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Trump Forfeits Global Leadership

The president is weakening the United States for no good reason

These were the worst two weeks of Trump’s presidency. In his first trip abroad, and subsequent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, he damaged America’s global position. And the damage will likely be lasting.

Saudi Arabia

It started off well enough, with a speech in Saudi Arabia. Trump talked about how we’re all in the fight against terrorism together, and refrained from insulting his hosts with the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he previously insisted was the key to stopping jihadists. While watching, I thought it was refreshingly generic.

The president told his audience of Saudi royals and other autocratic Arab leaders that the United States was “not here to lecture,” which critics lambasted as abandoning America’s commitment to human rights. It was a rhetorical change, but not a substantive one. American presidents typically offer platitudes on human rights while continuing to back the Saudis anyway.

And that’s okay. It’s true that Saudi Arabia is incredibly repressive and supports Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Islamic ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS. But we’re locked into a partnership. The American and global economies, for better or worse, still depend on oil. Saudi Arabia provides America with valuable intelligence, most notably thwarting a 2010 plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to sneak bombs disguised as printer cartridges on cargo planes bound for the United States. And the plausible alternatives to the Saudi royal family are an ISIS-controlled state or a Syria-like chaos, both of which are substantially worse.

But then the speech took a weird turn, blaming terrorism primarily on Iran. Besides being factually incorrect — jihadists are Sunni, Iran is Shia, Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi, as are many ISIS members—it showed how easy Trump is to manipulate.

Iran is an American adversary in many areas, backing Hezbollah in Lebanon and anti-American Shia militias in Iraq, and seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the United States and American allies. But it’s a partner in other areas, most importantly against ISIS. And the Iranians have been following through on the agreement to restrict their nuclear program.

It is in America’s interests to balance Iran and Saudi Arabia, working with both against jihadists, keeping a lid on nuclear proliferation, and preventing the simmering Sunni-Shia conflict from spiraling into a region-wide interstate war. This often requires working with Arab partners to contain Iran, but not always. The Saudis, however, along with some Israelis, Americans, and other Arab governments, want the U.S. to go all-in on the Saudi side, in the vain hope Iran will capitulate.

As Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under Bush and Obama, put it, the Saudis “always want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” With considerable flattery — but no substantive concessions — the Saudis finally got an American president to publicly endorse their self-serving worldview.


The next leg of Trump’s trip went fine, at least by the exceptionally low standards to which we hold this president. He did what every American president has done for decades, extolling the U.S.-Israeli relationship, promising to help defend Israeli security, and offering platitudes about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

And Trump maintained established American policy by choosing not to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an idea critics deride as needlessly inflammatory.

He also managed three embarrassing unforced errors.

First, upon arriving, he told a gathering of Israeli officials that he “just got back from the Middle East.” In the video, you can see Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer grimace and put his hand to his forehead.

(Dermer’s on the right):

Later, at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump said “I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel’” when leaking information that could reveal the identity and location of a highly classified foreign intelligence asset in ISIS to Russia’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador.

Though legal — the president is authorized to declassify intelligence at will — the leak appeared devoid of strategic thought. It wasn’t planned in advance, the foreign partner did not give the United States permission to share, and multiple accounts say Trump was just bragging to the Russians about his access to secret information. Thomas P. Bossert, the president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, quickly left the room and called the directors of the NSA and CIA to contain the damage.

Media reports revealed the ISIS spy was Israeli, but Israel didn’t confirm nor deny, as per standard procedure. Trump, however, decided to confirm it.

When it comes to intelligence, this confirmation isn’t a big deal. The big deal was tipping off the Russians, who partner with Israel’s rival Iran, and compromising an Israeli spy, without permission, in exchange for nothing.

But what’s amazing is how unnecessary the gaffe was. The press conference was over. Reporters and staffers were milling about, when Trump grabbed everyone’s attention to confirm something the Israeli government didn’t want to confirm, while Netanyahu uncomfortably looked on.

And then there’s the oddly vapid note Trump left at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

But these were just embarrassing gaffes, not policy errors. The Netanyahu government would also fight Iran to the last American, and it appears they’re willing to put up with Trump— even his intelligence leak — for the chance of America moving in an anti-Iranian direction, and for less pressure regarding Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. The American-Israeli relationship remains strong.


Trump’s first stop in Europe was the Vatican, where he met Pope Francis. It was fairly uneventful. But then he went to a NATO meeting in Brussels.

There were cringe-worthy moments, such as when Trump pushed Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way to get to the front for a photo.

There was an awkward extended handshake with France’s newly elected president Emmanuel Macron, in which both leaders appeared to be straining. The press gave it a lot of attention, and Macron admitted he prepared in advance.

Yes, that’s the world we live in now. The President of the United States decided to transform handshakes from simple greetings and photo ops into a dominance display by jerking people back and forth. And the President of France decided to ready a counter move to send a message.

But that’s all superficial. Of much greater importance was Trump’s refusal to reiterate American support for Article 5 of the NATO charter. It’s the core of NATO — an attack on one is an attack on all — and every previous American president reaffirmed it in strong terms. Other administration officials assured allies that Trump would back Article 5, and were blindsided when he didn’t. Even worse, Trump was speaking at a ceremony commemorating the only time NATO invoked Article 5: in response to September 11th to lend support to the American invasion of Afghanistan.

This weakens NATO’s deterrent. Deterrence is about perception. In NATO’s case, Russia needs to believe the risk is too high that the United States and other members will actually treat an attack on one as an attack on all. That premise is inherently ridiculous — would we really risk nuclear annihilation over Estonia?— but the threat has been credible enough to keep the peace for 67 years and counting.

Instead, Trump devoted his speech to complaining about money. Every president asks Europe to spend more on defense, so that part’s not unique. In 2014, NATO members agreed for the first time to set a spending target, promising to devote 2% of their GDP to defense by 2024 (likely due to the resurgent threat from Russia rather than anything Obama said). It’s true that most NATO members currently fall short. Only 5 of 28 spend at least 2%. But it’s not 2024 yet.

The president didn’t seem to understand how NATO financing works. He talked about it as if it’s a club that requires members to pay dues:

And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.

No one owes anyone money. NATO is an alliance, not a protection racket. And members are not legally, or even tacitly, obligated to pay money to get Article 5 commitments. Collective defense, and the powerful deterrent that creates, is the whole point.

A more sophisticated person could make a strong argument that during the Cold War the United States subsidized European welfare states by providing the bedrock of their security. But Trump is not that person, and the Cold War has been over for a while.

If European countries spent more on defense, would the United States spend less? Would Trump cancel his proposed increases in military spending?

If NATO had not invoked Article 5 and joined the U.S. in Afghanistan, would that have saved America money?

It’s not about money. It’s about power. And America is much better off with enthusiastic allies than without.

The president continued his disastrous European trip with a G7 meeting in Sicily that further alienated allies, most notably Germany. Memos obtained by Der Spiegel describe climate discussions among the seven national leaders that sound like six people who get their information from scientists, economists and intelligence agencies talking to one who gets his from Fox and Friends, Breitbart, and InfoWars. Expressing his frustration, Macron said “now China leads.”

Trump also denounced America’s trade relationship with Germany, focusing his complaints on German cars sold in the United States. After the meeting, he kept it going on Twitter.

As with NATO, there’s a more sophisticated argument to be made here. By tying themselves to weaker economies with the euro, Germany keeps their currency artificially low, boosting exports. But, once again, Trump is not capable of making that argument.

Instead, he showed numerous ignorances:

  1. Germany doesn’t make bilateral trade deals. The EU does so as a bloc.
  2. Trade deficits aren’t inherently good or bad. If Americans want to consume more and Germans want to save more, that’s their choice, and the market will account for it.
  3. Most of the German cars sold in America are built in American factories. And Americans buy them because they like them, not because they’re artificially cheap. In many other circumstances, Trump has gushed about foreign companies investing in the U.S. But for some reason, when that’s German car makers, he thinks it’s bad.

The worst part is, once again, how unnecessary it all was. Trump damaged the U.S.-German relationship without getting anything for America in return. From intelligence cooperation to major bases providing waypoints between the United States and the Middle East, the U.S. gains considerably from its partnership with Germany.

In a speech days after the NATO and G7 meetings, Angela Merkel, Germany’s notoriously cautious Prime Minister, expressed her loss of faith in the United States:

The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over…This is what I experienced in the last few days.

I’m skeptical of conspiracy theories of Trump-Russia collusion. It’ll take concrete evidence to convince me, and I haven’t seen any yet. But Trump’s (inadvertent?) efforts to undermine the Western alliance play directly into Russia’s foreign policy strategy.

The Paris Agreement

Capping it all off, Trump returned home and announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords in a speech full of falsehoods, nonsense and acrimony. Among his inaccurate claims:

  • withdrawing would get America millions of jobs and trillions of dollars
  • the agreement is a plot to help China and India to steal America’s coal jobs
  • staying in would subject the United States to legal penalties

America’s withdrawal prompted a lot of hyperbole, but the environmental impact will be minimal. Other countries will likely adhere to their pledges — China and India are already about a decade ahead of schedule — some American states and cities will do it on their own, and economic forces will bring the United States along. Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than coal, solar and wind keep getting less expensive, nuclear keeps getting safer, and batteries continue to advance.

The agreement imposed a minimal burden on the United States. The commitments are voluntary, and the United States was on target to meet them (though Trump has been trying to change that). The net effect on jobs would likely be neutral, and could be positive — unless you think coal mining jobs are real and solar manufacturing jobs aren’t.

Though Trump described the agreement as a trick to redistribute wealth from the United States to the rest of the world, the only way it actually does that is through the Green Climate Fund. And it transfers money from all developed countries, not just the U.S., to help poor countries follow a cleaner development path than the industrialized world took.

But America’s pledge isn’t “billions and billions and billions” (yes, that’s a real quote). It’s $3 billion. Not per year. Total. That’s 0.00017% of a single year’s GDP. America’s pledge is larger than any other country’s, but falls in the middle on a per capita basis. The total, if the U.S. fulfills it, comes out to $9.41 per American.

(New York Times)

If one truly believes climate change poses zero risk, this is arguably a waste of money. If one acknowledges there’s value in reducing the likelihood of worst-case scenarios, then it’s a small price to pay, because rich countries helping poor countries is the only way to make an agreement global. But, even if it would do nothing for the climate, it is, like most foreign aid, arguably a smart, cheap way to gain influence.

The commitments are modest and voluntary, but that doesn’t mean the agreement’s worthless. It provides a forum for discussion and a method for countries to monitor each other’s progress — thereby helping to address the collective action problem and avoid free riders — and also sends a signal to businesses about the likely direction of national energy policies, allowing them to adjust. It’s not the difference between survival and extinction, but it’s not nothing either.

By pulling out, Trump didn’t doom the planet. But he did confirm Merkel’s lamentation that the United States is no longer a reliable partner. The president seems not to understand issue linkage. Screwing over international partners in one area makes it harder to get deals in others.

International Leadership

These last two weeks further proved Trump does not understand leadership in international relations, and is weakening America’s global position as a result. Even worse, it appears this misunderstanding extends to the rest of his administration.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn — hailed by commentators (including me) as the sensible “adults in the room” — tried to defend Trump’s approach to the world:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.

McMaster and Cohn present this outlook as realistic, but it’s only partially true. And the glaring omission highlights why I was wary of military and corporate leaders dominating foreign policy.

They come from cultures in which leadership means issuing orders. But in politics, both domestic and international, leadership often means getting others to voluntarily follow.

International relations is not purely a competition for advantage, but a mix of competition and cooperation. Often, the countries that do the best are those best capable of cooperating with others. It makes them all richer, and building larger, stronger coalitions allows them to out-compete nations that go it alone or have to bully and coerce to get assistance.

A great example of this is the Cold War. One reason the United States emerged victorious is it built a large international coalition of voluntary economic and military partnerships, while the Soviet Union could only foment a few revolutions and forcibly subjugate its neighbors. That proved a key component of America’s successful containment strategy.

When one state grows more powerful than others, a common response is for other states to cooperate to balance the dominant power. The United States has avoided that fate (so far) by building a rules-based international order that benefits all participants. It benefits the United States most of all, but other countries went along because the system provides peace and prosperity, and because the United States showed it would adhere to the rules.

That is what Trump is undermining. And in doing so, he’s encouraging other countries to build partnerships that exclude the United States. For example, quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership pushed Asia-Pacific countries into China’s hands. Moving away from NATO on collective defense, and from the world on addressing climate change, will do something similar.

This is hardly the end of America. The United States will remain the world’s premier military power for the foreseeable future, and will continue partnerships based on mutual interest, such as with Saudi Arabia.

But Trump is actively weakening America’s global position for no good reason. And I don’t know if we’ll ever fully get it back.



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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.