Under Trump, America no longer plays its traditional role in the world. This has grave implications for peace and securityby Karin von Hippel / December 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Today’s international security challenges—whether related to the Middle East, global terrorism, Russia, or North Korea—are far more troubling than the crises of recent decades. This is not because their scale and scope are dramatically different from previous ones. Rather, they pose a greater threat to global stability because the United States, along with partners such as the United Kingdom, are not providing the necessary leadership to manage and mitigate them.
While Whitehall may be distracted by Brexit, President Trump has proven to be a master primarily in the politics of distraction. His announcement on 6th December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy to the city is a case in point, and seems to have been done primarily to appease his base, with little understanding or care about the political ramifications. Suffice it to say, so far, this president does not appear to have the ability, or the temperament, to tackle issues of global significance.
Despite the constant distractions of the Trump administration—the Twitter outbursts, the scurrilous stories, even the long march of the Mueller investigation into collusion with Russia—the real issue is not who might replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, if indeed he is to be fired. Nor should it be about the next in line on the Mueller chopping block. As long as he is President, rapid Trump turnovers and seemingly impulsive decisions will be the new normal.
If we can step away from all the noise, what we should be concerned with, instead, are the implications for peace and security in a world where America no longer plays its traditional role as the guardian and guarantor of the liberal order. Since the Second World War, with few exceptions, American leadership has revolved around promoting this rules-based, democratic and open international order, in close partnership with established allies, notably the United Kingdom. That approach has come under significant attack from a US President who has abandoned—or who is trying to undermine—many of the precepts, practices, alliances and commitments of the past 70 years, especially if they were promoted by his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama.
Almost one year into the Trump Administration, we are fairly clear about what Trump is against, but we still do not know what he is for. We await his promised counter-IS strategy, supposedly due 30 days into his presidency. On North Korea, Trump and his senior officials have vacillated all over the place. On Syria, the US (and the UK) have shamefully ceded leadership on the peace process to Russia and Iran, despite a one-off US military attack on a Syrian air base in early April. There are plenty of other examples.
“America First” appears to signify a transactional foreign policy, one that ignores long-standing alliances, and one that is bereft of the aforementioned norms and values. In the past few months, we even learned that the State Department is considering dropping the words “justice” and “democracy” from its list of desired outcomes in its mission statement.
“When Trump was asked about vacancies at the State Department, he said: ‘I’m the only one who matters'”
America First also means more autonomy for the US military, at the expense—both literally and figuratively—of diplomacy and development. When Tillerson was challenged about his proposed cuts of over 30 per cent to the State Department’s budget, he responded that these cuts were aligned with his expectation that many of the global conflicts costing the US government time and resources would soon be resolved(!) At the same time, Trump has proposed an extra $54bn for defence, an increase of 10 per cent, without an explanation of what he would achieve with the increase. The analyst Robert Kaplan recently remarked that, with Trump, there is no “overriding, idealistic vision.”
I am making this case knowing that HR McMaster, the National Security Adviser, intends to publish a National Security Strategy in the coming weeks—perhaps months—and that the Pentagon will also be publishing its National Defense Strategy. Both are likely to be sound documents, and will no doubt persuasively make the case for tackling tomorrow’s threats. Yet the reality is that, even when the strategies are available, there is only a slim chance that Trump will adhere to them, given his propensity to contradict his team, and occasionally, his own public utterances. Recently when Trump was asked about vacancies at the State Department’s senior levels, he said: “I’m the only one who matters.”
What might America’s withdrawal from its traditional role mean at the global level? One result might be leadership going to the highest bidder, depending on the issue. China, for example, is already assuming pole position on climate change and free trade. Russia and Iran have consolidated their hold on places they care about, such as Syria, rewarding a regime that has been largely responsible for 500,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of half the population.
If the United States is unable to build and lead coalitions for the time being, another country or coalition of like-minded countries, such as the European Union, will need to step forward. Given the challenges in Germany right now—one of the natural leaders within Europe—it is far from clear if this will happen. And the larger, more distressing concern about the erosion of American leadership is whether, over the term of this presidency, that decline becomes irreversible.