It is difficult to overestimate the geopolitical risks of this moment – or the (both disturbed and eager) global scrutiny now being given to the American president.
Aggression is growing along the westward reach of Russian influence and the southern boundary of Chinese influence. Intercontinental nuclear capacity may soon be in the hands of a mental pubescent in North Korea. In the Middle East, a hostile alliance of Russia and Shiite powers is ascendant; radical Sunnis have a territorial foothold and inspire strikes in Western cities; America’s traditional Sunni friends and allies feel devalued or abandoned; perhaps 500,000 Syrians are dead and millions of refugees suffer in conditions that incubate anger. Cyber terrorism and cyber espionage are exploiting and weaponizing our own technological dependence. Add to this a massive famine in East Africa, threatening the lives of 20 million people, and the picture of chaos is complete – until the next crisis breaks.
It is in this context that the diplomatic bloopers reel of the last few days has been played – the casual association of British intelligence with alleged surveillance at Trump Tower; the presidential tweets undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia trip; and the rude and childish treatment given the German chancellor. When Donald Trump and Angela Merkel sat together in the Oval Office, we were seeing the leader of the free world – and that guy pouting in public.
Every new administration has a shakeout period. But this assumes an ability to learn from mistakes. And this would require admitting mistakes. The spectacle of an American president blaming a Fox News commentator for a major diplomatic incident was another milestone in the miniaturization of the presidency.
An interested foreigner (friend or foe) must be a student of Trump’s temperament, which is just as bad as advertised. He is inexperienced, uninformed, easily provoked and supremely confident in his own judgment. His advantage is the choice of some serious, experienced advisers, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. But success in their jobs depends on the listening skills of Donald Trump.
Mere incompetence would be bad enough. But foreigners trying to understand America must now study (of all things) the intellectual influences of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. His vision of a Western alliance of ethno-nationalist, right-wing populists against globalists, multiculturalists, Islamists and (fill in the blank with your preferred minority) is the administration’s most vivid and rhetorically ascendant foreign policy viewpoint. How does this affect the alliances of the previous dispensation? That is the background against which Trump’s peevishness is being viewed.
Foreigners see a president who has blamed his predecessor, in banana republic style, of a serious crime, for which FBI Director James Comey testified Monday that there is no evidence. They see an administration whose campaign activities are being actively investigated by the executive branch and Congress. If close Trump associates are directly connected to Russian hacking, foreigners will see the president engulfed in an impeachment crisis – the only constitutional mechanism that would remove the taint of larceny from the 2016 election.
And foreigners are seeing politics, not national security, in the driver’s seat of the administration. Tillerson was given the job of secretary of state, then denied his choice of deputy for political reasons, then ordered to make a 28 percent cut in the budget for diplomacy and development. Never mind that Tillerson has been left a diminished figure. Never mind that stability operations in Somalia and northern Nigeria – the recruiting grounds of Islamist terrorism – would likely be eliminated under the Trump budget. Never mind that programs to prevent famines would be slashed.
When asked if he was worried about cutting these programs during a famine, budget director Mick Mulvaney responded: “The president said specifically hundreds of times … I’m going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with this budget.” The benighted cruelty of such a statement – assuming that the only way to help Americans is to let foreign children die – is remarkable, and typical.
The sum total? Foreigners see a Darwinian, nationalist framework for American foreign policy; a diminished commitment to global engagement; a brewing scandal that could distract and cripple the administration; and a president who often conducts his affairs with peevish ignorance.
Some will look at this spectacle and live in fear; others may see golden opportunity.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.