What must the leaders of Russia, China, North Korea be thinking?

What must the leaders of Russia, China, North Korea be thinking?
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At the nadir of the political dysfunction in Washington, all eyes are on Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' House Democrats must insist that Robert Mueller testifies publicly Why Mueller may be fighting a public hearing on Capitol Hill MORE, the redactions throughout the more than 400 pages of the report from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' MORE, and what all this could mean for President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE. But there is a big world out there, and other world leaders are using this moment to plot new strategies and advance their interests. 9/11 was the wakeup call where we should have learned that we are vulnerable, and that our foes look for asymmetric advantages. They attack us where and when we are at our weakest.

Well, this is another asymmetric opportunity. While authoritarian leaders across the globe concentrate their power, our government is paralyzed. The Washington political class is totally absorbed in Mueller drama. The top level of our Homeland Security Department is leaderless. Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanTrump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation Iran slams US troop deployment: 'Extremely dangerous' for Middle East peace Overnight Defense: 1,500 troops heading to Mideast to counter Iran | Trump cites Iran tensions to push through Saudi arms sale | Senate confirms Army, Navy chiefs before weeklong recess MORE remains in “acting” status and now faces investigation by the Defense Department inspector general for alleged favoritism toward his former employer, Boeing, while at the Pentagon.

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Meanwhile, perhaps lost in the news this week was a laudable effort by Congress to push back on the administration and exercise its authority on foreign policy. With Republican support, Congress passed a bill to curtail American assistance to Saudi Arabia in its proxy war in Yemen, only to have the measure vetoed by President Trump. The silver lining is that Congress is making greater efforts to assert its constitutional role. But for now, the administration continues to defend illiberal leaders like Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, despite his unpunished involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah Sisi, who will likely remain in power as president in the long term thanks to a proposed constitutional change.

As all this plays out, many leaders are taking the cue to double down on asymmetric capabilities. After two love ins between President Trump and Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTrump says 'I have confidence' after past North Korea missile tests Trump aide: North Korean missile tests violated UN resolutions North Korea: Nuclear talks with US won't resume without new approach MORE, North Korea has since demanded that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoVenezuelan government, opposition to meet in Norway for talks O'Rourke: Trump 'provoking' war with Iran by sending troops to Middle East Trump aide: North Korean missile tests violated UN resolutions MORE stay out of future negotiations and bragged about testing a new tactical missile, dubbed by one commentator as a “weapon of mass embarrassment” to President Trump. Further, Kim and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds Russia's dangerous new ploy: US trading Ukraine for Venezuela Trump's rejection of the Arms Trade Treaty Is based on reality MORE plan to meet this month. That might easily become a joint rant against American sanctions, as well as an arms deal in which Russian weapons that violate the INF Treaty, now repudiated by the administration, become part of a perilous mutual research and development agreement.

In China, President Xi Jinping seems to be playing for time in trade talks as the Chinese economy slows and a summit to sign the final deal is still unscheduled. While European sentiment toward Chinese trade policies may be hardening, Italy recently became the first G-7 country to join the sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. As the United States looks inward, the alternative Chinese model becomes ever more appealing to the rest of the world. Xi may feel empowered to dig in rather than recalibrate his policy.

Rogue actors and organizations like the Islamic State are also watching the current moment in the United States. After all, terrorism is kept alive by a warped narrative that features the notion that the West is corrupt and dysfunctional. No matter how little territory the caliphate is left with, we have not yet defeated the dangerous ideas that powered its rise. In the absence of what Ronald Reagan called a “shining city on a hill,” rogue actors will keep pursuing opportunities where they are least expected.

There are perhaps two opposing metaphors for what the world is seeing. One is the catastrophic fire at Notre Dame in Paris. No one predicted it, and fire protection in the iconic cathedral was nonexistent. Fortunately, the outside structure remains, most artifacts are safe, and the rebuilding effort may be an opportunity to bring people across the world together and heal some of the frayed bonds that have been plaguing our societies.

The other is a black hole, which humanity caught a glimpse of in amazing photographs released last week. As the gloomy remains of a dead star, a black hole sucks everything in. No light escapes such a vortex. It goes without saying which metaphor is hopefully more accurate. Will we be stuck in the vortex of American politics? Or are we keeping our eyes on the outside world, as the outside world keeps its eyes on us? I worry.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.