One year into the Trump presidency, a lot of people around the world are asking that question. A nation of erratic disruption and “America First” belligerence has supplanted the underwriter of the post-1945 global order. The multilateral institutions of that order — from the United Nations to NATO — are mistrusted by the president. A void has opened up. Neither chaos nor China has quite filled it yet. In Gramsci’s words, written between the 20th century’s two global conflagrations, “The old is dying, and the new cannot be born.”
Trump’s universe is a place of dread, not deals. If there was no catastrophe in the first year, the possibility of one in the second was ratcheted up, from North Korea to Iran. In the National Security Strategy published in December, the subheading under “Diplomacy and Statecraft” is “Competitive Diplomacy” — not cooperation. Money is apparently no object to ensure “weapons systems that clearly overmatch” in “lethality.” Diplomacy, by contrast, requires “efficient use of limited resources.” The evisceration of the State Department and big increases in military budgets reflect Trump’s mind-set.
His nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea seems to involve a belief that nuclear war might just be feasible as a means, short of a blood bath, to bloody Kim Jong-un’s nose. That — and I’m being charitable — is hard to imagine. Limited nuclear war is a near oxymoron. It is not inconceivable, however, especially if Trump begins to feel cornered by the Russia investigation and in need of a foreign policy surprise. New lower-yield nuclear weapons, whose threshold for use might be lower, are contemplated in the Pentagon’s draft Nuclear Posture Review. The surprise could also come with Iran. The president’s foolish undermining of the Iran nuclear deal is perverse. If North Korea could have been stopped short of a bomb, as Iran has been, even Trump’s White House would be happy.
But Trump is deaf to reason. He talks of revived American greatness. Yet, as president, he has not set foot in California, where American technology and innovation create companies that capture the world’s imagination. All that interests him is that Californians tend to dislike him. Disrespect, whether domestic or foreign, is intolerable to him.
A global power shift long preceded Trump; China’s share of global output rose to about 15 percent from less than 4 percent in the past two decades. The Obama presidency talked down American greatness. In Syria, Barack Obama’s abdication was complete. But through dereliction, President Trump has fast-forwarded this American retreat.
Of course, mistrust of America’s rivals is not misplaced. Russia and China, ideological foes, are in an assertive and expansionist mood. Russia has won in Syria. It has not retreated in Ukraine. European nations, including Hungary, have proved susceptible to Vladimir Putin’s democratic authoritarianism. Russian cyberattacks on Western democracies have proved disruptive, especially in the United States.
President Xi Jinping of China, in a speech late last year, offered his nation’s model as “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” This amounted to a remarkable expression of self-confidence. It is of a piece with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an attempt to weave other countries’ fates into China’s growing ambitions.
As the Cold War demonstrated, such challenges to American interests are best confronted through coherent strategy backed by a credible threat of force and a clear set of values. This, however, is not Trump’s thing. Value-free outbursts are. The president is “so boxed in on Russia that he’s deprived of any ability to conduct a policy, and that paralysis is dangerous,” Jonathan Eyal, a London-based strategic analyst, told me. On nuclear weapons and on Syria, the United States has no mechanism for dialogue with Russia at the highest level because Trump is frozen in genuflection to Putin, his own National Security Strategy notwithstanding.
With China, too, policy has veered: trade bellicosity one moment, blandishments designed to enlist Beijing’s help in squeezing North Korea the next. Xi, deploying pomp and flattery during the president’s visit last year, knows how to get Trump where he wants him. America First makes China look like the more responsible global power. Tillerson labors to open diplomatic channels to Pyongyang; Trump tells his secretary of state he’s “wasting his time.” In the end the confidence of both China and Russia is buttressed by Trump’s wackiness and compromised hesitations.
Last September, Trump met with Emmanuel Macron, the young president of France, who, unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, has a relationship with him. Syria came up. Trump said he’d hit Syria with 50 missiles after the chemical-weapons infringement. “Didn’t I?” he asked his aides who, in cowering unison, confirmed he had. Iran came up. Macron, like other European leaders, is concerned that the nuclear deal Trump opposes be upheld. Trump was uninterested. He veered off on a bizarre tangent about the trade France does with Iran.
It’s tough to do business with Trump — not least for those who serve him. This month offered the extraordinary spectacle of the United States ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, rebuffing Trump over the new American Embassy that the president had described as being in an “off location” and costing $1.2 billion. It didn’t “cost the U.S. taxpayer a cent,” Johnson retorted. Trump was really looking for a reason to cancel a British trip that would have provoked protests. It has come to this: an American president who’s unwelcome in London!
The unthinkable is now commonplace. Perhaps that’s what Trump wanted above all: to shake up Western complacency over how the world could, and could not, be run. That’s not a bad thing. The anger he intuited among the losers from globalization was real. His words have been worse than his deeds. The global economy is purring. The terrorists of the Islamic State have taken a devastating blow. In a best-case scenario, his wild North Korean threats are just a bad-cop show.
But something terrible, and perhaps irreparable, has happened. The idea of America has been sullied. It has fallen victim to Trump’s untruth, indecency, racism and contempt for the values without which American greatness is inconceivable. The president is at home with despots because he sees himself in them.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington, told me: “I cannot explain to my 13-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States, that for her, President Trump should be the symbol of the values we stand for: human dignity, personal freedom and so on. A fundamental anchor has been lost.”
The disarray Trump has engendered reflects the degree to which he has turned the meaning of the word “America” on its head. He has empowered bigots, thugs, bullies, racists, nationalists and nativists the world over.
In Israel, I asked Hannah Pollin-Galay, a senior lecturer in Yiddish literature at Tel Aviv University, what she thought of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. “It destroyed hope on both sides,” she said. “It gives right-wing nationalists the stage and sense they are right. Look! The rightist strategy works. You are rewarded for not listening to the Palestinians, for not sharing holy ground. That is disastrous, the most dangerous thing imaginable.”
Gramsci thought the perilous interregnum between world orders was a time of “the most varied morbid symptoms.” Trump’s second year will show whether those he has unleashed, and nurses within himself, can still be contained short of what he calls “fire and fury.”