Here’s an interview I conducted via e-mail with political scientist William Reno of Northwestern University. Prof. Reno specializes in researching conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East:
I understand you had a striking exchange in conversation with a senior African diplomat recently. What happened?
The exchange was with a former foreign minister of an East African country. We spoke several months ago while I was in his country to meet with army officers for my research on civil – military relations. Well read and well informed, he expressed distress over what he saw as the Trump Administration’s attack on the foundations of American power in the world. He compared Trump to Gorbachev. I was curious about this comparison, given that most Americans generally view Gorbachev in a positive light.
He explained that Russians know Gorbachev as the man who destroyed a superpower. He said that “Trump is your Gorbachev” because he is also destroying his country’s global power. He noted that Trump was systematically undermining the architecture of American power, such as NATO and all sorts of other arenas of cooperation that make America essential in the calculations of other countries. He pointed to people like Sebastian Gorka and took the time to find out who he and some of the other advisors actually are. His country, he explained, prefers to get advice from “reality-based professionals” and wondered how others in the American political establishment could tolerate people who are so harmful to American power.
He and other officials with whom I spoke tended to view the US as an “essential country”. They explained that countries in the region might meet to discuss common interests, but would not make a commitment until they heard from a US official. This gave the US official the opportunity to integrate US concerns in the arrangements between other countries. These guys lamented that the US has retreated from this role, and warn that the future will be made without the US.
Another official, this one of an important US ally in the region, said that the American political establishment doesn’t understand its own political system. He thought that this is a sign of rapid decline ahead. He is in a position to influence his country’s future directions in international politics, and has played an important role in interpreting the American system for his leadership. He says now his country has to hedge its bets, which means taking more seriously the need to tend to relations with other countries such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and so forth. He’s confident that his country will prosper without US power, and he tries to convince his counterparts in other countries to be realistic about this future. As a career diplomat, he hates the Trump tweets, and points to them as evidence of incompetence. This signals unreliability and weakness.
I was working in Iraq in January when Trump made his CIA speech. My friends there couldn’t believe that an American president would disrespect his own intelligence services. I was asked why the CIA and military don’t just launch a coup. They couldn’t believe that a president would begin his term with such a direct attack on the basic elements of the coercive side of American power. Several of them agreed that Trump must really be a Russian agent. That was about the time of the US dossier, which helped to feed a reflexively conspiratorial Middle Eastern political environment.
What kind of world will these other nations have to navigate with American power and influence declining?
Most likely it will be a more chaotic world. US power backs up international cooperation on a ton of big and small things; uniform standards of airport security, how many tuna can be fished out of the sea, international shipping standards, you name it. While others benefit from this cooperation, this power provides a big bonus to the US because much of it was designed with US interests in mind. The incoherence of US foreign policy, withdrawal from cooperation and erratic decision making processes creates vacuums that others will fill. This is likely to be competitive in some regions, which is not in US interest. Other countries will do things according to the standards of other regional powers that will try to order things to their advantage.
There are some Americans who may not care for the way Trump is handling US foreign policy, but who nevertheless think that the US is far too extended overseas, at least militarily, and would do well to leave a smaller footprint on the world. What would you say to them?
Military over-extension is a real problem. In places like South Korea where it’s a very good idea to keep that commitment. I would have preferred the president to keep his mouth shut about NATO commitments to places like Estonia. That weakening of commitment might save a little bit. It might encourage others to shoulder greater burdens, but it also might signal to potential adversaries that now is the time to create new facts on the ground. That’s destabilizing.
What happens if the US retreats and then is challenged? A big challenge might produce significant domestic pressure on Washington to restore the old balance. Doing that would require much more forceful action to restore deterrence. That’s a situation that is prime for miscalculation. Moscow, for example, might reasonably conclude that Trump is weak. Now is the time to change the neighborhood to its liking. Therein lies the potential for miscalculation. Even so, Trump does a lot of Russia’s work for it. Pushing away allies helps to weaken and possibly break up NATO. Little countries will have to make their peace with the big neighbor.
Over-extension in the “War on Terror” is a separate problem.The US has advisors in most every African country. This can lead to mission creep; the recent deaths of four US soldiers in Niger points to this problem. The US military is very good at killing people who need to be killed. That’s good tactics, and sometimes soldiers get killed too. But the key to making this work is tactics need to be guided by strategy. Trump’s Administration, however, likes the tactics and tells the military that the leash is off. That’s fine in some respects, but combined with the weakening of the State Department and the failure to fill appointment positions, we’re left with a strategy of tactics, and that’s actually not a strategy at all. Left to its devices, the military keeps chasing bad guys and the mission creeps. There’s no guidance, no strategic thinking. It’s bad enough that a Norwegian diplomat with whom I had lunch in an East African capital lamented that he doesn’t know who to talk to in the US embassy. Most of the experts left and no one is in charge, he said. There’s a large US contingent in that country, doing what they do well. But again, great tactics, no strategy. That’s because they have no leadership at the political level.
What do ordinary Americans who don’t follow foreign policy and international affairs not understand about what’s happening to US power in the Trump era? I’m thinking about grassroots voters who love how Trump is offending liberal elites, and, more seriously, social conservatives for whom Trump’s appointment of conservative judges covers a multitude of sins and failings.
Trump could still offend the liberal elite at the same time as having a coherent concept of American power. Judicial appointments, Obamacare–all that is domestic. The transactional elements of the foreign whatever-it-is because it isn’t a policy, drains power. Power in the world is achieved through might and the coordination of others. Might has to be leveraged and multiplied by convincing others that it is in their interest to help, or at least not oppose American power. Otherwise, the US is just a fraction of the globe’s economy and population, and others bandwagon against it whenever it makes demands on another country. That shrinks the US to its objective global minority status. Power has a lot to do with behavior; the aesthetics of power. Trump is terrible at that.
It’s early yet in the Trump administration, but can you foresee ways in which the US can begin to rebuild its power after Trump goes? Or, following the Gorbachev analogy, will the next American president be a Yeltsin figure: a president who, on foreign policy at least, will be overwhelmed by managing decline?
Political scientists should be wary of invitations to predict. It might be more productive to think in terms of several scenarios. The swamp really does exist. What are the odds that a Trump successor is just a front-man for the rent-seekers? They’ll continue to feed off Washington and convince average Americans that the political system can’t function right. Maybe some will think that we need a new political system.
Or it could be that we’re just in one phase of a repeated cycle, the prelude to a wave of reform like the Progressive Era, the New Deal and so forth. A strike on North Korea would be a game changer. There are scenarios (such as first use of nuclear weapons) that would make the US a pariah in international society. Or the US could be surprisingly effective in a conventional strike and the North Korean regime crumbles. Alongside this would be the concern whether the Commander-in-Chief has the capacity to make rational decisions that are in the national interest during such an intense event.
Or we just see a slow decline as the rest of the world learns how to live without American power. Trump is the best thing that has happened to China in quite a while. They’ll know what to do, even if the US gets its act together.
I hate those stupid “Make America Great Again” hats. I think that I fit in the category of people across the political spectrum who care about America’s power in the world. For a lot of us, alarm bells are ringing.
Readers, I will be traveling today, out to California, where I will be speaking at Pepperdine University tonight at 6:30pm on the politics of the Benedict Option. Come see me if you can. The event is free and open to the public, but you have to register here in advance. Please be patient with the slowness of approving comments today.