top of page

Alone in the World: Trump's Jerusalem

By Lucas Musetti

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.


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.

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,

  • It does not secure us a new ally, as Israel was not likely to give up its relationship with America barring some complete blunder from President Trump that would threaten Israel’s survival. It actually hurts our strategic relationships with partners in the region who believe Trump was acting outside of his right in naming Jerusalem as the capital.

  • It does not strengthen our economic standing, as Israel was going to continue buying American goods and military hardware anyway and naming a new capital was not going to change that. In actuality, naming Jerusalem the capital might cause new threats to America by giving justification to states to step back from supporting the United States industries.

  • It might act as a rallying cry for states to call for attacks on America. While Realists see states as the only real actors in the international arena, transnational bodies like ISIL or al-Qaeda could certainly use this decision in recruitment, and already there has been one failed attack on the New York Port Authority in the aftermath of the decision (2).

From a Realist point of view, the decision brought no advantage to protecting American security or strengthening their international position of power.


The core of Liberalism lies in cooperation between states. Whereas Realists see the international arena as a zone of competition between states, Liberalists believe states can work through international bodies and non-governmental agencies to achieve shared goals. Where Realists see international exchange as a zero-sum game, Liberalists believe there are situations where all states can win and no one has to lose. Liberalism also rejects some claims made by Realists about power being the end-goal for states. Essentially, Liberalism believes that states can secure their future by working together.

Liberalism should not be able to explain President Trump’s decision. Diplomats who belong to the school of Liberalism generally strive to use the possibility of a shared Jerusalem as a potential resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as they approach a two-state solution. The most similar action of any state to Trump’s decision is that the Czech Republic acknowledges West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, meaning the territory Israel has occupied and claimed since the 1967 Six-Days War would not be included in the recognition (3). Liberalism’s golden example in the modern world is the United Nations and the Security Council came very near to officially condemning the decision. Of the 15 members of the Council, only one nation voted against the motion and that nation had veto power as one of the permanent five members (4). Unsurprisingly, America was that veto. We actually stood in front of the most powerful embodiment of Liberalism since the Concert of Europe acknowledged that the global community believed this to be the wrong move and said that we knew better than everyone else.

While there may be instances where one state does know better than others, Liberalism relies on the idea that states see working together as a path in their best interest. The US being the single dissenting vote stands as a beacon to show this decision does not exactly encapsulate the idea of Liberalism. The General Assembly was able to pass a motion condemning Trump’s decision, but as the motion is non-binding and does not require any response from the United States, likely nothing will change.


In the most reductive terms, Constructivism is the international relations equivalent of the expression “life is what you make it.” Constructivism’s name comes from the idea that the international system is shaped by how states behave- i.e., international relations are socially constructed. States are only driven to pursue power because that’s how states have behaved historically. If states were driven to behave in other ways, such as pursuing relationships with other states, that would potentially reconstruct the international system. While Constructivism is its own school of theory, the man who helped popularize the study, Alexander Wendt, edged toward a more direct challenge to Realist assumptions and a slight alignment toward Liberalism in his piece Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics (5). One of Wendt’s claims is that the power-centric policies of states is not a necessary by-product of the anarchic system but a result of how states have collectively chosen to deal with each other. Constructivism looks more into the agency of states through what Wendt and Constructivists call “process” than other theories which see the system guiding state behavior rather than the other way around. This being said, Constructivism is just as diverse a study as the other theories with competing schools within the main structure, but for the most part, Constructivism relies on the idea that behavior makes the system and not the other way around.

Constructivism is generally meant to study how the system operates and not as a predictive paradigm for understanding how states will behave in specific situations. Still, the idea that state behavior will guide the system generally works best when states generally act similarly. Single events, such as the Jerusalem decision might not make a large impact on the structure as a whole, but there seems to be no effort on the part of the United States to fundamentally change the structure of the system. It’s true that Trump is bucking normative conventions, but giving symbolic power to one state over another doesn’t seem to affect the greater system. It doesn’t appear that Trump was acting with any motivation that kept Constructivist thought in mind.

What May Have Happened

Trump and some of his staffers claim that the move was made to advance the peace process, though it is similar to saying you are advancing the process of creating an Etch-a-Sketch Mona Lisa by shaking the board twice. It has the potential of setting back any progress that has been made on a very difficult project and won’t get rid of the errors already made. In fact, it just may end up leaving an uglier picture.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary James Mattis all advised the President against the decision, but UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Vice President Mike Pence pushed for the recognition (6). For what it’s worth, the people advising against the move have all spent time on the ground in the Middle East in different capacities while those pushing for the reversal of US foreign policy that flouts the cooperative understanding of the global community have not. Other world leaders also asked Trump to reconsider. A large sticking point in the peace plan has been that countries will not recognize Jerusalem as the capital until there is a two-state solution to the conflict. However, Trump promised to move the embassy during the campaign and has started that process despite the fact that he promised many more things in his Contract with the American Voter that he never did (7). He can claim that he is doing this to follow through on his promises with voters, but this wasn’t even one of his major promises.

More likely he did this in order to claim he’s making progress in the Middle East, even though he’s advancing in the wrong direction, or he did this as one of the many distractions he’s used throughout his term so far. Something is going wrong with his politics or he is losing support? Make a big distraction and move the story along. Who knows for certain what he was trying to distract from? Maybe it was the fallout from his decisions to gut national monuments in Utah and endorse an accused sex offender in the same day. Maybe it was the decision to move on from the story that General Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI, and Trump’s Twitter said he knew all along that Flynn had lied. Of course, it could date back later than that, to the Pocahontas gaffe or to the supposed plan to remove Tillerson. Trump has a way of lurching from one public outrage to the next, forcing Americans to follow the last outrage less closely so we can learn more about the latest one. It’s very likely Trump will do something in the coming days that will distract us from the Jerusalem issue, but instead of just being rude or obnoxious, this decision has already led to outbreaks of violence in the Middle East and in America and we cannot afford to be distracted from the developments involving this decision.

*Note: While there are adherents to the school of Marxist international theory, it centers on the fundamental understanding that international relations exist on the basis of class relations and conflict, which I do not only reject as reductive but also as a fundamental non-player in the specific case of Jerusalem. Also, I note my tendency to focus on anarchic-based theories rather than institutionalism-framed ones, but even in those paradigms, it is hard to make a case for naming Jerusalem specifically the capital of an Israeli state. Additionally, the theories of international relations are complex and my explanations here are meant to serve as a guide for the everyday reader not a perfect understanding of conceptual thought. I highly recommend the authors I have mentioned in the piece, and much of their work can be found online. Specific to the current situation with Jerusalem, John Mearsheimer, who pioneered offensive neorealism, also wrote a book with fellow Realist Stephen Walt on the pro-Israel lobby in the United States called The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (8).


  1. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Ch. 17 The Melian Dialogue. Translated by M. I. Finley and Rex Warner. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.

  2. Brown, Ruth. “Port Authority bomb suspect said attack was payback for violence in Gaza.” New York Post. December 11, 2017.

  3. Brown, Ruth. “Port Authority bomb suspect said attack was payback for violence in Gaza.” New York Post. December 11, 2017.

  4. Osborne, Samuel. “UN votes 14–1 to condemn Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision, as US vetoes resolution.” The Independent. December 19, 2017.

  5. Wendt, Alexander. Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

  6. Diamond, Jeremy, and Elise Labott. “Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” CNN. December 06, 2017. Accessed December 20, 2017.

  7. “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter.” DonaldJTrump.Com.

  8. Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen M. Walt. The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.


bottom of page