We are living at a time when the world’s most powerful man promises a withdrawal of American troops from Syria, then just days later announces new military strikes in that shattered country. He brags about his ability to fire “nice, new, smart missiles,” words his own administration then claims does not refer to specific actions. He makes crude use of the Syrian poison gas tragedy to influence domestic political opinion and create confusion overseas.
Whether or not the United States ultimately decides to intervene or not, Donald Trump has this week left his own citizens and advisers in the dark, as well as the country’s international partners, who for decades have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.
Transatlantic relations and American ties to other allies have survived diplomatic crises and differences of opinion in the past. But this kind of permanent provocation goes beyond momentary blips: it will cause long-term damage to these alliances.
Trump's decision-making on international crises and on world trade is driven by his own short-term advantage.
Mr. Trump’s constant zigzags are squandering trust carefully established over many years. The US leader is fueling a kind of chronic bewilderment, for which no adequate term yet exists. His threats and tantrums are symptoms of the profound disorientation of his government. His Syrian policy is a perfect illustration of this, too: American withdrawal might be reckless, and eagerly awaited by Iran, Russia and Turkey, but at least that decision would be a consistent one.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump severely criticized American military interventions overseas. His “America First” approach is opposed to any thought of the country making sacrifices or acting in the broad international interest.
But Mr. Trump wants everything at the same time: the applause of opponents of military action and the admiration of its supporters, who crave a leader who conducts foreign policy with an iron fist. Those two things simply do not go together, especially not if, like Mr. Trump, you have no plans for the future and regularly fire any associates seeking even a modicum of continuity.
The “leader of the free world” is a thing of the past. Under Mr. Trump, the United States is becoming the leader of fear in the world, whether through his short-sighted, impulsive foreign and security policy, or through his determination to launch trade wars which endanger supply chains and even the future of the world economy.
Executive power in the United States, of course, is more highly developed than almost any other democratic country. But Mr. Trump is misusing this extraordinary power by acting on impulse rather than reason. Day after day, he puts his own interests first, just like Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
At precisely the moment when FBI investigators move in on his inner circle, the president verbally attacks Russia more aggressively than ever. The obvious conclusion is that he wants to distract from his many domestic scandals. Accusations of obstruction of justice in the investigation of Russian election interference continue to dog the president; so does the scandal surrounding his alleged relationship with a porn star, including hush money allegedly paid out by his personal lawyer.
Mr. Trump’s priorities are the defense of Republican majorities in the United States Congress in November’s mid-term elections, and his own re-election in 2020. But his approval ratings are at a historic low. Shooting from the hip appears to be his way of shoring up support among his base, whatever the cost.
Massive tax cuts have been popular with America’s business community, but in the long-term they will burden the country with enormous debts. The president’s plans for punitive tariffs are an affront to close trade partners, while Chinese retaliation could boomerang back on the US economy. Middle Eastern alliances now appear to be made with arms deals in mind, rather than any kind of long-term solution to the region’s problems. Mr. Trump’s planned summit meeting with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un is a risk as much as an opportunity: If it fails, it could shut the door on progress in that region’s nuclear conflict for the foreseeable future.
We can say a last farewell to any lingering hopes that Mr. Trump might develop a responsible, presidential outlook in office. The president is both more internationally isolated and more cocksure than he has ever been. His decision-making on international crises and on world trade is driven by his own short-term advantage. This is bad for the United States, and bad for the rest of the world.
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