Watching Donald Trump skulking behind Hillary Clinton on the debate stage Sunday night, muttering about locking her up if he wins, was a reminder that we are drifting toward a kind of bullyboy-world, where power is everything.
You see this coarsening climate of relations around the globe, in the debasement of the norms that make civilized life possible. Dictators push the limits of power in new ways almost daily: China brazenly builds military bases on disputed rocks and sand in the South China Sea and dares anyone to stop them; Russia pillages America’s political system and baldly denies it, just as it denies connivance in the shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine and the bombing of a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria, Meanwhile, our own Middle East “ally” Saudi Arabia, bombs a funeral, yes, a funeral, in Yemen.
The leading bullyboy in this part of the world is North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. His regime is a calculated act of defiance. He terrorizes his population, shoots his relatives and governs his nation as if by whim. Yet this crackpot dictator is about to become the leader of a full-fledged nuclear power, after bomb and missile tests last month that bring him to the threshold of targeting U.S. territory with a nuclear attack.
Historians will have to decide whether Barack Obama’s presidency encouraged this fraying of limits. For all his decency, Obama conveyed a sense that you could defy the United States and its cherished “rules-based order” and get away with it. His slowly unfolding but decisive use of power against the Islamic State may partially reverse that reputation.
Even if Obama had been as implacable as President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, the probing and testing of the United States that always accompanies our transitions of power would already have begun. That’s part of what we’re seeing now — the bullies giving America a shove — and the process will increase as we move toward Inauguration Day and after.
The Korean Peninsula is the place where the tests may come early. North Korea likes to get ahead of any new administration by baring its teeth. The recent nuclear and missile tests are a statement of Pyongyang’s basic calculus: Keep pushing and the world will back off and decide that the cost of stopping North Korea is too steep: Pyongyang will get away with its proliferation, just as Pakistan did.
Dealing with the world’s bullies is complicated by having a wannabe member of the club running for president. How does the United States credibly reinforce the rules of behavior among nations when a leading U.S. presidential candidate proclaims his support for torture, religious discrimination, tax dodging and abusive sexual behavior? Comparing Trump to Vladimir Putin may be flattering Trump.
Rebuilding order in the world begins by telling the truth. That was the importance of Friday’s blunt statement about Russia’s political hacking by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. They used undiplomatic language: “The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from . . . U.S. political organizations. . . . We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
Having named and shamed Russia, what’s the United States going to do about it? The Obama administration wisely answered that some of America’s response will be visible, and some of it won’t. The United States has vastly more power than we normally employ. Let Russia do the worrying for a while. As in the old playground admonition about bullies, don’t get mad, get even.
We should admit that the might-makes-right process infects the United States, too, and I don’t just mean Trump’s nastiness toward women, Latinos, Muslims and others who stand in his way. We have become in many ways a meaner, less-confident, less-generous country. Our use of drones as silent assassins has unfortunately been an object lesson for the rest of the world. We have far from clean hands.
Americans who want a more orderly, rules-based world should also recognize that bullying is a particularly American disease, and not just on the playground. A recent study called “Adult Bullying — A Nasty Piece of Work” by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an associate professor at North Dakota State University, found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers have been bullied, and that this rate is 20 percent to 50 percent higher than that in Scandinavian countries surveyed.
The 2016 presidential election is about the candidates, of course. But it’s also about the electorate. If we are the nation that elects Donald Trump, we will own that fact — and bear that scar — through our history.