U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. How Can Donald Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital be Explained?

Term Paper, 2018

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Framework
2.1 Structural Realism
2.2 Constructivism

3. Contextual Background
3.1 US-Israeli relationship
3.2 Jerusalem Embassy Act 1995
3.3 US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

4. Application of the Theoretical Framework on the Case
4.1 Structural Realist Approach
4.2 Constructivist Approach

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

"It is certainly not a coincidence that virtually all narratives about Palestine - religious and secular, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, Palestinian and Israeli - revolve around the city of Jerusalem…" (Khalidi 1997: 13).

The status of Jerusalem has always been a very sensitive, symbolic and central issue regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Palestinians and Israelis, for Muslims, Christians and Jews around the world, this city is an anchor of modern identity. The Israelis claim it as the capital of their nation, the Palestinians want it to be the center of their hoped-for future state. The issue has gained a critical urgency and relevance recently, because on December 6, 2017 US-President Donald J. Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. By reversing seven decades of US neutrality and appeasement policy in this matter, his decision caused a lot of frustration among the Arabic community and states around the world. The UN General Assembly called the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital "null and void" - a pretty extraordinary situation of disagreement between the UN and the United States (Res. ES-10/L.22 2017).

In my essay I want to tackle this issue from two different angles: from a structural realist and a constructivist viewpoint. I will establish a theoretical framework, by comparing the two schools of thought within the rational-constructivist debate. Subsequently both theories will be applied on the present case of US foreign policy, after I have ensured contextual understanding by going through essential historical aspects of US-Israeli relations and the effects of Trump’s decision.

This procedure leads to the central question of my essay: How can the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the Trump administration be explained through either a structural realist or constructivist approach?

It is most likely, that it will not be possible to explain this step coherently through a realist approach, because the United States have not been under any immediate threat regarding this issue. The controversial step rather creates a threat among the Palestinian and international Muslim community towards the US, because of the policy’s provoking character. It is difficult to recognize any strategic rationale, which makes a realist derivation unlikely.

It should be expected, that the decision can be better explained through a constructivist narrative. Theorists like Michael Barnett believe that the US-Israeli alliance is a result of "shared values and common identity", its ideational and constructivist nature is the very reason, that the partnership has exceeded various systemic threats (Barnett 1996: 445).

Therefore, I establish the hypothesis that, in contrary to structural realism, a constructivist approach is able to give a durable explanation for current US foreign policy in regard to Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Another central aim of this paper is to expose elemental errors within the theory of structural realism, by showing its invalidity of serving as a coherent explanatory source for Donald Trump’s policy.

It is absolutely necessary and important to analyze this turnabout of US foreign policy, because it has an immediate impact on the political situation in the Middle East and the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a very polarizing and current event, that showcases the influence of state identity on foreign policy and therefore it definitely needs to be evaluated.

2. Theoretical Framework

In this paper I want to establish a theoretical framework within the rationalist-constructivist debate. Although this dispute has lost some of its sharpness in the last decades, it is still one of the most recent and polarizing debates in international relations theory. As a rationalist school of thought I want to enumerate the approach of structural realism by Kenneth N. Waltz and further developments of the theory by Stephen M. Walt. This side will be confronted with constructivist perspectives by Alexander Wendt and Michael N. Barnett. The aim of this comparison is to focus on relevant aspects, such as the formation of alliances and the role of state identity, which can be applied on the mentioned case of current US foreign policy.

2.1 Structural Realism

In 1979 Kenneth Waltz introduced the theory of structural realism in his book "Theory of International Politics" as a modification of Morgenthau’s classical realism. Waltz’ approach is based on the assumption that the international system of states is ruled by anarchy, on the contrary to national systems, which usually have a hierarchical order. According to Waltz the anarchic structure of the system forces states, which are all unitary, egoistic and rational actors, to "seek their own preservation" and, at a maximum, even "drive for universal domination" (Waltz 1979: 118). Here the emphasis lies explicitly on the structure of the system, anthropological explanations for the mistrust among states have no value for the approach by Kenneth Waltz. Because there is no ruling authority in the anarchical system, every state is under a constant existential threat and therefore every actor is responsible for their own survival (Waltz 1979: 111). In a realist world economic or ideological aims will always be of secondary importance in comparison to security issues. The maximizing of individual well-being and the rational, egoistic acting by states which is fueled by constant mutual mistrust, serve as key elements of the theory.

The skeptical interaction among states on an international level is driven by a critical dynamic - the security dilemma. It originates out of the assumption, that "the steps that states take to maximize their own security jeopardize the interests of other states" and puts them "at a strategic disadvantage" (Lawson 2013: 23,24). This cycle of hostile action and reaction aggravates animosity and mistrust among nations, which is decisive for the whole system.

At this point I want to focus on the character of alliances in the theory, because here lies the central applicable factor of the debate in this case. Kenneth Waltz, as a defensive realist, believes that "the first concern of states is not to maximize power but to maintain their position in the system" (Waltz 1979: 126). Therefore states form alliances, in order to balance aggressive foreign policy and domination of other states, in order to ensure their own survival and stabilize the system as a whole (Lawson 2013: 24). Waltz calls this form of establishing alliances the "Balance-of-Power Theory". States explicitly only enter partnerships, if it improves their capacity to protect themselves. Alliances of shared ideology on the other hand remain rare and fragile (Lawson 2013: 25). It should also be stated, that even alliances can not overcome the mutual mistrust in structural realism, they solely serve the purpose of security.

In 1987 Stephen M. Walt modified Waltz’ approach by establishing the "Balance-of-Threat Theory". According to him "states choose allies in order to balance against the most serious threat", not necessarily against the biggest power (Walt 1987: 263). Walt also repeatedly expresses the secondary importance of ideology, when it comes to alignment with other states (Walt 1987: 5). Walt states that ideologies can be of divisive character and are therefore not able to contribute to the formation of durable alliances (Walt 1987: 5). The choice of an alliance partner is thereby dependent on a rational calculation of risks, costs and benefits, and not on ideological factors.

In this brief representation of the theory it became evident, that material factors are central when it comes to the formation of alliances in an anarchic system of egoistic and rational states, which only focus on the pursuit of personal well-being, security and national interests. Identity, norms and common values do not play an important role in this school of thought.

2.2 Constructivism

Constructivism serves as the counterpart of structural realism in the rationalist-constructivist debate. In this paragraph I want to focus on the elemental differences between both theories, especially their standpoints towards the concept of identity. I will focus on the state-centered form of constructivism, as it was introduced by Alexander Wendt in the 1990s as a critical reply on Kenneth Waltz’ "Theory of International Politics".

Constructivists do not neglect the structural influence of the international system, though they criticize the realist overemphasis on materialistic structures (Lawson 2013: 29). Constructivism is based on the duality of intersubjective structures and appropriately acting states, constructivists insist that these phenomena are "mutually constituted" (Hopf 1998: 172).

Therefore, in contrast to structural realism, the theory is not limited to materialistic factors. It rather emphasizes on the impact of identity. Alexander Wendt defines identity as "a property of intentional actors that generates motivational and behavioral dispositions" (Wendt 1999, 224). According to Wendt it is "endogenous to interaction" and therefore a "dependent variable in process", in the contrary to the realist view, which just treats identity as "exogenously given and constant" (Wendt 1999: 336). In structural realism identity solely serves as an "instrument in [the] pursuit of interests", constructivists on the other hand are convinced that it actually shapes the perception of interest in foreign policy making (Hinnebusch 2016: 163).

Because "identities are always in process, always contested, always an accomplishment of practice", the theory gives explanation why the constellation of the international system and the foreign policy of states are not constant, but dependent on the formation of alliances, which are caused by collective identities with shared values and norms (Wendt 1999: 340). Unlike structural realism, the constructivist perspective allows "friendship" and "enmity" between states, because they are not seen as rational, unitary actors. In constructivism states are conscious actors that can develop common understandings through discourse and a process of socialization. Thereby the international system is not caused by its anarchic structure, but it is socially constructed. It is formed by the concept of identity, which causes inclusion and exclusion of actors. States with a collective identity share a "culture of friendship" - the realist aspect of mistrust dissolves. In an alliance of shared identity two states do not necessarily act rationally and just pursue their personal well-being or the maximization of national utility. They rather pursue their normative commitments and moral principles within a community of shared identities.

States with ideological incompatibilities, opposing identities and conflicting interests on the other hand create a constellation of enmity. It becomes apparent here, that identity creates an in-group and an out-group, it not only creates alliance and communal unification, but also delimitation and division. Hence identity excludes as well as includes (Halliday 2005: 211).

Michael Barnett states that identity "provides a better conceptual link to the construction of threat than do anarchy and other materialist derivations" and that it "potentially informs as to who is deemed an attractive ally" (Barnett 1996: 413). He heavily criticizes the materialist and anarchic logics of structural realism and primarily focuses his critique on Stephen Walt’s views, which were partially mentioned in the previous paragraph. Barnett mainly disapproves of Walt’s assumption that shared identity rather causes conflict than cooperation (Barnett 1996: 407). He argues that "the mere existence of conflict [within an alliance of shared identity] does not in and of itself entail a realist world or derive from anarchy" (Barnett 1996: 407). According to Barnett conflict can evolve if two allied actors have different understandings of each others constitutive norms, which "instruct them on how they are to enact their identity" (Barnett 1996: 409). Therefore actors with shared identities can by all means clash over norms, but they are still "likely to have a shared construction of threat" (Barnett 1996: 410). Hence identity "makes some partners more attractive than others" and "provides the foundation of the alliance" (Barnett 1996: 410).

Because Barnett defines states as conscious actors, he establishes the concept of "state identity", with which he has provided a constructivist explanation for the formation of alliances and the implementation of foreign policy. This understanding of identity will be central in the derivation of Trump’s foreign policy in paragraph 4.2.

3. Contextual Background

In order to put the theoretical debate into context it is essential to take a closer look on the history of US-Israeli relations in general and in particular on the current US foreign policy towards Israel.

3.1 US-Israeli relationship

Today Israel and the US are internationally recognized as close allies. In the Arab-Israeli conflict the United States have tried to serve as a mediator for many decades, though today the American neutrality, especially in face of the recent developments, is not very credible anymore. This one-sided approach has not always been the case.

In 1947 the US had a more impartial view on the Arab-Israeli conflict. At that time the Americans supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (Khalidi 1997: 23). In the same year this approach was reflected by the UN partition plan, which proposed a two-state-solution and aimed on transforming Jerusalem into a corpus separatum under international control. However, a few hours after the proclamation of the Israeli state on the 14th of May 1948, the Palestine War broke out and the resolution was never implemented over a longer period of time. In the US there was still an evenly-matched policy debate taking place over the Palestine issue. Kermit Roosevelt, an US intelligence expert on the Middle East at that time, stated that "support of political Zionism is directly contrary to our [American] national interests, as well as to common justice" (Hudson 2013: 361). The first central pivot of US foreign policy towards Israel came in 1948 with President Truman’s decision to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine (Hudson 2013: 361). From this point on the US materially assisted the newly formed state of Israel.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. How Can Donald Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital be Explained?
University of Hamburg  (Fakultät für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften)
The Middle East in International Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
capital, recognition, policy, middle, jerusalem, israel’s, foreign, explained, east, donald, trump’s
Quote paper
Severin Pehlke (Author), 2018, U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. How Can Donald Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital be Explained?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/538877


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