During the days of classic imperialism, world leaders sometimes changed the map of the world with a few strokes of the pen. This month, for the first and perhaps last time, it happened with a tweet. President Trump announced that the United States now recognizes the disputed Western Sahara region as part of Morocco. Soon afterward, the American ambassador in Morocco signed what he called the “new official US government map of the kingdom of Morocco,” showing Western Sahara as part of its territory.
Not everyone’s map of the world changed with ours. The African Union, United Nations, and European Union have all rejected Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. So now the State Department’s official map of the world is different from everyone else’s. It is an extreme example of the peculiarly American view that we can shape the world as we like and others will have no choice but to follow.
President Trump’s tweet — a two-sentence proclamation that aims to undo decades of diplomacy — was bizarre even by his standards. “Morocco recognized the United States in 1777,” he wrote. “It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara.” The two sentences have nothing to do with each other; it’s hard to see how events in the 18th century bear on this dispute. And although a Moroccan sultan did extend early recognition to the United States, the modern-day Kingdom of Morocco has only been independent since 1956. Most extraordinary of all, though, was the go-it-alone egoism behind Trump’s action. The United States is presuming to declare one side the winner in a complex conflict halfway around the world, without bothering to consult or even notify the world community.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not make this momentous decision based on the merits of the Moroccan case. No one studied details of the conflict and decided that justice or national interest required decisive American action. This immense geopolitical favor was nothing more or less than a payoff to Morocco for extending diplomatic recognition to Israel. It was an unapologetic tit-for-tat: You recognize Israel, we declare Western Sahara to be yours.
This deal is the latest and most startling advance in Trump’s end-of-term push to persuade Arab countries to recognize Israel. His tactic is simple: Ask each country what emolument or inducement would persuade it to do so. Leaders of Bahrain said they wanted permission to buy top-of-the-line American F-35 fighter jets. They got it. In Sudan, leaders complained that they cannot apply for international loans because the US government lists their country as a state sponsor of terrorism. Upon agreeing to recognize Israel, Sudan was removed from the list.
Our deal with Morocco is immensely more ambitious, far-reaching, and fraught with danger. One of Pompeo’s predecessors, James Baker, who also served as a UN envoy to Western Sahara, called it “an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy.” Recognizing the territory as part of Morocco, Baker wrote, ignores the fact that the conflict there is “clearly and unequivocally an issue of self-determination.”
Western Sahara is a largely empty desert, bigger than Britain but with fewer people than Boston. It gained a messy independence from Spain in 1975. Since then it has been embroiled in what has become one of the world’s last great post-colonial conflicts. Moroccan forces control most of the territory, including its Atlantic fisheries and rich phosphate deposits. But a resilient “liberation movement,” the Polisario Front, insists on independence and claims to be the territory’s legitimate government. Three decades of painstaking UN negotiations have maintained a fragile peace in Western Sahara. All parties tacitly agreed to accept the delicately balanced status quo — until Trump’s tweet.
Bartering diplomatic favors is not always wrong. In this case, though, the United States flashed a great big middle finger to the rest of the world by barging recklessly into a conflict that had reached peaceful equilibrium. If Morocco proceeds to act as if it owns Western Sahara, the Polisario Front may return to war. Tilting toward Morocco also upsets our relations with other countries in the region, especially Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front.
Yet this is probably a done deal. In an ideal world, President Biden might reverse Trump’s decision and order the State Department to take down its new map. But he has more pressing challenges abroad, and in any case reversing Trump’s decision would anger Morocco and damage our credibility even further.
Doing exorbitant favors for Israel may impress wealthy donors to a possible 2024 presidential campaign by Trump or Pompeo. Whatever the motive, though, this kind of brazen horse-trading brings no benefit to the United States. Our deal with Morocco may not immediately change conditions on the ground, but it reinforces a powerfully negative image of the United States. A superpower that demands respect for the “rules-based international order” has shown itself willing to redraw its official map of the world on a whim. This was an act of political vandalism that may cost lives in the years ahead, and a rejection of the very idea of diplomacy.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.