The real secret horror at the heart of the era of Trump is that this is all normal, all of it, just more so. I cringe when I read the prefabricated explanations of why Trump does things. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was Trump keeping a campaign promise. His Rose Garden announcement was essentially a campaign speech and not about the climate. So despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy (America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary so those burdens were imaginary) it was merely, as Michael Grunwald (senior writer for Politico), blogged:
” … Trump extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. He was thrusting the United States into the role of global renegade, rejecting not only the scientific consensus about climate but the international consensus for action, joining only Syria and Nicaragua (which wanted an even greener deal) in refusing to help the community of nations address a planetary problem. Congress doesn’t seem willing to pay for Trump’s border wall—and Mexico certainly isn’t—so rejecting the Paris deal was an easier way to express his Fortress America themes without having to pass legislation”
But it was the Brussels and NATO trips last week where we finally got clarity about this U.S. president: “America first” and “only.” Forget about any responsibility for the rest of the world. Solidarity is a commodity for Donald Trump, available only if paid for in advance. He kisses the shoes of Saudi Arabia, a country which spreads worldwide a distorted picture of Islam, and who justify the Islamists’ murder of Manchester. Trump considers Yad Vashem (Israeli Holocaust memorial) to be a tourist attraction. He betrays state secrets, wants heads of his security authorities to conceal possible evidence of criminal action, hinders the judiciary, fires the supreme investigator. Trump lies, if it suits him, and calls all his critics liars. The leader of the free world defames and threatens journalists and thus strengthens the Putins, Erdogans and their peers. He steps on freedom of opinion and human dignity.
But let me say this: the anger of the NATO partners is also hypocritical. Anyone (in this case, NATO members) who initially commit themselves to something, then retroactively try to change the rules, deserve to be reprimanded. Sometimes the fool speaks the truth. It’s just that this fool, Donald Trump, is not wise, but maliciously narcissistic. According to psychologists, the malicious narcissist only thinks of promoting his own interests, ruthlessly and erratically, desperately seeking to empower and enrich solely himself. He only follows the law of the strongest, he is impatient and aggressive, puts down and denigrates others. When he feels his own power is threatened, he calls the others evil.
But there is a supreme danger and it very easy to understand. And it starts with one simple premise: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not a charitable endeavor of the U.S. It has been a vital tool for advancing U.S. interests and was constructed by the U.S. to advance those interests. NATO was configured to give it the most operational power … a situation that remains today. And let’s face it, with its unilateral operation, the United States has managed to circumvent the lack of overall commitment and coherence in NATO.
Ok, so what if Trump in his speech last week to NATO didn’t explicitly reaffirm the provision that an attack on one is an attack on all? What’s the big deal? Didn’t he affirm a general commitment to NATO during his visit? Hadn’t he earlier sent his vice president and secretaries of state and defense to pledge allegiance to Article 5?
And anyway, who believes that the United States would really go to war with Russia — and risk nuclear annihilation — over Estonia?
Ah, but that’s precisely the point. To use a favorite Trump word it matters “bigly”. It is because deterrence is so delicate, so problematic, so literally unbelievable that it is not to be trifled with. Deterrence is inherently a barely believable bluff. Even at the height of the Cold War, when highly resolute presidents, such as Eisenhower and Kennedy, threatened Russia with “massive retaliation” (i.e., all-out nuclear war), would we really have sacrificed New York for Berlin? As Nick Paisely of the Guardian pointed out last week:
No one knew for sure. Not Eisenhower, not Kennedy, not the Soviets, not anyone. Yet that very uncertainty was enough to stay the hand of any aggressor and keep the peace of the world for 70 years. Deterrence does not depend on 100 percent certainty that the other guy will go to war if you cross a red line. Given the stakes, merely a chance of that happening can be enough. For 70 years, it was enough. Leaders therefore do everything they can to bolster it. Install tripwires, for example. During the Cold War, we stationed troops in Germany to face the massive tank armies of Soviet Russia. Today we have 28,000 troops in South Korea, 12,000 near the demilitarized zone.
Why? Well, not to repel invasion. They couldn’t. They’re not strong enough. To put it very coldly … and something that was drummed into my head during my stint in the U.S. Marine Corps … they are there to die. It is a deliberate message to the enemy that if you invade our ally, you will have to kill a lot of Americans first. Which will galvanize us into full-scale war against you. In military vernacular, these are “tripwires”. And tripwires are risky, dangerous, and cynical. Yet we resort to them because parchment promises are problematic and tripwires imply automaticity. We do what we can to strengthen deterrence.
So that’s why we need the rhetorical as well. Which is why U.S. presidents from Truman on have regularly and powerfully reaffirmed our deterrent pledge to NATO. Until Trump. Here is a guy who has been chronically disdainful of NATO. He campaigned on its obsolescence. His inaugural address denounced American allies as cunning parasites living off American wealth and generosity.
And deterrence is a funny thing. It’s not that, had Trump said the magic words, everyone would have 100 percent confidence we would strike back if Russia were to infiltrate little green men into Estonia, as it did in Crimea. But Trump’s refusal to utter those words does lower whatever probability Vladimir Putin might attach to America responding with any seriousness to Russian aggression against a NATO ally. So American deterrence has been weakened. And deterrence weakened is an invitation to instability, miscalculation, provocation and worse.
And for what? For no goddamn good reason. Since 1945, American leaders have based policy on two facts: a zone of cooperation encompassing democratic, rule-of-law states; a zone of cooperation between the group of democracies and other groups on this planet. Within the zone of cooperation, the usual frictions and disagreements of international life were to be managed by rules, especially trade rules, adjudicated by neutral arbiters. The ultimate expression of national power — military force — would be put utterly beyond the realm of things to be contemplated. But even such less-extreme manifestations of sovereignty as intelligence gathering would be done collectively, as if in this area the five closest democracies — the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — almost formed one government.
Now, an entirely new geopolitical order, one in which, unless Europe overcomes its splits, will pride an opaque autocracy to be the chief agenda-setter — China. Because of its size and weapons, the U.S., like Russia, will never not be a superpower. But, like Russia, it is on its way to becoming a second-tier one. In my estimation China will take the throne. And Trump, for all his complaints about China’s ambitions, has just dusted off the cushions and invited it to have a seat.
NOTE: as I noted last week in my report on the two Global Mobile Internet Conferences held this year, many artificial intelligence mavens think the U.S. will lose its edge to China in AI development. The leading AI researchers, university departments and research labs are still in the U.S. but China is moving fast and has the financial firepower that the U.S. does not have. One attendee noted “not only do Chinese companies have the advantage of a hyper-competitive market in which the leading players typically compete across a range of applications and use cases (compared with more specialized leaders in the U.S. so AI research and development is diffuse), the Chinese government continues to invest billions in R&D while unstable U.S. visa policies … and big checkbooks in China … have encouraged more academics to return to China after attending universities in the U.S. More importantly, China has a very, very deep awareness of what’s happening in the English-speaking world, but the opposite is not true. The West has very little feedback on what’s happening in China, hence our amazement when they show off incredible stuff in robotics, neural networks and even quantum computing.”
For the West, the Trump danger is clear. International alliances weaken from confusion and neglect, as much as wilful demolition. Even if Trump is not going out of his way to destroy the order that America created after the second world war, his zero-sum, transactional approach will screw us. His confrontational approach makes it harder for allies to support the status quo. For the American order to fall apart Trump only has to treat it with disdain and neglect.
Yes, it would be wrong to write off the transatlantic partnership. America’s military establishment still firmly supports NATO and Angela Merkel … despite her “the times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over” speech .. is far from anti-American. Three days before her trip to Munich she held a fond reunion with Barack Obama in Berlin; she is said to even phone George W Bush for a chat and advice.
But a war of words plays into Trump’s belief that every deal has a winner and a loser. He will surely continue to offend Europeans, but neither Merkel nor Macron believe their continent can manage without America. Europe relies on the transatlantic alliance, whether Europeans admire the inhabitant of the White House or not. Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, was quoted in this week’s Economist saying:
We will rely on America, just not this President. Which leaves the inconvenient truth that Merkel and other Europeans have just one strategy: engage, engage, engage.
Let me conclude with a comment on Zbigniew Brzezinski, the foreign-policy sage who died last week at the age of 89. He was an eloquent spokesman for the idea that America gains from taking a generous view of its self-interest. His great fear was that Trump would wreck valuable alliances. He was a child of war. The smashing of his Polish homeland to rubble, first by Nazi invaders and then by the remorseless, brutish violence of Soviet communism, jolted him from a life of privilege to one of uncertain exile.
And yes, agreed, he did not get every call right: he strongly backed a failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, for instance. But he was prescient about the hidden divisions and weaknesses of the Soviet bloc in Europe. He was right about the risks of invading Iraq in 2003, and the probable outcomes … all of which proved true.
In his last book “Strategic Vision—America and the Crisis of Global Power” which was published in 2012 he noted a change in American political discussion .. boy, he got that right … and said that retreat may tempt many Americans. In that prophetic work he imagined nativists leading his country into a “garrison-state mentality”, even as other, more doveish Americans are tempted by “self-righteous cultural hedonism”. He argued that no other country is ready to take on America’s burden of leadership, certainly not China, which he said was “an inward-looking power that prefers to play the long game”.
BUT … he also said that should the U.S. ever repudiate globalism or abandon the prevailing international political and economic order “China is fully equipped to exert more influence on the international stage should it need to fill a void”. BANG!!
And starting with the inexperience of a U.S. president and the willingness of a Chinese leader to gamble by pushing the Americans … well, it is inevitable. Benjamin Haas (who has been the China correspondent for The Guardian for some time) has noted in a series of articles that Chinese president Xi Jinping apparently believes that “time is on China’s side, despite clear evidence of mounting economic problems at home. He believes that American society is too soft to commit to a long-term competition around the globe”.
And what did Brzezinski think about passive, fearful old Europe? He wrote it acts as if its goal is to become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home”. Ouch.
When Brzezinski wrote he often sounded like a master-builder when describing the global policy “architecture” needed to allow other nations to be free and to prosper. He saw America “buttressing” and stabilizing a world being unbalanced by emerging powers.
Well, the U.S. has an “architect” now but he is not designing new policy structures. He is a promoter, wooing clients. One way to understand Trump’s foreign-policy instincts is to consider his business career. To hear Trump and his team describe statecraft, America sounds like a faded but still-valuable brand-name. The clever tactic is to bolt that name in giant brass letters on structures, even if they are built according to others’ standards. If other countries are ready to pay, Trump is not about to judge.
To Trump and his cronies, the anxiety of foreign leaders is ascribed to their guilty consciences, after years of taking America for granted. It is an article of their faith that previous generations of soft, weak leaders stupidly allowed others to push America into relative decline. Trump’s inner circle sincerely scorns the foreign policies of previous administrations, from the Obama era back to the days of Bill Clinton or both Bushes. That contempt extends to the global institutions that Trump inherited.