Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
Is the Trump administration creating a “neo-American era in world politics” that will supplant the post-American one that its predecessor presided over? Last week, Walter Russell Mead, who has become perhaps the preeminent intellectual defender of Trump foreign policy, floated this notion in his weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. Sounding much like he’s channeling national security adviser John Bolton, Mead went on to suggest that the Trump administration sees the Middle East as its new proving ground to create a new golden age for the assertion of military power, including bombing Iran. Mead’s only question: whether Trump himself would remain “committed to this approach” or whether he would bail if something went wrong, as it so often does, in that region.
But the problem is far more basic than that. Trump hasn’t embarked on a course that could strengthen American might. He’s already well on his way to eviscerating it.
For a start, his trade flip-flops are giving investors the willies. One day he wants to sanction a big Chinese company like ZTE. The next day he gives it carte blanche. Now that it’s becoming clear that he’s being outmaneuvered in trade talks, he’s declared that negotiations with China need to reinvented all over again: “Our Trade Deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion.” Got that?
Among other things, all this uncertainty might well jeopardize the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, which has helped foster American prosperity for decades by allowing it to borrow at advantageous rates. Here’s what Nader Naeimi, a money manager in Sydney, Australia, at the $145 billion AMP Capital Investors, recently told Bloomberg News: “At some point, you just bite the bullet and say, `I’m just going to get out of all my assets, all my exposures out of the U.S.’ That’s the No. 1 thing we’re thinking.”
Then there is North Korea. With his letter to Kim Jong Un on Thursday announcing that he’s bailing on the scheduled June 12 summit in Singapore, Trump has made a complete hash of the negotiations. His jejune tweets tried to create great expectations about the prospects for “World Peace” even as 18 of his Republican congressional flunkeys officially nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Then, after he took umbrage at North Korea’s insults about Vice President Pence and decided that Kim wasn’t going to become his new best friend, Trump apparently failed to inform either South Korea or North Korea that he wasn’t traveling to Singapore. His cavalier approach to the summit has now provided an opportune excuse for China to relax its sanctions on Pyongyang. The bottom line is that Trump got played by Kim. So much for Trump’s vaunted deal-making abilities.
Something similar can be said about the Middle East. The thinking in the White House seems to be that just as it cowed North Korea into submission, so it can force the mullahs in Tehran to cry uncle. But much as Trump has inadvertently weakened containment against North Korea, so he has weakened America’s hand against Tehran by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal. Both at home and abroad, Trump is under fire. On Thursday, the House passed an amendment to the 2018-2019 National Defense Authorization Act declaring that the administration not have congressional authorization for launching a military attack against Iran. At the same time, the Trump administration’s truculent approach toward Iran is prompting Europe to seek to isolate Washington by maintaining the Iran nuclear deal. The European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, says that she wants to get it out of “intensive care.”
Whether Europe can really render it ambulatory is an open question. But the divide between America and Europe is growing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last week that splits over Iran mean that “we have experienced a break in German-American, in European-American relations.” A new poll by the German public broadcaster ZDF indicates that only 14 percent of Germans view America as a trustworthy diplomatic partner. If relations continue to deteriorate and Trump were to attack Iran, Europe might well come to view America as the true rogue state that must be diplomatically, economically and militarily contained.
As Trump, an innocent abroad, lurches about, it is worth recalling the maxim of Emperor Augustus, who built the foundations of the Roman Empire, and Frederick the Great, who established Prussia as a front-rank European power. It was festina lente – make haste slowly. Trump seems to take the opposite view. The result of Trump’s impetuosity, however, is that he is hastening, not retarding, the advent of the post-American era.