Under President Donald Trump, the United States has been rapidly refashioning its approach to many of the established norms of the post-World War II world. It has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, challenging the expectations of how countries handle their involvement in international agreements. And it has begun using trade tariffs against not just rivals but also allies, reinterpreting the global trade norms meant to pool economic resources and deter war.
The United States is increasingly viewing international norms as obstacles in the pursuit of its national interests, and is willing to trade old policy positions for perceived or actual benefits. But as the key guarantor of the postwar international system, such behavior has widespread consequences, as no other state can match America's ability to preserve these norms.
Now, Washington is contemplating yet another bold rejection of international standards. Rumors have emerged that Israel is lobbying for the United States to recognize the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967, as Israeli territory — and the United States is reportedly considering the move. Should Washington decide to recognize Israel's claim to the disputed area, it would mark the first time since 1945 that the United States has acknowledged the validity of land taken by military force. And it would have major implications on the current world order.
Establishing Postwar Norms
After World War II, the Allied powers declared that it was an illegal use of power for countries to gain territory by military conquest, and since 1945, international consensus has rejected this form of territory acquisition almost across the board. By breaking the norm of accepting land won by the spear, the Allies hoped to forestall a third world war by funneling tensions and competition into international institutions and rules of law instead of tanks and rifles. Indeed, this approach shaped many aspects of the 20th century's international environment, helping constrain Soviet-American competition to battles of influence rather than territory.
Of course, the norms did not go unchallenged. Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1976, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 are postwar examples of states attempting to claim territory through military force. In each of these cases, the United States — alongside most other great powers — held steadfast in the belief that such expansions were illegal, unjustified and to be reversed as soon as possible.
If the United States decides to recognize Israel's claim to the Golan Heights, it would be drastically changing course. The decision would have a different meaning than its other recent diplomatic decision in Israel: moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For Israel, having the United States recognize Jerusalem as its capital was a major symbolic victory, given its sacred status. But Israel has held the Golan since 1967, annexed it in 1981 and at this point has nearly 20,000 settlers and well-entrenched troops there. On the ground, the U.S. recognition of the Golan would change almost nothing. But globally, it would be a major shift, because the area was taken by military conquest rather than being designated to Israel before the end of the British mandate in 1948.
By undercutting the well-recognized norm of invalidating land taken by force, the United States would be taking yet another step toward distancing itself from diplomatic tradition, and the move could have major implications not only for how other disputed territories are handled, but also for what nations can expect from one another at this point in history.
Not all states would — or could — interpret the U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as an invitation to return to a time before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when kings and emperors took what land they managed with any sword their soldiers had. But Washington's decision would no doubt complicate other ongoing border disputes. Russia already hopes it can legitimize its occupation of Crimea through a grand diplomatic bargain with the West; it will see that approach as even more likely to succeed should the United States go ahead with a recognition of the Golan Heights. And China has rejected international rulings against its island-building in the South China Seas, arguing that international institutions are under the influence of powers hostile to Beijing's rise. Seeing the Golan officially change hands could encourage China to believe that if it waits long enough in the South China Sea, its claims will be recognized.
Additionally, some countries would be emboldened to take more aggressive military actions, because they would be less fearful that the United States would intervene. The opportunity to avoid U.S. involvement would be appealing to leaders who believe military force can resolve their territorial disputes, distract from problems at home or produce diplomatic leverage to resolve other disputes. (This is what prompted Iraq's Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990, after he concluded that the United States would not intervene in such an invasion.)
The U.S. Driving Changes
America is increasingly approaching international affairs from a transactional perspective. And in the Middle East, it sees Israel as the most powerful partner to help it achieve its goals. It has thus sought to strengthen Israel — and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia — in exchange for its loyalty to the United States. That was, in part, what drove the Jerusalem embassy decision, and could drive a decision on Golan, as well.
If the United States continues to embrace a transactional attitude to diplomacy by recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, it would be clearly indicating that it believes land can be traded and swapped as the situation warrants — that is, that the integrity of borders is not a principal with a potent enough return.
This will leave the enforcement of post-World War II norms largely in the hands of the Europeans, and the internal struggles of the European Union suggest that the Continent simply is not strong enough right now. Europe has failed in its efforts to halt tariffs or force countries to abide by treaties. Should the United States abandon the accepted norm of refusing to recognize land taken by force, the strongest of European states — Germany, France and the United Kingdom — will need to react. But despite their efforts, they may not be powerful enough to prevent other countries from rewriting the post-World War II order.