Then Trump took to Twitter to bash who he saw as the real enemy: the New York Times Book Review (the New York Times broke the story, but Trump tagged the New York Times Book Review in his scathing tweet because, well, this is Trump we’re dealing with).
Much has rightly been written about how this is yet another new low for the U.S. president. You have to be astonishingly depraved, after all, to see the American media as more of an enemy than an adversarial despot who is quite literally paying for the deaths of our troops. But the bounty story is even more devastating, not because of the political earthquake it is sure to produce at home, but rather for the geopolitical shocks it will produce abroad.
While Americans are largely focused on the bounties on U.S. troops, the underlying intelligence assessment allegedly also speaks of bounties placed on British troops and other coalition allies. The fact that Trump tried to reward Russia with an invitation to a “G7-plus” summit rankled close allies in May, particularly Canada and Britain. Now we know one reason. Think about how that played out in foreign capitals, when those governments were likely aware of the Russian bounty program. British troops were being targeted by militias on the Kremlin’s payroll and Trump wanted to give Putin a special treat as a token of gratitude?
Once more, Trump bent over backward to accommodate his pal in Moscow while stabbing our allies in the back. Such damaging behavior has defined Trump’s presidency. He has saved some of his most toxic venom for the United States’ democratic allies while sweet-talking so many of our dictatorial adversaries.
For Putin, then, it’s mission accomplished. The point of the bounties likely wasn’t just to increase Western body counts, but rather to splinter the Western alliance.
For the past 3½ years, most U.S. allies have adopted the same approach to Trump. They behave as if he is an unfortunate blip, a storm that the alliance must weather. They have publicly flattered him to get concessions, while most diplomats and world leaders privately see him for what he is: an incompetent buffoon who has a narcissistic, child-like understanding of geopolitics.
Here’s the problem: Public opinion among our allies is not as forgiving as the diplomats and politicians playing the long game. Angela Merkel might recognize that Germany is better off with a close alliance with the United States, but Germans increasingly disagree. After his first three years in office, just 13 percent of Germans have confidence in Trump’s handling of international affairs. Compare that with 2009, when 93 percent of Germans had confidence in Barack Obama. Worse, the Trumpian stain has bled beyond just him. In early 2020, only 39 percent of Germans held a favorable view of the United States. Similar numbers exist for many crucial alliances. How long is that widening gulf between public opinion and foreign policy sustainable?
The fact that Trump continued to praise Putin and invite him to a major diplomatic summit after learning that Russia was paying to target allied troops is sure to worsen that gulf further.
Trump’s failure to condemn the Russian bounties comes at the worst possible time. His abysmal response to the novel coronavirus and his clear disdain for the Black Lives Matter protests have severely damaged the United States’ international standing. The video of Trump hypothesizing that injecting disinfectants or putting a “very powerful light” somewhere “inside the body” to cure covid-19 was a major news event internationally, making the United States a global laughingstock. And using the word “racist” to describe Trump is not remotely controversial except in the United States, where a Fox News-style conception of “balance” has overshadowed objectivity. As a result, it’s becoming uncontroversial in foreign capitals to view the United States as an unreliable ally at best, and as a basket case led by an incompetent, narcissistic bigot at worst.
Even before the latest debacles, Brits, Canadians, Germans, Spaniards, Australians, Mexicans and French people held a more favorable view of President Xi Jinping of China than President Trump. The bounty scandal will only affect some of those countries, but it will surely worsen already dismal assessments of U.S. leadership.
The United States needs allies. Without them, the country is weaker. But if Trump wins in November, our allies will reach their breaking point. They will no longer be able to play nice in public. And then, Putin will get what he has always wanted: not America First, but America Alone.
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