By David K. Shipler
If President Trump doesn’t get us into an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere, his lurching and staggering on the world stage might have the long-term benefit of inducing other countries not to take the United States so seriously. This would look bad from inside the Washington Beltway, where American power to influence the globe is exaggerated, but it could have an upside in certain situations.
For better or worse, the United States has been decisive, as in World War II, when its reluctance to enter the fight allowed Nazi Germany to overwhelm continental Europe, drive Britain back on its heels, and pummel the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Instead of opening a second front, the United States sent aid that included canned beef stew. For decades afterwards, Russians sardonically called canned stew “the Second Front.”
Combined with Soviet forces, the U.S. entry into the war, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was pivotal to its outcome, as we know, and the postwar order in Europe, particularly the NATO alliance to balance Soviet expansionism, was a creature of American leadership. In addition, before the Trump administration, Washington promoted human rights and pluralistic democracy where they suited American interests, which arguably tempered some authoritarianism.
But in its anti-communist fervor during the Cold War, the U.S. also demonstrated dramatic hypocrisy by meddling in foreign elections, turning a blind eye to rights violations, and even installing rightwing dictatorships. As Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It could be, then, that President Trump’s current lack of foreign policy, for which he has been so roundly criticized by specialists, is a good thing. It might be better than a hawkish alternative promoted by the hardliner Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state.
Sociologists understand that power is a two-way street. Not only must the powerful possess real clout, but the subordinate must also acknowledge the authority and acquiesce to it. The United States has actual military and economic power, but the reality has been exceeded by the image. As a result, an unhealthy phenomenon has developed as European, Middle Eastern, and some Asian countries have looked to Washington for solutions way beyond the capacity and will of American leaders and citizens.
Take the Middle East, for example. When Israel and the Palestinians negotiate mostly with the United States, rather than with each other, nothing much happens. The parties wait for an American plan, pick it apart, and retreat into their dogmatic positions. That’s what’s occurring now, as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is supposedly on the cusp of presenting a new proposal. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders, residing in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively, won’t take the 20-minute ride down the road to meet. Instead, they lobby, plead, excoriate, and pressure the Americans. Even the Palestinian Authority’s recent rejection of the U.S. as a neutral mediator, because of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, leaves more of a vacuum than an opportunity for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Over the years, the most dramatic progress has been made with minimal or no American involvement, except for final efforts to help the two sides dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty came out of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s bold decision to visit Jerusalem to offer peace, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s willingness to make the concession of returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control. President Jimmy Carter helped them conclude the deal, but he did not initiate the effort.
Similarly, the Oslo accords were negotiated secretly by Israeli and Palestinian officials without the Americans. Again, President Bill Clinton nudged them together at the end, but he did not begin the collaboration, and he could not prevent the process from failing ultimately to bring amicable coexistence. Following Oslo, Israel and Jordan fashioned a peace treaty not with American mediation but as the product of direct Israeli-Jordanian negotiations, which had been going on secretly for years.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. has made one mess after another. It’s a safe bet that if the Soviet Union had remained intact as a powerful benefactor of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush would not have invaded for fear of Soviet retaliation; years of fruitless carnage would have been avoided.
Libya would have remained an awful but stable dictatorship, with less violence, if President Obama had not authorized air strikes against the forces of the leader, Muammar Qaddafi, whose downfall set loose ravages of militia warfare. The Syrian civil war would probably have been brought to a short and ruthless end by the Assad government rather than being prolonged brutally by Obama’s tentative, no-win American support of ragtag rebel forces; they received only enough materiel to continue the bloodshed, open space for ISIS, and allow Russia a renewed foothold there.
Not that American intervention is always so clumsy and damaging. In trade, diplomacy, and the military, the U.S. can be a stabilizing influence. But it takes deft application of various tools to accomplish good ends, and many administrations—Trump’s especially—have proved inadequate to the task.
The toxic combination of the worst president in modern times with the most incompetent and destructive secretary of state—the departing Rex Tillerson—has paralyzed American diplomacy by leaving key positions empty and by hollowing out the State Department. Much brainpower has been lost to government as valuable, experienced specialists on various regions of the world have been transferred, demoted, demoralized, and driven into retirement. It says enough that on the brink of a possible meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the United States has no ambassador in Seoul, South Korea, and no high-level expert on Korea in the State Department.
Most administrations that begin toward one end or the other of the political spectrum find themselves pushed toward the center by international forces they cannot control. That’s the only hope for Trump, who has shown no aptitude for sophisticated negotiation; no recognition of the finer tools of diplomacy; and no aversion to the blunt instruments of military might, torture, tariffs, and insults directed mostly at friends.
Trump, who in business failed to pay some subcontractors and repay loans, has adopted the same dishonest practice as president. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Nobody at home or abroad can rely on his word. He has rapidly converted the United States into a party that cannot be trusted to keep its international commitments—to the Iran and climate change agreements, for example. North Korea has taken notice, and so should any foreign government contemplating a deal with Washington.
Therefore, the world would be better served if Trump’s brutish impulses do not coalesce into a coherent strategy that is implemented. For the moment, a reduction in American power and an absence of foreign policy are all to the good.