Trump torched America’s foreign policy infrastructure. The results are becoming clear.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, visited The New York Times editorial board, and I asked him about the threat of armed conflict between his country and India over Kashmir. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over the Himalayan territory, which both countries claim, and which is mostly divided between them. India recently revoked the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the part of Kashmir it controls and put nearly seven million people there under virtual house arrest. Pakistan’s prime minister compared India’s leaders to Nazis and warned that they’ll target Pakistan next. It seems like there’s potential for humanitarian and geopolitical horror.
Khan’s answer was not comforting. “We are two big countries with very large militaries with nuclear capability and a history of conflict,” he said. “So I would not like to burden your imagination on that one, but obviously if things get worse, then things get worse.”
All over the world, things are getting worse. China appears to be weighing a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown in Hong Kong. After I spoke to Khan, hostilities between India and Pakistan ratcheted up further; on Thursday, fighting across the border in Kashmir left three Pakistani soldiers dead. (Pakistan also claimed that five Indian soldiers were killed, but India denied it.) Turkey is threatening to invade Northeast Syria to go after America’s Kurdish allies there, and it’s not clear if an American agreement meant to prevent such an incursion will hold.
North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile testing continue apace. The prospect of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine is more remote than it’s been in decades. Tensions between America and Iran keep escalating. Relations between Japan and South Korea have broken down. A Pentagon report warns that ISIS is “re-surging” in Syria. The U.K. could see food shortages if the country’s Trumpish prime minister, Boris Johnson, follows through on his promise to crash out of the European Union without an agreement in place for the aftermath. Oh, and the globe may be lurching towards recession.
To be sure, most of these crises have causes other than Trump. Even competent American administrations can’t dictate policy to other countries, particularly powerful ones like India and China. But in one flashpoint after another, the Trump administration has either failed to act appropriately, or acted in ways that have made things worse. “Almost everything they do is the wrong move,” said Susan Thornton, who until last year was the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, America’s top diplomat for Asia.
Consider Trump’s role in the Kashmir crisis. In July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmir, even suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, then stripped it of its autonomy.
Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”
At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.
Obviously, India and Pakistan still have every interest in avoiding a nuclear holocaust. China may show restraint on Hong Kong. Wary of starting a war before the 2020 election, Trump might make a deal with Iran, though probably a worse one than the Obama agreement that he jettisoned. The global economy could slow down but not seize up. We could get through the next 17 months with a world that still looks basically recognizable.
Even then, America will emerge with a desiccated diplomatic corps, strained alliances, and a tattered reputation. It will never again play the same leadership role internationally that it did before Trump.
And that’s the best-case scenario. The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego. The United States has been lucky that things have hung together as much as they have, save the odd government shutdown or white nationalist terrorist attack. But now, in foreign affairs as in the economy, the consequences of not having a functioning American administration are coming into focus. “No U.S. leadership is leaving a vacuum,” said Thornton. We’ll see what gets sucked into it.
If you’re a murderous dictator, this is a joyous time to be alive.
No one will make much of a fuss if your opposition leader is jailed, if an annoying journalist goes missing or if, as happened in Congo, a judge who displeases the dictatorial president suffers a home invasion in which goons rape his wife and daughter.
.. The U.S. has abandoned a bipartisan consensus on human rights that goes back decades.
.. I’m back from Myanmar, where leaders are finding that this is also the optimal time to commit genocide.
The army conducted a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, with soldiers throwing babies onto bonfires as they raped the mothers.
.. In the past, human rights was at least one thread of our foreign policy.
.. Trump defended Vladimir Putin for killing critics (“What? You think our country’s so innocent?”), and praised Egypt’s brutal president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for “a fantastic job.” Trump hailed the Philippines’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
.. when Trump visited Manila, he laughed as Duterte called reporters “spies” — in a country where aggressive journalism has landed people in the morgue.
.. A record number of journalists are in prison worldwide
.. Trump has met with the leaders of each of the three top jailers of journalists — China, Russia and Turkey — and as far as we know, has never raised the issue of press freedom with them.
.. “What’s completely gone is the bipartisan consensus that was a cornerstone of our foreign policy, that if you imprison journalists and restrict the media, there will be consequences,”
.. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen approvingly cited Trump’s attacks on fake news as a precedent for closing down radio stations and the much admired newspaper Cambodia Daily. After the crackdown, in November, Trump posed for a photograph with Hun Sen, flashing a thumbs-up — and Hun Sen praised the American president for his lack of interest in human rights.
.. “Your policy is being changed,” Hun Sen declared gratefully, and he lauded Trump for being “most respectful.”
.. Trump told the king of repressive Bahrain, “there won’t be strain with this administration.”
.. the government responded a few days later by killing five protesters
.. sentencing Rajab himself to five years in prison for his tweets.
.. Trump’s soft spot for authoritarianism goes way back. He has spoken sympathetically of the Chinese government’s massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, and of Saddam Hussein’s approach to counterterrorism.
.. Periodically, Trump does raise human rights issues, but only to bludgeon enemies like North Korea or Venezuela. This is so ham-handed and hypocritical that it simply diminishes American standing further.
.. approval of the United States has collapsed to a record low of 30 percent. Indeed, more people now approve of China than of the United States. Russia is just behind us.
.. “Trump has been a disaster for U.S. soft power,”
.. “He’s so hated around the world that he’s radioactive. So on those rare occasions when he does something about human rights, it only tarnishes the cause.”
.. In Myanmar, a young Rohingya man pleaded with me: “Please don’t let us be treated as animals.
Historians see in Mr. Trump’s candidacy the winding together of different strains in reactionary politics under a single banner. No reality television star has run for president before, but Mr. Trump, with his grasp of the art of notoriety, has forebears of a kind in General MacArthur and Charles A. Lindbergh, the celebrity aviator whose “America First” slogan Mr. Trump has appropriated, and in Hearst and Henry Ford, a pair of renowned and eccentric tycoons who eyed the presidency.
.. His message contains echoes of George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who sought the White House on a law-and-order platform, and of Mr. Perot and Lee A. Iacocca, modern industrialists drawn to politics and preoccupied with economic threats from Asia and Latin America.
Viewed from this angle, Mr. Trump looks less like a singular phenomenon of 2016, and more like the political equivalent of a comet that crosses the track of an American presidential campaign every few decades.
“We’ve seen everything in Trump before,” said Kevin Kruse, a political historian at Princeton, “but we’ve never seen it all together at once.”
.. He spoke approvingly of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
.. When a reporter referred to America First in an interview, Mr. Trump embraced it as a campaign catchphrase. The slogan, which dates to the 1930s, was first popularized by Lindbergh as he warned against being drawn into World War II by what he described as sinister British and Jewish interests.
.. Neera Tanden, the group’s president, said Mr. Trump was “very consistently a national socialist.”
“His signature policies are about the state that works for some groups and not for others,” she said.
.. Even some of Mr. Trump’s former opponents have begun to allow that he might be more than an accident of history.