One year into the Trump administration, as our president prepares for his trip to address the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, here is the dynamic abroad: No foreign enemy could have degraded America’s global standing so completely in so short a time.
In word and deed, Donald Trump personifies the American ignoramus abroad. He insults foreign leaders in tweets, then melts in their presence. He switches positions based on personal flattery. He parades his ignorance of geopolitics. His erratic behavior and bellicose boasts provoke alarm in a nuclear age.
No longer does America advocate for an inclusive international order that promotes democracy and stability. In Politico, Susan Glasser cataloged the verdict of foreign governments: Our president is uninformed, unstable and erratic, a volatile and self-obsessed fool with a dystopian worldview.
Particularly incendiary is his racism. His Muslim ban, race-baiting and disdain for immigrants of color sullies America’s global reputation. And his recent disparagement of non-white countries as “shitholes” alienates governments we need to help combat terrorism and narco-trafficking.
Nor can Trump’s advisers stem the damage. He tramples on policy formulations and rejects advice. His fractious foreign policy team includes the sophomoric Jared Kushner. Disdainful of diplomacy, Trump has gutted the State Department and left critical posts vacant, eroding America’s capacity to advance its global objectives. In foreign policy, he asserts, “I’m the only one who matters.”
What matters especially to the world is Trump’s wholesale abdication of leadership. He scorns alliances, international institutions, trade agreements and multilateral efforts to stem global threats like climate change. His atavistic mindset is that of a real estate developer bent on “winning” one-on-one negotiations with the competitor at hand – leaving others to organize the landscape which surrounds him.
What makes Trump’s amorality unique is that it serves no strategy.
In this strategic vacuum, “America First” becomes America in retreat. Nothing is predictable save the brevity of Trump’s attention span for all but self. As he fixates on the mirror, our adversaries look to reorder the world by exploiting his proliferating derelictions.
One is his penchant for alienating America’s friends. Giving voice to his ingrained bigotry, Trump ridiculed the Muslim mayor of London, and offended Britain’s prime minister by retweeting inflammatory materials from British Islamophobes – spurring the withdrawal of his invitation to visit London. His scorn for NATO and the EU has alienated the redoubtable German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Amid the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula, Trump criticized South Korea’s supposed “appeasement” of the North, and complained about the terms of our bilateral trade agreement.
It is little wonder that a Pew survey of traditional U.S. allies showed that their citizens have no confidence in Trump’s America. As Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland explained: “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.”
Indeed, Trump reserves his admiration for autocrats – the more murderous and corrupt the better it seems – squandering our capacity for moral leadership. To its astonishment, the world sees America’s president as a reflexive authoritarian who seethes with loathing for our free press, independent judiciary and rule of law ― and whose disdain for democratic institutions is truly global.
In his geopolitical illiteracy, Trump ignores that our most reliable strategic partners are stable democracies. Thus he has cut our resources for promoting democracy abroad, and jettisoned human rights as a concern of our foreign policy. With Trump as their enabler, the authoritarians of countries like Turkey, Egypt and the Philippines feel even less constraint in how they treat their own citizens.
If anything, Trump seems to envy their example. He congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a rigged referendum, commended the ruthless totalitarian Chinese leader Xi Jinping on acquiring yet more power, and praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for an anti-drug program rooted in extrajudicial killings. Most remarkable – and suspicious – is his congenital fawning over Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strangles democracy and murders dissidents. This head-spinning moral reversal evokes America at its self-seeking, historic worst.
But what makes Trump’s amorality unique is that it serves no strategy. Take his dealings with China, a singular demonstration of his profound ignorance, incompetence and inconsistency.
By rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, Trump abandoned our Asian allies and ceded economic dominance in Asia to China ― creating what one Chinese expert called his country’s “biggest strategic opportunity.” As former National Security Adviser Susan Rice observed, Trump seems bent on “making China great again.”
Indeed, on visiting China, Trump showered Xi with embarrassing accolades, soft-pedaling his complaints about Chinese trade practices. As for China’s aggressive military buildup aimed at dominating the South China Sea, Trump was silent. In return, America got nothing. As before, Xi withheld decisive help in curbing the nuclear threat of its quasi-client state, North Korea. But it was no matter for the American president – Xi threw Trump a very big parade, reducing him to paroxysms of pleasure.
Meanwhile, China continues to cynically claim the traditional U.S. role as environmental leader, promoter of free trade and advocate of global institutions. As the TPP proceeds without the U.S., Xi is spending billions on infrastructure spanning Africa and Asia, and on the formation of an Asian infrastructure bank. “As the U.S. retreats globally,” a senior Chinese general recently said,” China shows up.”
And don’t forget Russia. One of its cardinal aims is to erode the functioning and credibility of Western democratic institutions – the protection of which is among a U.S. president’s inviolate duties. Yet Trump castigates American intelligence agencies while parroting Putin’s transparent lies denying Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, acting more like a Russian asset than an American president. Just as egregiously, Trump shuns preparing for Russia’s inevitable attacks on U.S. electoral processes – including voting machines – in 2018 and beyond. All of this undercuts U.S. allies in Europe who, unlike Trump, are deeply concerned about Russia’s attack on their own elections.
Elsewhere, Trump watches as Putin helps the murderous Assad regime in Syria slaughter its way to survival, creating a tragic flood of refugees who are shunned by Trump, which continues to overwhelm U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe ― yet another boon to Putin. Counting on Trump’s indifference, Russia menaces its neighbors. As with China, Trump’s moral quiescence gains America nothing ― like Xi, Putin lends no meaningful support to U.S. efforts to defuse the dangers of a nuclear North Korea.
Instead, to global amazement, Trump inflames tensions there. He mocks his own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts at diplomacy, lobs juvenile insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, brandishes the threat of nuclear war, and nettles South Korean allies. Trump’s fruitless courtship of Xi ― punctuated by intermittent threats of economic sanctions against China lobbed only from a distance ― ignores China’s strategic commitment to North Korea’s survival.
Worse, he threatens preemptive military actions which could provoke a catastrophic land war on the Korean Peninsula. In reality, Trump has no sane recourse but to fall back on nuclear deterrence while pursuing a stable long-term resolution. But the ultimate ideal ― a denuclearized and unified Korea ― is beyond the capacity of his denuded State Department.
Similarly, Trump’s threats to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal augur further crisis. He now demands that our negotiating partners rewrite the deal on his terms. But the other signatories – China, Russia, Germany, Great Britain and the European Union – are united in support of the agreement. In all likelihood, they will uphold it while deepening their economic ties to Iran – strengthening the embattled Iranian regime economically and politically while enhancing the efforts of China and Russia to divide America from its allies.
The dire alternative is that Iran will renew its pursuit of nuclear weapons, roiling the Middle East. Trump’s choices then become binary – countenance a potentially destabilizing nuclear threat, or bomb Iran.
Beyond this potentially existential misjudgment, Trump seems to have no Iranian policy at all. He complains about Iranian aggression, and yet acquiesces as Iran partners with Russia in Syria. His sole counterweight to Iranian adventurism – writing Saudi Arabia a blank check in the region – is making matters worse.
In Trump’s imaginings, Iran is the wellspring of all regional problems, while the Saudis are the U.S. autocracy of choice. But the Saudis finance and countenance terrorism against the West. With our ill-advised support, they perpetuate catastrophic sectarian strife in Yemen, creating space for ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Newly empowered, Saudi Arabia’s disturbingly overconfident Crown Prince meddles in the fractious politics of Lebanon, creating the specter of a Saudi-inspired war against the Iranian surrogate Hezbollah, which could well embroil others, including Israel. Like Iran, the Saudis breed instability.
This is all way too dangerous for one-sided bluster. America needs a sustained strategic and diplomatic effort to restrain Iranian adventurism, stop Saudi support for terrorism, and temper their combustible rivalry. But, again, this far exceeds the capacity of Trump’s diminished State Department.
As Trump’s errors compound, the world watches. A recent Gallup poll across 134 countries returned a median approval rating for U.S. leadership of 30 percent ― a precipitous drop. The steepest decline is among America’s neighbors and allies.
Sadly, Trump has earned it. An America which abandons global leadership makes the world less safe ― as does an American president oblivious to the consequences of his own narcissistic whims.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.