Trump's Dangerous Neo-Isolationism

A retreat from global leadership is bad for America and bad for the world.
AFP Contributor via Getty Images

A leader ignorant of history misapprehends its tragedies. A president steeped in grandiosity risks repeating them. Such is Donald Trump.

In modern history’s cardinal disaster, virulent nationalism combined with failed diplomacy and great power competition to ignite two catastrophic world wars within 25 years, in turn precipitating a nuclear arms race between America and the Soviet Union. In response, we encouraged democratic partners in Europe and Asia to join us in alliances like NATO, and global institutions like the United Nations and WTO. This model promoted democracy, free trade and shared strategic and economic interests rather than unconstrained nationalism – and, while imperfect, gave us seven decades of relative stability.

Now the global order is under attack.

Authoritarians squelch democracy. Populists scorn free trade. Resurgent nationalism and tribalism hamstring international cooperation. These threats come from all sides – including America’s president.

For Trump, “America First” is more than a catchphrase. It is a psychological return to the irretrievable historic moment of the 1930s, rooted in protectionism, isolationism and a dominant and homogeneous white population.

But no longer do oceans protect us from attack while enabling economic autonomy. No longer can we enact with impunity policies based on the presumptive superiority of white Christians. No longer dare we ignore the dangers and demands of a dangerous world.

That America is gone, save in Trump’s imaginings.

Armed with bluster untethered to reality, Trump disparages allies, praises dictators, invokes protectionism, rejects agreements to protect the environment or promote trade, spurns refugees from carnage, rewrites immigration policies to keep America white and assaults global institutions of America’s own making.

“Only Trump could deem this slide toward global dystopia a success.”

All this reflects the paranoia of Trump’s inaugural address: “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and competence of our country is dissipated over the horizon.” For Trump to ignore that the past 70-plus years has given America unparalleled power and prosperity demonstrates, to say the least, a frightening capacity to twist reality in service to an ignorant and pernicious worldview.

He threatens to cut aid to countries who oppose our policies – unable to connect foreign assistance to America’s national interest in combating terrorism, protecting the environment or stemming pandemics. He trumpets trade wars, insensate to the fact that the targets can retaliate; that we are offending critical allies from England to South Korea; and that rivals like China can present themselves as champions of open trade. He uses the world as a soundstage for braggadocio unmoored from reason – provoking a contempt he is incapable of perceiving.

Suffusing these behaviors is a stunning inversion of wise diplomacy. Quiet persistence, not noisy threats, cements enduring progress. A successful foreign policy is more often incremental than instantaneous ― it seeks results, not attention. The perpetual self-contradictions of a mercurial president addicted to the limelight erode the credibility required for global leadership.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on March 28, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on March 28, 2018.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Yet never has prudent American stewardship been more crucial. Russia and China are ever more aggressive. Allies depend on America’s constancy, markets require stable trade relations and transnational challenges from cyber warfare to nuclear proliferation demand global cooperation. Advocates for democracy and human rights count on our support, while those suffering from humanitarian disasters hope for our compassion.

Trump cares nothing for this. Instead, he further weakens America abroad by dividing it at home, deepening our political and racial polarization while attacking our courts, intelligence agencies and the rule of law itself. Our friends need look no further than America to perceive its president’s malignancy.

Among our allies, the result is slow–motion estrangement. Take Europe. Trump’s distaste for NATO and the EU has caused Europeans to look inward, even as they must worry about Trump’s deference to the autocrat who menaces his neighbors and attacks Western elections ― Vladimir Putin.

Or look at Asia. Alienated by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, our allies are deepening ties with China as a hedge against America’s abandonment. Far from seeing America as a force for regional security and economic cooperation, they fear that Trump’s erratic policy toward North Korea could precipitate calamity. The ongoing negotiations in Korea have been driven by overtures from the South, sidelining Trump’s ultimatums and preconditions.

Trump’s Darwinian attitude toward trade is equally myopic. The rules-based system overseen by the WTO promotes global development, keeps strong countries from preying on the weak and encourages broader worker protections. Now China leans on its neighbors and new trade agreements exclude would U.S. Over time, America’s retreat will shrink the global economy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Budapest on Feb. 2, 2017.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Budapest on Feb. 2, 2017.

Around the world, dictators clamp down, and democratically-elected leaders undermine democracies – and receive Trump’s praise. Echoing Trump’s nativism and disinterest in democracy, would-be authoritarians in Hungary and Poland challenge Europe’s liberal norms. Encouraged by Trump’s rapturous approval, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is stoking the inflammatory Shia–Sunni divide while waging a brutal proxy war against Iran in Yemen. The incompetence and tyranny of Nicholas Maduro, enabled by international quiescence, has turned Venezuela into a Hobbesian state of nature.

Great power competition, with its attendant dangers, has revived. China is militarizing the South China Sea. Russia’s unchecked power play in Syria empowers the Assad regime to slaughter its way to survival, unleashing a humanitarian disaster which has helped destabilize Europe

Only Trump could deem this slide toward global dystopia a success.

But who will tell him otherwise? The admirable Secretary of Defense James Mattis has his hands full constraining Trump from making some terrible military miscalculation ― if he can. Trump has shattered the delusion that a team of minders could tranquilize him by firing Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster.

Their replacements are a duo of pyromaniacs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a hawk who rose by ingratiating himself with Trump. The new national security adviser, John Bolton, a noxious unilateralist whose diplomatic incapacities and loathing of global cooperation have been exceeded only by his enthusiasm for bombing Iran and North Korea.

Those, regrettably, are the very places where Trump – enabled by those who share, or mimic, his dangerous instincts – could do his unmitigated worst.

“North Korea’s willingness to deal also rests on American credibility. Reneging on an Iran deal that is working engenders its own distrust.”

Trump – and Bolton – have long advocated blowing up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in concert with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU. Yet the deal is working: Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sketchy assertions that the Iranians are concealing a past nuclear weapons program, Iran is not a nuclear power, nor will it be anytime soon. Israel remains the only Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons.

Reneging on the deal would have consequences for America and the region as destabilizing as they are predictable. We would further alienate our allies. We would accelerate our loss of credibility as a responsible international actor ― enhancing China and Russia on the world stage. And we would give Iran two choices, both bad.

The lesser evil is that Iran would continue the deal with our negotiating partners, further isolating the U.S. The greater is that Iran would restart its nuclear program, provoking an arms race in the Middle East kicked off by Saudi Arabia.

What then? Does America and/or Israel bomb Iran, with perilous long-term consequences that include stoking terrorism? Or do autocratic and unstable Middle Eastern countries begin sprouting nuclear weapons? If so, think of Pakistan – whose robust nuclear program presents the risks of accidental conflagration, nuclear trafficking and a jihadist takeover of its deadly arsenal.

Only a fool would take unilateral actions with such dire global implications. But there is also a potentially adverse spillover effect in our dealings with nuclear North Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Philippines, November 12, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Philippines, November 12, 2017.
Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Start with credibility. Historically, America has compelling reasons to distrust North Korea’s willingness to abide by any agreement. But North Korea’s willingness to deal also rests on American credibility. Reneging on an Iran deal that is working engenders its own distrust. One hopes that France can provide Trump with a geopolitical exit ramp, folding the nuclear deal into broader regional negotiations.

A more direct peril is negotiations conducted by an ill-prepared and belligerent American president inclined to go it alone. Little wonder that our Asian allies might prefer to go it alone ― especially given that Bolton has advocated confronting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with “diplomatic shock and awe” as a potential prelude to attacking North Korea, risking a catastrophic land war on the Korean Peninsula. Or worse.

But assuming that Trump actually undertakes the complex task of serious negotiation, he will need all the support he can get from the countries most affected – South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. To say the least, they will have a consuming interest in the progress and terms of any deal ― especially when “denuclearization” remains so vague. Absent intense multilateral diplomacy from Trump, Bolton and Pompeo, the likely result would be failed talks which strain our relations with Asian allies while leaving Trump empty-handed.

What does he do then?

To even pose the question captures the breathtaking distance between the United States as an advocate for stability and security and the menace of Trump’s America, feared and distrusted by a world which once looked to it for leadership.

Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.