How nations are starting to behave as if the United States isn’t there anymore.
When U.S. President Donald Trump offered to mediate the decades-old Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan late last month, he wasn’t attempting anything all that new for modern American presidents. U.S. leaders have sought to play arbitrator-in-chief in global affairs going back to Teddy Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
The difference was that Trump botched the effort in the most ham-handed way—and ended up seriously exacerbating tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations when, a little more than a week later, an incensed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made clear that not only would there be no talks, he was formally annexing Kashmir.
It’s not only that Trump flagrantly misrepresented Modi’s position and humiliated the Indian leader by saying—to the cameras and to the delighted surprise of visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan—that Modi had asked him to mediate. (No Indian prime minister, especially a nationalist like Modi, has ever consented to international mediation over Kashmir, which India regards as its own province.) What was most obvious to observers was that Trump’s blundering, casual comments about one of the most complex issues in South Asia were directed toward a single end—inducing Pakistan to help the United States withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan—and that he likely knows little about Kashmir except that people occasionally wear it. “I honestly don’t think Trump has the slightest idea of what he’s talking about,” tweeted Shashi Tharoor, a former senior United Nations official and now a legislator from the Indian National Congress Party.
This has become an all-too-persistent pattern. Other nations are increasingly going their own way as it becomes clear that the Trump administration has only one consuming interest—its own—and no desire to even discover what anyone else’s interests might be. We’ve seen it in East Asia, with Trump ignoring regional threats from North Korea’s new missile tests and taking little part in the recent uproar between Japan and South Korea—precisely the sort of spat a more credible Washington has prevented in the past. We’ve seen it as other nations declined to join a U.S.-led tanker protection force in the Persian Gulf, though the United Kingdom, under new Trump-friendly Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may sign on. Trump’s philosophy of “America First” has become, in practice, something more: America Only.
And after two and a half years, this attitude has become more than a mere annoyance: It is beginning to change national behavior around the world. Nations are starting to act almost as if the United States isn’t there—or if it is, mainly as a hindrance.
It has become too optimistic to say—as many pundits have been saying almost since Trump was inaugurated—that a crisis of U.S. credibility exists. That’s what we heard in recent months when Trump tried to make a lone case against Iran, or to enlist other nations (also unsuccessfully) against China’s tech giant, Huawei. Now we seem to be way beyond the crisis, and the settled results are in: In many critical regions around the world, U.S. credibility is pretty much shot.
Until now, leaders like Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have assiduously sought to stroke Trump’s ego—in Abe’s case even, at least according to Trump, nominating the U.S. president for a Nobel Peace Prize—only to find their loyalty is not returned. Now they are calculating that Trump could even win reelection against a weak Democratic 2020 field led by former Vice President Joe Biden. And that means making long-term plans while factoring out any reliance on Washington. It’s an obvious trade-off: You ignore us, we’ll ignore you.
Trump “has a transactional approach to international relations, in which there is little regard for historic allies or even traditional enemies. It is all about getting headlines in U.S. media that might endear Trump to his base at home,” said former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani. “Trump’s comments during Imran Khan’s visit had only one purpose: to get Pakistani help in securing a deal with the Taliban for a U.S. military withdrawal before the 2020 elections. His comments annoyed India, led Prime Minister Modi to expedite integration of Kashmir, and did little to get what Trump wants in Afghanistan.”
Contrast Trump’s cavalier approach with, for example, Roosevelt’s deep study of East Asia and power balances in the region—he presciently predicted Japan would become the dominant power—which led him to negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth between Japan and Russia. Or Richard Nixon’s masterful realignment with China during the Cold War. Or Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s deep dives into Israeli-Palestinian issues at Camp David, respectively in 1978 and 2000. All these highly intensive efforts were intended to further U.S. interests—but also the world’s, at least as they were presented to the outside.
Trump makes no such pretense. The ongoing row between Japan and South Korea is especially illustrative. For decades, the dominant U.S. role in stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region has kept the old enmity between these two countries—which dates from long before World War II—at a low simmer. As recently as President Barack Obama’s administration, Washington held regular trilateral talks at the deputy secretary level to maintain this role, said Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Those efforts have been largely discontinued.
“Under previous administrations of whatever political stripe, the credibility of the U.S. commitment—and vigorous arm-twisting when required—tended to keep Japan-South Korean spats within bounds,” said Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s periodic questioning of the U.S. strategic posture and his general unpredictability have increased hedging behavior.”
Minus a strong U.S. presence, Japan is acting more aggressively than it has in many decades. Earlier this month, Tokyo abruptly removed most-favored-nation status from Seoul over lingering issues dating from Japan’s forced-labor and forced-prostitution practices during the war, after a South Korean court ordered that Japanese firms must compensate wartime victims.
Trump, in approaching the region, has focused almost entirely on the U.S. trade relationship with China, and he’s also made plain that his main interest in containing North Korea is to keep it from developing a long-range ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear weapon to U.S. shores. He dismissed new shorter-range missiles tested by Pyongyang as “very standard” when the evidence was anything but, and the missiles pose a threat to Japan, South Korea, and other nations in the region. Though there appears to be almost no progress more than a year after his initial summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—even as the latter ratchets up threats to his neighbors—Trump has also continued to make the issue an entirely personal one resting on his affectionate relationship with Kim, saying Friday: “I think we’ll have another meeting. He wrote a beautiful three-page letter right from top to bottom, a really beautiful letter.”
The president has talked of little else. Indeed, there is a strange disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric about China and that of his new defense secretary, Mark Esper, who on his tour of the Asia-Pacific region this week called for new ground-based U.S. missiles to be deployed and declared that China is “weaponizing the global commons, using predatory economics and debt-for-sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property.” Trump deserted the “global commons” in East Asia at the start of his presidency when he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation pact intended to pressure China on just such issues.
Trump has even declined to address human rights issues in Hong Kong as protests rage there—since it might get in the way of his bilateral trade agenda. And here he also undercuts some within his own administration.
“The hope of some members of the administration, who speak of a free and open Indo-Pacific, has been that the region’s market democracies would naturally see their interests vis-à-vis China as aligned, so that even if the U.S. retrenched a bit, the allies and partners would close ranks overall,” said Patrick. “But Trump himself makes that scenario unlikely, particularly since his repudiation of TPP means that there is little economic counterweight to China’s own gravitational pull, which [South Korea] seems particularly susceptible to.”
Said Cha: “He’s not embedding his approach to East Asia in any broader framework other than trade talks with China.”
Trump’s own personal agenda, in other words. And so it goes for the rest of the world.