For many, the killing was unexpected. But this was no Trump administration miscalculation. It’s the latest in a wider decay of the liberal norms that underpin diplomacy, conflict resolution and the day-to-day functioning of interstate relations.
Once championed by Washington, these rules have become increasingly rejected under President Donald Trump. That threatens to inject even more instability into our global system.
“Norms” is the term foreign policy people use to mean actions that are implicitly or explicitly acknowledged as reasonable for states to undertake – like a rulebook that guides the conduct of international relations. Norms influence everything from human rights protection to when and how it is appropriate to use force.
Norms differ from laws, as they lack formal enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be major repercussions when they are violated.
Norms change over time, often shaped by dominant cultural, ideological and political trends.
For instance, in previous centuries, war was seen as a natural part of statecraft and something to be celebrated. However, this view has changed markedly, largely due to the catastrophic great wars. Today, war is viewed by most countries as something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort.
Norms provide a kind of “standard operating procedure” for states, which is especially pertinent in times of crisis and uncertainty. Understanding that one’s rivals generally wish to avoid conflict allows states to formulate policies aimed at deescalation and détente.
When countries deviate from these norms, however, it injects unpredictability into the system. This can lead to miscalculation, panicked escalation and, ultimately, violent conflict.
The most influential body of norms today are encapsulated in what foreign policy analysts call the liberal international order, which emerged from Western consensus after the second world war.
This order does several important things, such as:
The liberal international order rejects actions – such as the assassination of state officials like Soleimani – which are likely to inflame, rather than resolve, tensions.
Many scholars and analysts argue that such norms have been a significant factor in the period of relative global peace since the second world war.
Over the past 70 years, the US been at the centre of many of the institutions that promote these rules, including the WTO, NATO, UN and IMF.
While the constraints of the liberal international order have not always benefited it – Washington has lost numerous trade disputes in the WTO, for instance – the US has been able to shape the very nature of the international system.
It’s one thing to win in a game, quite another to dictate the rules by which that game is played.
As a result, the US has sought to promote itself not just as an adherent of liberal norms, but as an exemplar of them. Notable exceptions not withstanding, this has been a position held across both Republican and Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
The US abandoned the practice of political assassinations in the wake of the infamous Church committee of 1975.
This inquiry exposed repeated CIA attempts to kill foreign leaders and officials. Such clandestine activities were seen as out of sync with the strengthening liberal norms of the day. If the US was really committed to promoting the order, how could it engage in actions that flagrantly undermined peace and stability?
In the modern era, the targeting of state officials in assassinations is understood to be strictly verboten and reckless. This position allows officials to engage with more confidence and good faith in diplomacy, and dissuades states from engaging in such activities.
In retrospect, Trump’s willingness to reject liberal norms on assassinations hardly seems out of character for someone who has shown profound hostility for them.
Trump’s blase attitude towards the importance of liberal norms and institutions has left traditional allies feeling increasingly insecure and unable to rely on the US.
Dictatorial leaders of rival states have felt empowered by Trump’s own penchant for authoritarian behaviour at home, and more confident to violate international norms without fear of significant collective reprisal.
Soleimani’s assassination presents a further worrying decline in the influence of liberal norms. Not only does it position the US as a transgressive state with little concern for the rules of the international system, it also provides precedent for states to engage in such activities themselves.
At the best of times, this would be an unpleasant development.
Within the chaos of our current world “order”, however, the resumption of political assassination poses serious concerns for the future stability of the entire international system.
In the first Newspoll of the new year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ratings have tanked as a result of his handling of the bushfire crisis.
The Newspoll, conducted January 8-11 from a sample of 1,500 people, gave Labor a 51-49 lead on a two-party preferred basis, a three point gain for Labor since the last Newspoll in early December.
Primary votes were 40% Coalition (down two points), 36% Labor (up three), 12% Greens (up one) and 4% One Nation (down one).
Morrison also suffered a drop in his job performance rating, with 37% saying they were satisfied, down eight points from early December, and 59% saying they were dissatisfied, up 11 points.
His net approval was -22, down 19 points since December. Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net approval, meanwhile, improved ten points to +9.
Albanese also led Morrison 43-39 as preferred PM, a reversal of Morrison’s 48-34 lead in December. Apart from Morrison’s first Newspoll as PM following the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, this is the first time an opposition leader has led the incumbent PM on this measure since Tony Abbott was in office.
The bushfire crisis almost certainly explains the crash in Morrison’s ratings, but will this be sustained? As memories of a key event fade, people tend to move back to their previous positions.
As the US Democratic primaries and caucuses are about to begin, here are the latest polls from the US.
Three weeks before the February 3 Iowa caucus, the highly regarded Selzer Iowa poll, conducted for CNN and the Des Moines Register, has shown Bernie Sanders with a slight lead in the state.
Sanders was at 20% in the poll (up five points from November), Elizabeth Warren 17% (up one), Pete Buttigieg 16% (down nine), Joe Biden 15% (steady), Amy Klobuchar 6% (steady) and Andrew Yang 5% (up two).
No other candidate had more than 3%. The poll was conducted January 2-8 from 701 likely caucus attendees.
The last Selzer Iowa poll had Buttigieg ahead at 25%, but he is down to third place in the new poll. After the last poll, there was much media attention on the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, but he failed to catch on nationally. This failure has probably contributed to loss of enthusiasm in Iowa.
There are four early state primary contests: Iowa, New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29). Fifteen states and territories then vote on March 3, otherwise known as Super Tuesday, when 36% of the total delegates will be awarded. This date could be decisive to determining who will be the nominee.
As I have written previously, the two states at the top of the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire, are largely comprised of white voters. As such, they do not represent the diversity of the Democratic electorate.
Biden is doing far better with black voters, who made up 61% of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate in 2016.
A recent poll of black voters nationally gave a Biden a huge lead with 48%, with Sanders on 20% and nobody else in double digits.
Sanders and Warren, the two most left-wing candidates, are leading in the latest Iowa poll. One explanation is that Iowa is a caucus, not a primary. Caucuses are conducted by the parties and are time-consuming affairs that require voters to attend meetings where supporters make their case for candidates.
Primaries, meanwhile, are managed by the state’s electoral authority and operate like normal elections. As a result, caucuses have far lower turnout rates than primaries, and are more likely to be influenced by party activists.
In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sanders performed far better than Hillary Clinton in caucus states, while Clinton performed better in most primary states.
The bad news for Sanders and Warren is that Democrats strongly encouraged states to use primaries this year. After Iowa and Nevada (February 22), only one state uses a true caucus, while four others have a party-run primary.
According to New York Times analyst Nate Cohn, 14% of pledged delegates were awarded by caucuses in 2016; this year only 3% will be. Left-wing candidates are most likely to be hurt by this change.
The most recent RealClearPolitics national Democratic poll average has Biden leading with 29.3%, with Sanders at 20.3%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.5%, Michael Bloomberg 5.8% and Yang 3.5%.
In New Hampshire, the RCP polling average has Sanders leading with 21.5%, followed by Biden at 18.8%, Buttigieg 18.3% and Warren 14.8%.
In Nevada, the only poll conducted in January has Biden at 23%, Sanders 17% and Warren and Tom Steyer both at 12%. And in South Carolina, the only January poll conducted had Biden in the lead at 36%, with Steyer in a surprise second at 15%.
The last Democratic presidential debate before voting begins will be held on Tuesday night at Drake University in Iowa. Six candidates have qualified. There will be three more debates in February.
In December, the US economy added 145,000 jobs. While this is down from 256,000 in November, it is still a good performance.
However, hourly wages grew only by three cents in December, and the annual hourly wage growth increased by just 2.9% – the first time it has been below 3% since July 2018.
We do not yet have the inflation report for December, but inflation increased 0.7% in October and November. Higher inflation undermines wage growth.
The US uses two surveys for its jobs reports. The number of jobs gained and wage growth are based on an establishment survey, while other statistics are based on a household survey. In December, the household survey was steady for the three most important indicators: unemployment at 3.5%, labour participation rate at 63.2% and employment population ratio at 61.0%.
The strong jobs reports and the fact the Dow Jones surged to near 29,000 are good news for President Donald Trump. The economy represents Trump’s best chance of re-election in November.
With all polls, the FiveThirtyEight aggregate has Trump’s ratings at 41.8% approve, 53.5% disapprove, for a net approval of -11.7%. With polls of likely or registered voters, Trump’s ratings are 42.9% approve, 53.0% disapprove (net -10.1%).
In mid-December, Trump’s ratings rose to their highest since the very early days of his presidency. His ratings have since fallen by two to three net points since then, perhaps owing to the conflict with Iran.
In the most recent national head-to-head election polls, Biden led Trump by 4.5% in the RealClearPolitics average, Sanders led Trump by 2.6%, Trump led Warren by 0.2% and Trump led Buttigieg by 1.2%.
These polls were taken in early to mid-December, when Trump’s ratings were at their peak.
US President Donald Trump’s statement overnight confirming the US would not take further military action in response to Iran’s missile strikes on American bases in Iraq eases regional tensions for now.
In hitting back at the US over last week’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran was clearly pulling its punches.
The missiles it fired at US bases near Baghdad and in northern Iraq produced no US casualties and appear to have done little damage to the bases. Media reports quoting Western intelligence sources claim that some of the missiles were aimed deliberately short of the target. It’s clear the Iranian regime did not want to give Trump an excuse for retaliation.
Moreover, the regime has described its missile attacks as a “proportionate” response to Soleimani’s killing – which it obviously was not. It also said its response was “concluded”, implying it would not launch further strikes against the US.
In addition, according to several media reports, Iranian officials have claimed to their domestic audience the strikes killed more than 80 US military personnel, but the US is hiding the real toll. Such statements are aimed at quelling popular pressure for a more robust response.
Fortunately for the region, Trump’s overnight statement indicates he is prepared to leave matters at that. In addition, the crash of a Ukrainian airliner shortly after take-off from Tehran airport appears to have had nothing to do with the US. The latest indications are the plane was likely struck by an Iranian missile, though investigations are continuing.
That means that, for now, the risk of escalating tit-for-tat strikes or something closer to all out war between the US and Iran has receded. Most in the region will now breathe easier. This is especially true for Iraq, which could have been drawn into a broader conflict as there are still about 5,000 US troops stationed there.
But many questions remain unresolved, any of which could heighten the risk of renewed military conflict between the two sides.
A first friction point is whether US troops will remain in Iraq much longer.
Last week, the Iraqi parliament ordered the expulsion of all foreign forces (which include Australian military trainers) from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said he will implement the parliament’s demand – which the parliament itself has no power to enforce.
Abdul Mahdi is also under enormous pressure from Iran to expel US forces. The Iranian regime would clearly see their removal as additional payback to the US for the Soleimani assassination.
But Abdul Mahdi, a moderate, is known to fear a possible resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq. The group’s rise there in 2014 was the reason the Iraqi government invited US forces to return after they had left in 2011. Iraqi forces by themselves would probably not be able to contain IS.
Moreover, the US has given Iraq US$5.8 billion in military aid since 2014.
A further problem from Abdel Mahdi is that Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq if it expels US forces. He has implied that such sanctions would also include repayment of aid moneys.
While US troops remain in Iraq, there is the constant prospect of lethal attacks on them by a range of Iraqi militias loyal to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia that started the latest US-Iranian confrontation by killing a US contractor in late December.
Another militia strike that resulted in a US death would almost certainly spur a Trump military response against Iran – which Iran would, in turn, likely react to.
The second friction point is Iran’s statement following the Soleimani killing that it is no longer bound by the restrictions of the nuclear deal Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in 2015.
This agreement, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile levels with the aim of preventing the country from developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran said earlier this week it would no longer remain bound by the deal’s restrictions, meaning it would, if it chose, exceed the enrichment and stockpiling limitations. At the same time, however, it said it would remain within the deal and continue to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
This playing with words appears to have been aimed at keeping the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany) from re-imposing UN sanctions on Iran if it formally left the agreement.
Significantly, in his overnight statement, Trump emphasised that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The strong implication was that if Iran is discovered to be enriching uranium to weapons grade, the US will take action to stop this.
Such action would probably be military, though the US has worked with Israel in the past on cyber-technology to stymie Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.
That raises the question of how effective continuing IAEA oversight of Iran’s nuclear program will be. Before the nuclear deal was agreed, Iran was adept at putting obstacles in the way of IAEA inspectors – though it does not appear to have done so since the agreement entered into force.
For all the fragility of the current situation, there are two reasons to hope that calm will prevail for at least the next few weeks.
The first is that Iran’s options are limited. The relatively minor missile attacks on Wednesday indicate Iran does want to take on the US in direct conflict. Iran knows it would suffer.
The second is that Trump appears happy to declare victory and leave matters roughly as they stand.
He can boast to his now fiercely re-energised base that his action in eliminating Soleimani has made Americans safer. He also won’t want to get into a major Middle East conflict in an election year. Indeed, the opposite. He will almost certainly try to remove US troops from Iraq this year – but on his terms, not Iran’s.
So far, this is a win for Trump.
Updates story previously published with new details on plane crash indicating cause was likely an Iranian missile.