Trump is breaking the two cardinal rules of diplomacy
One key to understanding the sources of Donald Trump’s conduct is his obsession with never showing weakness and always projecting strength, no matter how much obvious failure or embarrassment is evident or how much he has inflated his sense of U.S. leverage. This helps to explain why he often appears untethered from reality, whether it is saying that wind power causes cancer, declaring his appointed Federal Reserve Chairman an “enemy” or suggesting the U.S. buy Greenland. But in the real world of global affairs, actions have consequences.
Trump’s bluster notwithstanding, there is a growing body evidence suggesting that much of the world views Trump as a paper tiger, with the result being diminished U.S. credibility, an abdication of leadership and a fraying of the world order. Most recently, we saw tiny Gibraltar ignore a U.S. demand to hold an Iranian oil tanker, releasing it from port. But there is a much larger recurring pattern of defiance that goes to the heart of the U.S. role in the world.
In the case of North Korea, Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un, now bordering on Stockholm Syndrome, has allowed Kim to call all the shots. He has proceeded to improve his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (seven rounds of tests in less than three weeks), and ignore U.S. calls for working level negotiations, while Trump dismisses all this because he received “beautiful letters” from Kim promising denuclearization.
Then there is China. In 2017 Trump overrode his own Commerce Department and dismissed sanctions that would have crippled a major IT firm, ZTE. Now, despite a wholesale U.S. demonization of Huawei, the reality of global supply chains has led Trump to keep deferring bans on the Chinese tech firm in the U.S.
More broadly, Trump keeps escalating his tariff wars against China, in the misbelief that Beijing is losing, rather than retaliating and defying him. In fact, we are witnessing mutual assured economic destruction, with ripple effects slowing the global economy. Worse, it is unclear what deal Trump wants with China; in the meantime, he is poisoning the atmosphere and feeding Chinese nationalist conspiracy theories about U.S. “containment.”
Moving from economic war toward actual war, Trump’s rogue-like rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, which by U.S. intelligence and Defense Department assessment Iran was complying with, and imposition of tough sanctions designed to either foster popular uprisings and regime change or cripple the economy leading Tehran to capitulate to U.S. demands. Instead, we have seen a defiant Iran imposing costs of its own to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump has no Plan B, and the result could escalate into war.
Venezuela is yet another case in point. Trump imposed sanctions and demanded the beleaguered socialist regime in Caracas step down. Instead, as in all the other cases, nationalist pride has led to defiance despite the horrendous humanitarian costs. Despite empty threats of military action being “an option,” it remains a stalemate.
What explains this growing pattern of U.S. miscalculation? Much of it springs from a mistaken assumption about U.S. power, in effect, that it is still 1956 and that a hegemonic U.S. can impose its will on the world.
This gross exaggeration of U.S. leverage has produced a foreign policy largely dismissive of actual diplomacy, and instead reliant on tariffs and sanctions combined with unilateral demands. This is an unspoken assumption underlying Trump’s “America First” ideology, an invitation to a Hobbesian world of all against all, with the conceit that the all-powerful U.S. will win.
There is a kernel of truth to all this. The U.S. is still far and away the world’s dominant military power. But as two decades of endless wars in the Middle East, Russia and China’s hybrid “grey zone” military actions in the Ukraine and South China Sea reveal, military power doesn’t necessarily translate into political power and influence.
One contradiction is that Trump, who for better or worse has largely kept his campaign promises, ran on ending Middle East Wars and is reluctant to deepen U.S. involvement. Thus, when Iran shot down a U.S. drone, Trump rationalized declining to retaliate by saying no U.S. citizens were hurt.
The complexities of a 21st century world, one where tech-driven geo-economics shape geopolitics and underpin a shift in wealth and power from West to East, North to South, are largely absent from U.S. calculations. Trumpians dismiss this as dreaded “globalism.” As a result, there is a trend of the world seeming to move on absent the U.S., whether it’s Japan going ahead with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the European Union pursuing trade deals with Japan, ASEAN or Mercosur or the burgeoning Sino-Russian partnership.
Two cardinal rules of diplomacy are: 1) Know you leverage, and 2) Great powers don’t bluff. Trump’s mindset and foreign policy by tweet have helped produce all the above-mentioned – and other – instances, all of which violate both rules. Yet the U.S. remains the world’s largest economy and military power, with no obvious alternative to U.S. leadership. Few would accept China, and in any event, Beijing prefers a la carte efforts to lead.
Thus, global trade, currency and geopolitical trends are increasingly starting to resemble the beggar-thy-neighbor policies and raw geopolitical competition of the 1930s. There are few foreign embassies in Washington that would dismiss the likelihood of Trump being re-elected in 2020.
It is not reassuring to project out current trends to 2024. And while history may be repeating itself, this time as farce, as Einstein defined insanity, there is little reason to repeat the same thing over again and expect different results.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, and Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Economics, 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4