Zarif’s comments prefigured the strategy that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is following today in his brinksmanship with President Trump. Playing on the fear, especially prevalent among European elites and American Democrats, that Trump is, precisely, an agent of chaos, Khamenei has taken a leaf from the book of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in 2017 appeared at the World Economic Forum as the representative of enlightened globalism. “We should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions,” Xi declared. “We should honor promises and abide by rules.”
The chords struck by Xi were still resonating in the halls of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last December, where the assembled leaders adopted a joint communiqué affirming their commitment to “a rules-based international order.” In the Trump era, this old phrase has taken on a new meaning. In the minds of the defenders of globalism, it is shorthand for the norms and values threatened by Trump’s abrasive personal style, aggressive diplomacy, and disruptive trade wars. By pressuring the American president to join them in affirming the “rules-based order,” the G20 leaders were treating him to a passive-aggressive reprimand.