Letter from Washington

From America First to America Alone as Trump Rages

James Astill is the Lexington columnist of The Economist and a contributor to Open
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Donald Trump retreats from the international system the US built

THERE IS A Brexit quip doing the rounds of embassies in Washington. Britain, it goes, is leaving the European Union, but America is leaving the world. This refers to the alarming rate at which President Donald Trump is ditching America’s international agreements and obligations. The international deal to bring a temporary freeze to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was, on May 8th, only the latest to go by the board. It followed Trump’s decisions last year to exit the Paris climate deal and the ambitious Trans- Pacific Partnership, even as he keeps threatening to tear up more longstanding trade pacts, including the North American Free Trade, a two-decade-old agreement that has seen a quadrupling of trade between Canada, Mexico and the US. ‘America First’, one of Trump’s mantras, is turning out to mean ‘America Alone’. The threat this represents to America’s global reputation and influence, and to the post-war trade and security system America has done so much to oversee, is large.

Whether Trump understands that, or would care if he did, is by no means clear. Slogans aside, the president has no coherent world view. The almost daily contradictions in his approach to China are evidence of that. Trump rose to power lambasting the Chinese for a litany of transgressions real and imagined, from manipulating their currency to inventing global warming as a means to destroy American industry. But then, early in his presidency, he hosted Xi Jinping at his Florida mansion, Mar-e-Lago, whereupon America’s president appears to have become so mesmerised by the Chinese leader, or perhaps flattered by Xi’s condescension of him, that Trump has ever since bent over backwards to ingratiate himself with him. Trump asked China to tighten the screws on Kim Jong-Un’s rogue regime; it appears not to have done so in any meaningful way. Trump, who has an economically-illiterate aversion to trade deficits, demanded that China reduce its deficit with the US; it has ignored him. Yet the occasional conciliatory remark from Xi, latterly concerning Trump’s efforts to boost exports to China, continues to work wonders on him.

On May 13th, the president tweeted his concern for a Chinese electronics company, ZTE, which was sanctioned by the US for breaking its embargo on selling US technology to Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. ‘President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost,’ he wrote. Anyone who had followed Trump’s fulminations against China on the campaign trail could be forgiven for thinking those lost jobs would have made him happy. Trump’s trade negotiators, dispatched to Beijing to take a tough line earlier this month, were said to be equally amazed. This is the flip-side of the madman theory of diplomacy, a celebration of unpredictability in foreign affairs first formulated to describe the approach of Richard Nixon. Authentic madmen—and in his diplomacy, at least, Trump is one—don’t actually know what they are doing.

Trump’s motivations are rarely strategic or rational, and almost always personal and emotional. They are often rooted in some imagined slight or hope of personal gratification. For example, the three deals the president has so far wrecked, including the Iran nuclear pact, were all signal achievements of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom Trump hates for being everything he is not. Obama was suave, fiercely intellectual and popular, where Trump is boorish, unintellectual and by far the most unpopular president at this stage in his term since opinion polling began. Obama also made the error of mocking Trump on occasion. Dismantling his record, climate policies, immigration reforms and all, is accordingly one of the few reliable principles—or maybe the only one—of Trump’s presidency. Yet if the policies that flow from the president’s whims and wounded pride are incoherent and haphazard, they have real-world consequences.

Take Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal, which was signed in 2015 between the Islamic Republic and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus the European Union. The deal, which committed Iran to severe but temporary restrictions on its nuclear programme in return for an end to the sanctions that were crippling its economy, was not widely loved. It may only have delayed Iran’s access to a nuclear weapon by a year or two. It also took no account of the Republic’s other bad behaviour—including its role arming proxies and fomenting war in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. That made it easier for Trump to announce that he was withdrawing America from the pact, re-imposing American sanctions on Iran and firms that do business with it, and probably thereby killing the deal altogether. The trouble is, Trump appears to have given no thought to what comes next.

Trump has almost certainly made America’s global burden bigger by launching a new multi-front confrontation with Iran that will suck his country further in the Middle East and perhaps lead to war

There is a view in Washington that he may not know what he has already done. He may think he has shaken off an onerous foreign encumbrance, while sticking it to Obama and the annoying Europeans. To the contrary, Trump has almost certainly made America’s global burden bigger, by launching a new multi-front confrontation with Iran that will suck his country further in the Middle East, and perhaps lead to war. In that case, he will soon learn the limits of America Alone. When America invaded Iraq in 2003, it had at least a few Western allies, including Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, alongside it. Almost no country, besides Israel and Saudi Arabia, supports Trump’s sabotaging of the Iran deal.

Similar fears attend another nuclear non-proliferation deal— one that Trump is trying to forge, not dissolve, with North Korea. He is due to meet the pariah state’s leader, Kim Jong-Un in Singapore on June 12th, to discuss Trump’s demand for an end to his nuclear programme. But on the basis that Kim seems unlikely to agree to that, and that Trump is desperate for his own historic deal, it seems possible to imagine this leading to a much more modest or ambiguous outcome: for example, a deal whereby, in return for a lifting of sanctions, Kim agrees to freeze the development of his programme, leaving him with a dozen or more nuclear bombs but no means to fire them at America. That would risk legitimising Kim’s existing nuclear programme, which would weaken the nuclear non-proliferation regime, in turn perhaps leading to a new global round of nuclear proliferation.

It still seems almost incredible that such monumental issues of global security are in the hands of a temperamental reality-TV star who does not read books or seem morally restrained in almost any way. How that combination will turn out may depend largely on how successful Trump’s foreign policy team is in directing or restraining him. And there is more to bad news there.

Until a few weeks ago, that team was dominated by a trio known as the ‘grown-ups’. Among the grifters, sycophants and second-raters who otherwise fill Trump’s cabinet, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser HR McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stood out. They were non-partisan, serious and admired across Washington’s yawning political divide, by Republicans and Democrats, and by diplomats and foreign governments too. They were not perfect; Tillerson, a former big oil executive, made a mess of running the State Department; Lieutenant-General McMaster tried awkwardly to ingratiate himself with the president at times. But they were serious people and the main source of reassurance for the many in America and elsewhere who worry about the proximity of Trump’s forefinger to the nuclear button.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian spies who tried to rig the election in his favour grinds on. If the Democrats take the House of Representatives at the mid-term elections due in November, the president is likely to be impeached on the back of that

TILLERSON AND GENERAL McMaster are gone now. The former fell from grace after he was reported to have referred to the commander-in-chief as a “fucking moron” (or perhaps it was after he refused several times to deny that he had done so). General McMaster was sacked in March after suffering the slow humiliation that Trump often inflicts on his employees. “Look at this guy, he’s so serious!” the president expostulated, mocking the three-star general and hero of three wars as General McMaster was giving him a security briefing last year. Trump had already let it be known among his staff that he found the general dull and prone to lecture him. There followed the inevitable slow-drip of hostile briefings, before General McMaster was sacked last month.

Of the reassuring trio, only Mattis remains; and every week brings another reminder of his importance in standing between the world and Trump’s whims. The punitive missile strike America launched, alongside Britain and France, against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad last month is an illustration of this. Trump had been immensely gratified by the praise he received after launching an earlier strike on Assad last year, in reprisal for his use of chemical weapons. When Assad repeat-offended, with a gas attack outside Damascus that was reported to have killed dozens of civilians, Trump ordered Mattis to come up with a far bigger reprisal. But the defense secretary, fearing that this could lead to an escalation of the war in Syria, potentially including conflict between America and Assad’s Russian ally, succeeded in steering Trump back to a relatively tokenistic rap across the Syrian dictator’s knuckles. It was well done. It also invited a question about Mattis’ own future. The defense secretary has hitherto been uniquely successful in maintaining his dignity and effectiveness while serving as a moderating force in Trump’s cabinet. But the president does not like to be obstructed. Every time Mattis moderates him, he risks losing a little bit of his future influence.

Trump has hired new advisers more to his taste: Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, and John Bolton, his new national security adviser. Pompeo, a former Republican congressman before Trump first picked him to lead the CIA, was previously best known for propagating conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. He is considered to have done well at the CIA, having relied on career professionals for advice and having advocated effectively on behalf of his agency in the White House. He meanwhile curried favour with the president more aggressively and publicly than any recent intelligence chief. As General McMaster’s star waned in the White House, his rose. Trump appears to like Pompeo because he is, like the president himself, feverishly partisan and sceptical about alliances, both political and geopolitical. Trump also likes his views, which are a sophisticated articulation of his own belligerent instincts. Pompeo is fixated on the perfidy of Iran, whom he has accused of offences, such as backing Al-Qaeda, that there appears to be little evidence for. He combines the belligerence of a neoconservative with the cynicism of a foreign policy realist. The fear is that instead of moderating Trump’s ill-informed and belligerent instincts, he will facilitate them.

That is not so much a fear as a certainty in Bolton’s case. There has hardly been a war, or even an idea for a war, that Trump’s new national security adviser has not championed. As an arms control tsar in the Bush administration, he was one of the main cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and he is now one of the last people in Washington who still defends that calamity. Shortly before his appointment, Bolton had written a column arguing the feasibility of a US attack on North Korea. He has for years argued for regime change in Iran—and there is no reason to suppose he has changed his view on that.

Trump is meanwhile so besieged by scandals at home that his government is becoming bogged down with fighting fires—often a couple of new conflagrations every day of the week.

The president’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who was raided by the FBI last month, is under investigation for campaign finance violations and rumoured to be a potential informant against Trump. A porn star and ex-flame of the president, Stormy Daniels, is suing him and ridiculing him in court and on late-night comedy shows. Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian spies who tried to rig the election in his favour grinds on. If the Democrats take the House of Representatives at the mid-term elections due in November, the president is likely to be impeached on the back of that. He is nonetheless unlikely to be removed from office that way, because it would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate, which is almost imaginable in America’s current hyper-partisan political environment. Even so, impeachment proceedings would put yet another dark cloud over Trump’s scandal-ridden presidency, perhaps through to the next general election, due in 2020.

This raises another fear, which few in Washington dare speak of, and almost everyone worries about. Might Trump, subconsciously or otherwise, start a war in order to divert attention from his mounting domestic troubles? Even for Trump, that seems hard to imagine. But neither is it impossible.