while staying outside the formal banking system and beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions. The new mechanism probably will have for now only marginal effect on commerce with Iran, but it has larger significance for long-term U.S. interests.  It is one more indication of how a world increasingly fed up with how the United States pursues narrow political objectives by exploiting its economic advantages—with the U.S. dollar being the principal reserve currency and New York being at the center of international finance—is looking for ways to overcome or negate those advantages. If the isolated superpower keeps trying to do the sort of things it is doing on Iran, it will see its super powers diminish more rapidly and, in the future, will become less able to impose its will on many issues that have nothing to do with Iran.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Warsaw Conference was convened at the behest of Washington, aimed at Iranian Regime. The invitations were cordially accepted and attended by the arch enemies, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain,and Isreal besides U.S. etc.

    The trioka of Europe, United Kingdom, Germany, and France and E U deviated from U.S. stand on Iran. They are in favour of continuation of trade with Teheran inspite of U.S.withdrawal from JCPOA,2015 and economic sanctions. The European countries devised an alternative arrangement,SPV for continuation of trade.

    Warsaw conference may be considered as a diplomatic triumph of Iran, E U ,some Muslim countries etc who have been consistently opposing White House in the Middle East. The successive U.S. Presidents have been viewing West Asia from different, often opposite perceptions. In other words, U.S.felt isolation as for as Iran is concerned while It is quite opposite direction in Venezuelan crisis.

    It is once again proved that the national interests of liberal countries at global level may not be converged — issue based convergence/ divergence.

  2. “Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates”: a troika of traitors to truth; a trio of unbecoming togetherness; a triumvirate tilling turmoil in a sea that will swallow them up and spit them out anon. Combine with them a US ship of state that tries to maneuver and navigate but that is out of its league and over its head, with no observable skill or finesse. They collectively belong together. Sad for the Palestinians. Go Iran!

    Note: “Saddam Hussein’s two offensive wars” had the smudged fingerprints of US blundering and mal intent/evil design all over them.

  3. At this time Iran should officially file at the UN for reclaiming Bahrain as part of its sovereignty! Any which way to throw these bastards off balance is justified.

  4. These idiots in the White House are fortunately so foreign to the basics of civilized diplomacy that they end up constantly shooting themselves in the hip as a result of their feudalistic arrogance so foreign to modern sensibility. They treat Europe with so much disdain and yet expect respect, they trash international agreement and yet they foolishly and self-servingly expect their rhetoric of “rogue Iran” to be somehow convincing of others who are sick of Trump pariah state, they shed crocodile tears for democracy in Iran while standing next to Saudi butchers of Khashoogi, thus the more they speak the more they stab at their own legitimacy.

Comments are closed.