In the wake of President Donald Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric last year about a potential nuclear war, North and South Korea are making surprising gestures of goodwill, trying to open up lines of direct communication to sidestep the belligerence of the American leader. In his New Year’s message, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un expressed hope for a “peaceful resolution with our southern borders” and suggested that his country was open to South Korea’s offer to participate in the Olympics. In response, by South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his government agencies “to quickly come up with follow-up measures for the speedy restoration of South–North Korean dialogue and realize the North Korean delegation’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics.”
The New York Times wrote on Monday that Kim, “perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea,” employed this “canny new strategy ... in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.” The response from Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, suggested Kim’s strategy was working:
Trump, meanwhile, first took credit for these diplomatic developments on the Korean peninsula and reiterated his mocking nickname for Kim.
Then, on Tuesday night, he returned to his apocalyptic rhetoric:
The unfolding Korean drama fits a popular narrative lately that the United States is in global retreat. Trump’s instinctive isolationism, even if tempered by the internationalism of some of his staff, allegedly is causing American allies to chart a more independent path. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos articulated the idea thus:
Under the banner of “America First,” President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad. On his third day in office, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation trade deal designed by the United States as a counterweight to a rising China. To allies in Asia, the withdrawal damaged America’s credibility.
Arguing that America under Trump is “retreating from the front,” Osnos suggested that the Chinese government was stepping up its global commitments to capitalize on the uncertainty created by Trump and to accelerate China’s rise as a global power. Surveying Trump’s first year in office, Mark Landler wrote at The New York Times, “Above all, Mr. Trump has transformed the world’s view of the United States from a reliable anchor of the liberal, rules-based international order into something more inward-looking and unpredictable.”
The U.S. is not in retreat under Trump. Rather, it is following a much more dangerous course: eschewing diplomacy, forswearing ideals of democracy and human rights, disdaining its own allies, and cozying up to autocrats—all while trying to retain its hegemonic power through military might alone. Trump’s America is a rogue superpower.
The narrative of a withdrawn America ignores the crucial fact that Trump is making the United States much more aggressive abroad. Trump has raised the specter of nuclear war with North Korea, threatening to rain down “fire and fury.” As Newsweek reported, “U.S. air strikes aimed at countering extremist organizations in Africa and the Middle East more than doubled under President Donald Trump.” The Trump administration has also approved arms sales to the Ukraine, a move likely to provoke Russia. Trump is also escalating on the ground in Afghanistan, where he is sending thousands more troops. The intractability of the Afghan problem has led Trump to initiate a war of words with the government of Pakistan, a longstanding American ally:
He broadened his complaints on Tuesday night to encompass “many other countries,” though notably focused on another favorite Republican target:
Trump’s foreign policy is an incoherent stew in which the president’s “America First” ideology clashes with the hawkish doctrine of key national security figures like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster. While Trump rants about the world taking advantage of America, many foreign policy decisions are being made by staffers who share the same neoconservative tendency of the George W. Bush administration, using the military rather than diplomacy as the major instrument of statecraft. What distinguishes Trumpism is that this militarist foreign policy is mostly shorn of Bushian rhetoric about promoting democracy around the world.
The militarist faction of the Trump administration is all the more powerful because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has turned out to be extraordinarily weak, following Trump’s anti-government agenda by gutting the State Department but receiving no measurable sway over the president in return. Normally, the State Department would serve as a moderating force on the Pentagon’s instinctive search for military solutions. But with Tillerson sidelined—and reportedly in a “death struggle” with McMaster—the military wing of the government is now running foreign policy without check.
The ideological dispute between Trump and his staff is further complicated by a third factor: the friendliness of Trump and his family to regimes that promise personal enrichment. As Osnos observes, Trump has softened his harsh earlier rhetoric of China as a trade rival and civilizational threat, instead pursuing collegial relations with President Xi Jinping—possibly at the urging of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “During the transition, Kushner dined with Chinese business executives while the Kushner Companies was seeking their investment in a Manhattan property,” Osnos wrote. These talks, along with other overtures between Kushner’s family and the Chinese government, only ended after they received unfriendly public scrutiny. The murky role that Trump and Kushner family business interests play in guiding policy make Trump-era diplomacy seem even more unpredictable.
In Politico, Susan B. Glasser provided the best recent analysis of Trump’s foreign policy, emphasizing the incoherence of various factions:
Trump’s national security team and his allies are engaged in a silent conspiracy of sorts to guide and constrain him. America’s enemies in China and Russia have taken their measure of the man and are preparing to test him more decisively than they have yet ventured. Opportunists in the Middle East and elsewhere are taking what they can get. War talk with North Korea grows ever louder. And in Washington, the America Firsters have been purged from the White House staff—but not from the Oval Office itself.
Given the crudeness of Trump’s diplomacy, it’s not surprising that longstanding allies like South Korea and Germany are now distancing themselves from the United States. Nor is it unexpected that China thinks it can supplant America in some ways (though it’s unlikely that China will be a truly global power for many decades to come). These responses are logical, and in some cases welcome. But the question is not whether America is in retreat; it’s whether these nations can effectively check Trump’s belligerence and pursue global stability apart from the United States For there’s little dispute that Trump has turned America into a destabilizing force in the world. Are other countries up to the task of quarantining it?