Challenges of ‘America First’ and Relocation of US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The thrust of the United States foreign policy under President Donald Trump is ‘America First.’ As a foreign policy thrust, ‘America First’ simply means that the priority of priorities must always be the protection of American interest in all cultural, political, economic and militaro-strategic calculations. Thus, ‘America First’ necessarily means an objective, but it can also be synonymous with a tactic or technique of attaining the objectives and other goals. Because ‘America First’ can have many meanings, the understanding of US foreign policy under Donald Trump becomes complex, especially in terms of how to interpret US actions in international relations, and particularly also in terms of how best to react to them, since all Member States of the international community also have their own interests to protect.

From the empirical foreign policy behaviour of the United States under Donald Trump so far, the true objective and technique of the thrust is clear and not far-fetched: restore and sustain the global status of the United States as the only existing superpower that should be second to none; adopt a manu militari, if not outright use of force, in achieving the objective; and impose whatever is in the American interest regardless of whose ox is gored. United States’ arbitrary withdrawal from the Climate change agreement, US withdrawal from various international agreements validly contracted by the Washingtonian authorities, the most recent of which is the withdrawal from the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action or the Iran nuclear deal, are cases in point.

Additionally, last week Thursday, ‘America First’ was given a special fillip, not only in terms of the United States being the first to relocate its diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but also the first of the signatories to the Iran Deal to breach the agreement. And true enough, in recent times, the United States has been leading in the breaching of diplomatic principles as universally espoused by civilised nations of the world.

In light of this, US foreign policy is not only raising questions of concern but particularly seriously threatening the maintenance of global peace and security, and by so doing, strengthening other major powers to respond either in the spirit of reciprocity or legitimate self-defence. It is within the context of this observation that we will now explicate the manifestations and challenges of ‘America First,’ before interrogating the Relocation of US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and its implications.

America First: Manifestations and Challenges

The origin of ‘America First,’ as Donald trump’s foreign policy thrust, is traceable to January 20, 2017 when he was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. As declared by Donald Trump by then, ‘from this day forward, it’s going to be “America First.” But what does this mean? It has political, economic, and security dimensions.

For instance, at the level of security, it is predicated on ‘principled realism’ which is to be guided ‘by outcomes and not by ideology.’ In this regard, Donald Trump’s military doctrine, which has been described as ‘overmatch doctrine,’ has it that the United States must maintain ‘a combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success’ and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.

Economically, ‘America First’ policy assumes that economic security is also national security and that US trade deficits are not only deepening but also require the renegotiation of the country’s external relationships in order to reduce the deficits, as well as eliminate unfair trade practices inherent in the US trade relationships: dumping, non-tariff barriers, industrial subsidies, etc.

Politically, ‘America First’ policy identifies some rogue states or arch enemies of the United States. They include China which is considered as a strategic rival, challenging American power, influence and interests, and by so doing, seeking to ‘erode American security and prosperity.’ Iran and North Korea are other enemy states requiring a special drastic attention. Relationship with these countries requires a review along a hard line policy.

As good as the pillars of the ‘America First’ policy may be, Roncevert Ganan Almond has drawn attention to some myopic aspects of the policy. As he put it, it ‘fails to capture the full measure of international relations or offer to American leaders. What is lost in the Trump doctrine is the critical importance of diplomacy, in building alliances, forming multilateral coalitions, and developing international institutions. In short, the art of persuasion – underlying collective action and the intangible quality of legitimacy is absent’ (see his one year review of “US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era: a Narrative of Power without Persuasion,” posted on January 18, 2018.

What is particularly noteworthy about the policy is its manifestation in international politics and the development of and increasing hostility towards the government and people of the United States to which the proponents of ‘America First’ currently give little consideration most unfortunately.

As noted earlier, the case of US withdrawal from the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (Iran Deal) is a good illustration of how the protection of ‘America First’ is also undermining US foreign policy interest in a faster manner than in its protection. In this regard, US foreign policy interest is claiming to be pursuing global peace, while the situational reality is showing the contrary. How do we explain the fact that, with the exception of the United States, all the other signatories (five in number: Germany, France, Great Britain, China, Russia, otherwise the P5+1) have eyes that can no longer see? How do we explain the fact that the United States individual knowledge on the Iran Nuclear Deal is greater or better than the collective sagacious of other signatory states?

The truth of the matter as at today is that many EU members have been negotiating the replacement of the use of the dollar with the euro in their trade relationships with Iran. Perhaps a more disturbing manifestation of the ‘America First’ policy is the relocation and implication of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Relocation and Implications of US Embassy

In late February 2018, the US State Department announced that ‘in May, the United States plans to open a new US Embassy in Jerusalem. The opening will coincide with Israel’s 70th Anniversary… we are excited about taking this historic step, and look forward with anticipation to the May opening.’ More important, the State Department also had it that the embassy would initially be located temporarily in the Arnona neighbourhood (current location of the US Consulate General) until a more suitable location is found.

And true enough, the United States acted as announced, on May 14, 2018, which technically speaking, is Israel’s Independence Day. The State of Israel was created on May 14, 1948. On that very day, the United States was the first country to recognise the state and its government about five minutes after the official proclamation of the State of Israel. The date is calculated on the basis of Hebrew date (the fifth day of Iyar).

Speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Donald Trump said ‘it was the right thing to do… we have to do it,’ even though many people, Donald Trump claimed, ‘were begging’ him not to do so.

Three points are noteworthy about the announcement and effective relocation of the US Embassy. First, Guatemala was the first country to move its embassy on May 1, 2018 to Jerusalem but preferred to wait for that of relocation of the US Embassy on May 14 before its own official inauguration. What prevents Guatemala from being the first country to relocate its embassy? Is it to ensure that the action is taken by the US first? Is there not a sort of agreement between the United States and Guatemala who planned to open its own new mission on May 16, 2018?

Secondly, no American president has tried to implement the US Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 until the advent of the Donald Trump administration. It is useful to recall here that the US 104th Congress passed on October 23, 1995 the Jerusalem Embassy Act (JEA), which entered into force on November 8, 1995 without presidential signature, because President Bill Clinton consciously left it unsigned. The Act was enacted ‘to provide for the relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and for other purposes.’

In this regard, the Act, the originating bill of which was introduced in the Senate by Bob Dole, a Republican from KS, considered Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel which should not be divided and to which the US Embassy in Tel Aviv should not only be relocated by May 31 1999, but also for which 50% of appropriated funds for the ‘Acquisition and Maintenance of Buildings Abroad’ by the State Department was set side.

One more important point about the Act is that the law enables the President of the United States to invoke a six-month waiver of the application of the Act and to reissue the waiver every six months for reasons of national security. It was on this basis that presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama invoked it before Donald Trump signed a waiver in June 2017, while the US Senate called on the government of Donald Trump to promptly implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act.

And without jot of doubt and consistent with his electoral promise, Donald Trump first recognised Jerusalem as capital of Israel on December 6, 2017 and therefore directed the immediate preparation for the relocation of the US Embassy. Second, President Trump made it known on February 23rd, 2018 that relocation of the embassy would begin at the Arnona consular services site of the then US Consulate-General in Jerusalem. On Monday, 14th May, 2018, partly in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, the Embassy of the United States in Jerusalem was officially opened.

Expectedly, there cannot but be consequences, because the US Act and its implementation directly conflicted with the spirit of Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly, adopted on 29th November, 1947. The resolution considered Jerusalem as a Corpus Separatum, that is, as a special international regime which was not to be placed under the sovereign jurisdiction of Israel or Palestine.

What is particularly noteworthy about Jerusalem as a special regime is that it was meant to be a neutral territory to be internationally administered by the United Nations. This largely explains why all the diplomatic missions in Israel are currently located in Tel Aviv in compliance with the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 181. Besides, international law requires all accredited diplomatic missions to locate their chanceries in the political capital where their host government is seated.

It should be remembered here that the Arabs, ab initio, never accepted the idea of establishment of a State of Israel in Palestine. In fact, The Arabs resolved to push the Israelis to the sea or seaside. This development led to war, the defeat of the Arabs in the war, and to the partitioning of Jerusalem into two: East and West Jerusalem. The eastern part was left for Jordan to administer, while Israel was given Western Jerusalem to control. Many countries opened their missions in Jerusalem but the United Kingdom never did because of the 1947 UN Plan for partitioning.

Put differently, the Government of Israel declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 5, 1949. The declaration was given concrete expression following the second defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Six-day War, after which Israel also took control of the Jordanian-controlled Eastern Jerusalem. The Knesset (Parliament) later proclaimed that ‘Jerusalem was, and had always been, the capital of Israel.’ But perhaps more importantly, Israel promulgated a law in 1980, unifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but the international community kicked against it with the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 478 of 20 August, 1980, which required all diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to relocate. This explains why the main Israeli government institutions are in Jerusalem and the accredited diplomatic missions are in Tel Aviv, a situation that is inconsistent with international diplomatic practice.

Many questions can also be raised at this juncture: how do we differentiate between the old Israel when Jerusalem was its capital, on the one hand, and the new Israel established on May 14, 1947 in which the same Jerusalem is also the capital? UNGA Resolution 181 of 1947 provided for a new Jerusalem that would be completely different from the existing Jerusalem and over which neither Israel nor the Palestine Liberation Organisation would have sovereignty.

However, the US foreign policy, in this regard, is said to be specifically targeted not only at the Corpus Separatum, that is, the City of Jerusalem as provided for in the UNGA Resolution 181, but also at the consideration that Jerusalem is part of the Mandate on Palestine, and, therefore, it is not part of any sovereignty. If this is so, how do we reconcile this with the earlier US foreign policy recognition of the Israeli assertion that Jerusalem was and still remains the capital of Israel? Is the present location of the US Embassy in Jerusalem now under international jurisdiction or that of Israel? Can the US ever qualify to serve as a credible mediator or honest broker in any crisis or conflict with its foreign policy of partisanship as exemplified in ‘America First’? In which way is the United States not really a catalytic agent of political instability in the Middle East with its new foreign policy direction?

Without scintilla of doubt, the implementation of ‘America First’ is not only promoting national protectionism to the detriment of global balance of errors and terror in international relations, but also forcing open the door to regional instability and insecurity in the Middle East, for which the world is currently ill-prepared. True, relocation of US Embassy to Jerusalem is a reckless disregard for the collective wisdom of the United Nations and International Law. The United States is also sending wrong signals to other Member States of the international community on aiding and abetting global indiscipline. More important, the policy is generating blood-letting with Israel’s shooting of peaceful protesters and giving the wrong impression that an effective occupation of Jerusalem by use of force, without allowing for the creation of a two-state framework, will lead to peace in the Middle East. Far from it!

The likely future scenario of the situation is that ‘America First’ policy has the potential to reunite all the Arabs against America as a people and as a government, in an unprecedented manner. It may lead to a review of Palestinian policy of non-use of terror to negotiate. This means the security protection of all US diplomatic missions in the world must be specially strengthened. The usual type of European solidarity with the United States cannot be truly guaranteed with the diplomatic myopia with which US current foreign policy is now characterised. In fact, Israel is able to act with impunity because of United States support. With the emerging new Cold War in which the United States is likely to be more challenged by its arch enemies and the rogue states, US support for Israel cannot but be reviewed. Israel, in that time, may not be able to do the battle alone. If the United Nations wants Jerusalem to have international status, let it be. It should be noted however that it will take time before other states will join in the relocation of their missions. For as long as there is no end to the Middle East crisis, there may not be an end to the struggle for regional peace and security.