American leadership, once deemed essential to world peace, is now mocked and ridiculed. We find ourselves increasingly isolated within institutions that we led the world in creating, such as the G-20, NATO and the United Nations, and are treated by allies and adversaries alike as an non-entity that can safely be ignored, as an obstacle to be worked around or as a dupe to be manipulated.
Nobody did this to us. We have done it to ourselves. A man elected on the promise to make America great again is turning the country into a laughingstock in the eyes of the world. They have taken his measure, both as a person and as a leader, and have concluded that he is a blowhard, a man for whom spectacle substitutes for substance. And because the U.S. president is commonly viewed as the embodiment of his nation, America is now treated as a blowhard as well. It is an extraordinary abdication of national influence and power, unprecedented in its haste and scale, and it comes at a particularly dangerous moment in world history.
I know the excuses, the explanations. Our new leadership claims to take great pride in its lack of predictability and its willingness to break the rules. That explanation might be more convincing if its unpredictability had a purpose or served an underlying strategy, or if they were capable of anything different. Neither is the case. It is unpredictable because it cannot be anything else, because from the top on down it is handicapped by a lack of discipline, an incoherence and incompetence that allows it to toss out bizarre ideas without benefit of study or forethought, to make promises or policy statements with no later attempt at implementation.
On Sunday morning, for example, President Trump was touting the creation of a joint cyber-security effort with the Russian government as a major accomplishment of the G-20 summit. It would be impenetrable! It would make our elections safe!
Other administration figures echoed the argument. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the joint effort would allow the two countries “to work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, an increasingly comic sycophant, called the arrangement a “strategic alliance” with Russia that “I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump.”
Meanwhile, news was breaking that our new Russian “partner” in this “strategic alliance” had hacked into at least a dozen American nuclear plants, probing for weaknesses. A few hours later, after widespread mocking, this appears without explanation:
After less than seven months in office, it is already implausible to describe Trump as the leader of the free world, because a leader by definition has others willing to follow and he has almost none. On issues from Iran to the status of Jerusalem to Russian intervention, the president, the secretary of state, the ambassador to the United Nations, the defense secretary and the national security adviser all express opinions and policy statements at variance with each other. And an administration that can’t perform the basic task of getting themselves on the same page has no capacity to try to do the same with the international community.
The president’s defenders also laud him as a master negotiator, as the inventor of a strategy they call “America First But America Not Alone.” Yet there is zero evidence that such skills exist. On North Korea, President Trump had allegedly gained the cooperation of China in helping to restrain its client state; Trump has also significantly raised the military rhetoric. North Korea, meanwhile, seems singularly unimpressed, and last week China and Russia issued a joint statement undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea after its test of an intercontinental missile. Trump the candidate would have immediately condemned the missile test as evidence that North Korea did not fear or respect the United States; Trump the president merely whined that somebody had better do something.
And on and on it goes. We hear constant talk and threats of new trade deals, but where are they? You can argue that it’s still early, but where are the processes that might conceivably, some day, produce these non-existent trade deals? Our alleged master negotiator has negotiated nothing. He has destroyed but not built. The same pattern of grandiose talk undercut by incompetence and incoherence that has rendered him ineffective in Washington has done the same on the international scene, and heaven knows what another 41 months of this will produce.