This week, the Internet has been lit up with the latest in the series of revelations about connections and communications between the president’s innermost circle and representatives of the Russian government. In the United States, the current chapter of the scandal — featuring the president’s son, son-in-law, campaign chairman, and a badly-shaved, former music publicist, plus what may be a series of smoking-gun emails — may be seen as a bizarre, yet consequential form of reality television. Around the world, the political furor in the United States is seen through a different lens, with international observers wondering if the drama might effect the ability of the world’s sole superpower to lead.
Many in foreign capitals were still in shock at President Trump’s performance during his trip to Poland and at the Group of 20 summit. On that trip, Trump attacked his predecessor, the U.S. intelligence community and the media, providing cover for a Polish-government with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Later in Hamburg, Trump was essentially shunned, a non-participant in a major trade deal, climate discussions and the final joint communique.
This new U.S. isolation means that the G-20 has become G-19 + 1. The bigger question is whether America’s retreat from its long-held global leadership role is a sign of a more lasting change. In the 111 years since the first overseas trip by a U.S. president — Teddy Roosevelt’s journey to Panama to check on the progress of the canal — there have been more than 300 such missions led by America’s chief executive. Trump was the first in which the U.S. head of state was seen as neither the head of an important rising major power or as the leader of the free world. Now, those tracking the scandals in Washington are wondering whether they will make him and the country he represents weaker and weaker still.
Trump’s strange meeting on the fringe of the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed yet again, the Russians are not seeking to help perceptions. Trump looked weak and out of his depth — a view only compounded when, after the meeting, Russian statements appeared calculated to undercut the U.S. president as he appeared to be bending over backward to accommodate them.
For the Russians of course, the meeting was just the latest chapter in an on-going mission to weaken the United States and the Atlantic alliance. The specifics of their plan have become even better understood with revelations of the Russian proffer of assistance to the Trump campaign and Donald Trump Jr.’s willingness to embrace the assistance of a hostile government. And within hours of the latest story breaking, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, at its heart was on U.S. television taunting the younger Trump and his colleagues for seeming to be “longing” for damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
This behavior reminds us yet again that Russia’s primary goal was not to get Trump elected. It was to weaken the United States. Now with Trump in office, the best way to weaken our country is to fan the flames of the scandal enveloping the president. Putin and Russia benefit from the paralysis that a protracted series of investigations into Trump will cause. Trump, or at least some of those close to him, must be starting to see what happens to useful idiots when they are no longer seen to be useful.
But of course, the Russians are not the only ones who are benefiting from the combination of Trump’s retreat from global leadership and the distracting swirl of scandals around him. The Syrian “cease-fire” brokered in Hamburg doesn’t do much to help advance U.S. goals of defeating the Islamic State, but it does offer clear benefits to the Assad regime and Iran. Persian Gulf states, too, are increasingly stepping up to shape a regional policy in which it seems the United States seems to be a bewildered by-stander.
North Korea has clearly been testing the new president and has found little to suggest that the United States will act decisively to stop its race to become a fully-fledged nuclear threat to American interests. North Korea knows that if it can make the last sprint to having ICBMs that can reach America and enough warheads to thwart efforts to defang it, that its influence will grow immeasurably. Trump’s troubles help them too.
The leaders of other nations have all indicated — through actions such as though in Hamburg — a willingness to fill the void left by the United States. China has said as much and grown increasingly assertive. It would be naive to think that as the Trump-Russia scandal deepens, as it now seems it inevitably will, that all these powers will view it not as political theater but as a significant force driving a geopolitical tectonic shift.
As a consequence, when you watch the irresistible drama of each night’s cable news revelations and debates, it is important for to see the developments for what they are. They are not only the consequences of electing a potentially corrupt president surrounded by a bungling team with little regard for the law or U.S. interests. More important, the message to the world is that the planet’s sole superpower is distracted and hobbled.
In other words, the Russian plan is turning out to have been a resounding success with profound global consequences. It is up to the American people and whichever leaders emerge to contain the damage.