America is absent. A bloody war erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and both sides look to Russia for a solution. Iranian militias destabilize Iraq, and the State Department prepares to close our embassy there for self-protection. China draws “red lines” to assert dominance over Taiwan, and U.S. military experts privately concede that Chinese power in the area outmatches that of the United States.
The structure of U.S. alliances, perhaps our greatest national asset, has become wobbly. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commendably has been traveling abroad and meeting with key U.S. partners, such as Japan, India, Australia and, before that, Greece and Italy. But when it comes to big issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accords, the United States stands awkwardly alone.
The global spread of the coronavirus pandemic compounds the United States’ isolation. The world was looking for generous, confident leadership when the virus hit; instead, a self-obsessed America went into retreat. President Trump withdrew from the World Health Organization and spurned cooperation on developing a vaccine. He promoted “America First,” with a vengeance.
Is it any surprise that when the United States enshrines selfishness as its national creed, other nations will follow suit? That’s especially true at a moment when people are frightened by the pandemic. In such hard times, stable leadership can reinforce the shared norms and expectations of global order. Instead of American exceptionalism, we have been giving the world a version of American hysteria.
The global power vacuum invites mischief. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has escalated over 10 days of fighting. Armenian leaders initially hoped that U.S. diplomacy could produce a cease-fire; now, they look to Moscow. Turkey has been pressing for regional dominance through allies in Libya, Syria, Iraq and now Azerbaijan. The U.S. response has been late and muddled, and Turkey has taken full advantage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presses ahead with his campaign to avenge past reversals. Even as Russia conducts aggressive cyberattacks, Moscow shamelessly proposes to write new rules for cyberspace. Thankfully, U.S. companies such as Microsoft still try to enforce global norms, independent of Russian and Chinese attempts to set the framework. The Trump administration is mostly missing in action.
The United States’ self-isolating diplomacy has been on display with Iran, too. The Trump administration quit the nuclear agreement in 2018, and then last month demanded that other signatories join in “snapback” sanctions. That effort failed, like an August demand to extend a U.N. arms embargo. Even Washington’s closest allies rejected the U.S. approach, and Iran got an undeserved win. “The U.S. is isolated and embarrassed,” boasted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The greatest potential beneficiary of the United States’ turn inward is China. President Xi Jinping has been making enemies with his crackdown in Hong Kong, adventurism in the South China Sea, clashes along the Indian border and threats against Taiwan. But Xi is pushing the envelope because he thinks the United States is distracted and the moment is ripe. Trump’s hopes for a trade deal with China and a denuclearization agreement with North Korea are distant memories.
After a lengthy “deep dive” into China’s growing challenge, the House Intelligence Committee concluded starkly in a report last week: “Absent a significant realignment of resources, the U.S. government will fail to achieve the outcomes required to enable continued U.S. competition with China on the global stage.”
Trump’s presidency has been a daily circus of self-promotion and rage against elites. Even his bout with a life-threatening disease became part of the political spectacle. It often seems there’s nothing else happening outside the Trump bubble, but it isn’t so. There’s a world of trouble out there.
If America were a stock, would you buy it or sell it? I would be a buyer, especially when our stock is trading so far below its real value. But any sensible analyst would say that this underperforming asset badly needs a change in management and a thorough restructuring to regain its competitive position.