(First published on February 16, 2019)
Quick question: Has America’s leadership and standing in the world declined as a result of Trump’s policies? Isn’t it what pundits and scholars often claim? But is it true? The answer is complicated.
Consider this: In the past two years Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Paris Accord. And the JCPOA. And the UN Commission of Human Rights. And Unesco. And NAFTA (replaced by the USMCA which sounds awfully similar to the YMCA). Publicly or privately he has flirted with the idea of quitting the WTO. And Nato. And he has already decided to quit the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
He has been tough on allies and cordial to the assumed or real foes. He is being probed for a possible collusion with the Russians to steal the 2016 presidential election. Bedlam. Ergo decline in the American moral leadership, right? Look again.
To understand what is going on we must first see where the US and the world stood right before Trump’s presidency. When President Obama ruled the world, his leadership was simultaneously a reaction to and sadly a continuation of the Bush legacy. When tragedy struck America on September 11, the under-construction unipolar world came off its hinges.
The Bush administration’s first reaction, the invasion of Afghanistan, was widely supported. The occupation was swift even though it could be argued that such an action would hardly avenge the broad daylight mass murder of around 3,000 Americans. You cannot bomb a country back to stone age if it already dwells in the stone age, after all.
Dissatisfied with the optics of it all or perhaps miscalculating the support it had in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems the Bush administration decided to settle an old score. Saddam was a constant thorn in the administration’s side which had to go. And that is where it all went horribly wrong. The UNSC was not on its side.
The administration decided to forge a coalition of the willing with its only P-5 supporter, the UK, to invade Iraq. That was the first shock to America’s moral leadership. Since I was vociferously against the idea and wrote many pieces on the subject, reading some of them reminded me of the climate at that time. I hope you also recall vividly the million marches across Europe. Poor Tony Blair was withering away before our eyes.
And as if it wasn’t enough, along came Abu Ghraib. Another shock to the American stature. What was the difference between the brutes who attacked the twin towers and the lot let loose at Abu Ghraib, they asked? I have read many accounts of what transpired, right from Bob Woodward’s works to countless others, and yet I still don’t have an idea of what exactly was the real motive behind the US invasion because as Trump has pointed out the US did not take the Iraqi oil.
The only visible result was that the invasion created an opening for increased Iranian influence in Iraq and the Arab world. Yes, the very country that Bush claimed was part of an axis of evil.
When Obama won, he was expected to turn the tide, withdraw from Iraq, and close down Gitmo. He managed to do only one of those things, but without necessary homework. Result? The Arab Spring. Consequently, the US was further sucked into the vortex it was trying to escape. More war, more mayhem. Libya, Syria, Yemen and on.
And don’t forget what Cheney had predicted. That if the US withdrew from Iraq, Pakistan would fall. We still don’t know whether it was just an insightful prediction or a threat to destabilise the only Muslim nuclear power if his hand was forced. There still does not exist any direct link with the exception of al Zarqawi’s liaison with the TTP but we know the country had to endure hell before prevailing against the terrorists.
But that was not enough. In its dying days the Bush administration broke the economy. While Obama administration did what it could to fix it, the fundamentals were so messed up that the lifeblood of the US economy ended up in the arteries of other allied countries. The new USA was not world leader, it was the world’s greatest patsy.
And now back to Trump. Without firing a single bullet, Trump has revived an old doctrine. Nixon’s Madman doctrine. What you might have failed to notice he seems to have a better grasp of the fact that threat of use of force and deterrence are only useful if actual force is not used. And say what you might through his strongman, alpha male antics he has managed to curry some favour with two of P-5 members. Russia may not trust America yet, but it trusts Trump.
Exactly the same with China. We will know where France and the UK stand once the dust of crises settles down there. But this influence is not essentially a bad thing. And while he regains some of the country’s lost influence, he shakes up the old alliance which might have taken advantage of the US in the hour of its weakness. Make no mistake.
America is getting richer by the day. And wealth coupled with military might offers the shortest path to leadership. When America first assumed the leadership of the Western bloc, it did not accomplish that by showering kisses around or exporting jobs. It did it by dropping bombs. This time it does not have to drop even a bomb. He speaks the old language of power and money that is easily understood and often respected by the world.
And let us also talk about global change. This talk of America’s decline is an illusion at best. The confusion of past 16 years only enraged the world. When Trump took over, Netanyahu was on warpath. By shifting his country’s embassy to Jerusalem and abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, he calmed Israel down and regained its trust. Who do you think is in a better position to do something about the Palestine issue? Or to denuclearise North Korea? Or negotiate a better Iran nuclear deal? Or to resolve India-Pakistan or other disputes? Obama or Trump? You cannot be helped if you think the former had a better shot.
Meanwhile, the Americanisation of the world continues unabated. Even when it propagates against America, Russia is using American arguments, not Russian language. You no longer struggle to find an English speaker on the streets of Europe, Moscow or most other parts of the world.
American cultural symbols are better known in the world today than yesterday. Trump is instantaneously recognised wherever you go. Of course, anything can happen in the future, but there is a chance that Trump ends up accomplishing exactly the opposite of what he is accused of doing.