The slow-motion implosion of the White House has, in an odd way, facilitated Donald Trump's goal of reorienting America inward. A progression of presidential scandals, punctuated by the occasional assault on democratic institutions, have replaced the ...
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The slow-motion implosion of the White House has, in an odd way, facilitated Donald Trump’s goal of reorienting America inward. A progression of presidential scandals, punctuated by the occasional assault on democratic institutions, have replaced the regular course of civic life in the United States, monopolizing the national consciousness. While diplomatic fires burn in North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, China, and Europe, the American political and media class can hardly look away from the inferno in its own backyard. Foreign-policy analyst Ian Bremmer has warned that the world, absent U.S. hegemony, is slipping into a “geopolitical recession.”
America’s shrinking profile is, in part, by design. Trump, who has frequently raged at foreign leaders and international institutions for exploiting American largesse, began with a Twitter bender threatening to tear up the nuclear accord with Iran (“brutal and corrupt”), cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, (“why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”) annihilate North Korea with nuclear weapons (“my button works!”), and pull financial support from Pakistan (“they have given us nothing but lies & deceit”). A day after criticizing Islamabad, Pakistan’s central bank announced that it would be replacing the dollar with the yuan, putting its faith in China going forward. On Thursday, the Trump administration doubled down, announcing a freeze on nearly all security aid to Pakistan, worth some $255 million.
The suspension in State Department funds follows similar moves by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who cautioned last month that the U.S. would be “taking names” of supposed allies who failed to support Trump’s foreign policy. When the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to censure the U.S. for its decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, she announced the U.S. would slash its budget obligations to the U.N. by more than $285 million. “We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked,” read Haley’s released statement. “This historic reduction in spending—in addition to many other moves toward a more efficient and accountable U.N.—is a big step in the right direction.”
Some analysts perceive an internal strategy at work. Slashing foreign aid, as much as it upsets the liberal establishment, is generally supported by public polling. While it accounts for only about 1 percent of annual spending, slimming the $50 billion budget is an easy win for an administration in need of concrete victories. To international observers, however, the administration’s moves are more madness than method. “Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible,” Pakistani officials said on Tuesday, adding that Trump “struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations.” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said that Palestinians, who received $260 million of bilateral aid from the U.S. in 2016, would “not be blackmailed” and that Trump had “sabotaged our search for peace, freedom, and justice.”
This eruption of frustration follows a year that has seen global leaders attempt to decipher the Trump Doctrine—if such a thing can be said to exist—with a mix of frustration, befuddlement, and, in the case of new allies like Saudi Arabia, satisfaction. There have been moments of abject surreality, such as when Trump was photographed clutching a celestially glowing orb in Riyadh; or awkwardly grasping Vladimir Putin’s underarm in Hamburg; or clutching British Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand in Washington, sending body-language experts into exquisite overdrive. But the overarching mood of the international community is one of fear. In private, reports Susan B. Glasser for Politico, foreign governments have been alarmed by Trump’s disregard for accepted dictums, traditions, and relationships. He reportedly attacked NATO allies at a dinner in Brussels, demanding states pay more towards its costs, a grievance expressed in more muted terms by his predecessors. Ahead of Angela Merkel’s visit to Washington, Trump tweeted that Berlin “owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” German officials shot back that Trump did not understand how NATO’s finances work. East Asian allies struggled to understand why Trump would pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact designed to counter and contain China, when his putative goal was to achieve the opposite. South American leaders reportedly quaked as it dawned on them that Trump’s rumblings about a “military option” in Venezuela were serious.
Glasser goes on:
Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent,” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States. That experience is no anomaly. “If only I had a nickel for every time a foreign leader has asked me what the hell is going on in Washington this year . . . ” says Richard Haass, a Republican who served in senior roles for both Presidents Bush and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Hopes that Trumpian theatrics are merely a front, contained by the sensible, restrained troika of John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and James Mattis seem to have withered. Despite the media focus on Kelly’s military discipline and McMaster’s scholasticism, the president has disregarded much of their advice on issues spanning from Israel to refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. “It’s the first time, maybe in history, key advisers have gone into the administration to stop the president, not to enable him,” Brookings scholar Thomas Wright told Glasser. Tales of animosity and infighting, meanwhile, continue to spill out from the White House into the public domain. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, repeatedly said to be on the cusp of dismissal, has not personally denied that he called the president a “fucking moron,” while Gary Cohn was recently reported to have mocked Trump as “dumb as shit.” On Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers threatened legal action against former chief strategist Steve Bannon after he allegedly told author Michael Wolff that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians during the election campaign was “treasonous.” Robert Mueller, the F.B.I.’s special prosecutor, is “going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” he reportedly said.
As the Trump administration begins its second year, the president’s allies seem hopeful that his famed volatility can be put to good use—terrifying North Korea, browbeating Pakistan, pressuring China. But the Madman Theory of diplomacy requires that the man at its center is not actually insane. What we know of Trump’s White House suggests quite the opposite. And even if Trump was rational enough to pull it off, there’s little evidence that the American public—to say nothing of the international community—can stomach such provocations in the long-term. It’s a lesson that President Richard Nixon learned, and accepted, to his consternation, but one that may be too late for Trump.
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