By Bill Emmott
The true shape and potential consequences of the Trump administration's foreign policy have taken time to emerge. But now, in just the past three months, much more has become clear thanks to President Trump's two major set-piece summits with North Korean and Russian leaders and his determination to wage trade wars on any country with which the United States has a bilateral trade deficit.
What has emerged from the summits with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin is a mixture of the psychological and the geopolitical. The psychological element is not a total surprise: it is that Donald Trump acts with great narcissism, but also great naivety.
The geopolitical elements are, first, that the leader of the only truly global superpower is more comfortable with the idea that other great powers should have geographical spheres of influence than with the notion that the reach of the United States must extend everywhere. And, second, that he has discarded the long-standing American principle that trade should be kept subservient to the country's security interests.
We all knew that President Trump was a narcissist, a former reality TV star for whom ratings, popularity and attention are his main measures of success. What has, however, been underestimated is the degree to which this narcissism is strong enough to overcome the views and policy positions of other U.S. institutions such as the State Department, Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency. Trump is now confident enough to ignore or overrule those institutions, which in his first year looked to be able to restrain or at least channel him.
All political leaders have big egos. What is different about Trump is the way his narcissism is allied with naivety. There is nothing wrong with believing in personal diplomacy as the way to handle tough issues in international relations. The difficulty at the Singapore summit with Kim was that Trump believed so deeply in his personal impact that he was willing to let the meeting proceed without any concrete conditions or commitments.
Every week that passes confirms that North Korea feels it has no reason at all to do what Trump claims it has promised to, i.e. to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Having successfully persuaded Trump to cease his threats of military strikes, and having re-established a cooperative relationship with China, North Korea now appears to feel it has ample room to maneuver. As a leaked report to the U.N. Security Council confirmed on Aug. 3, the country is proving able to evade the economic sanctions imposed on it, which both China and Russia are anyway increasingly, if quietly, disregarding.
Such naivety in the case of North Korea may essentially merely confirm reality: namely that there is little or nothing the U.S. can do about North Korea's nuclear weapons and that China is willing to support North Korea as long as its actions do not bring risk of military conflict. In the case of Russia, however, Trump's narcissism and naivety look likely to have wider consequences.
In his summit with President Putin in Helsinki on July 16, Trump attracted the most criticism over the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. But while that matters a great deal domestically in the U.S., the more important issues internationally concern Russia's conduct in Ukraine, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. There, the consequence of Trump's policy, which may well be deliberate, will be to give Russia steadily greater freedom to act in those parts of what it considers its rightful sphere of influence.
International law and agreements matter little to the Trump administration. Nor does Russian conducts abroad, including its use of a banned chemical weapon in an attempt to assassinate a double agent in an English city and its use of its own troops to control the eastern part of Ukraine. What matters to him, it turns out, is whether Russia might prove useful in limiting America's own military burdens, especially in the Middle East.
What we are seeing is the emergence of a policy which is a quite extreme version of what 19th century German thinkers called "Realpolitik": a highly pragmatic approach that disregards such things as values, institutions, international law or even what are conventionally thought of as long-term interests.
This is why I term Trump's approach to both Kim and Putin as naive: in both cases, he has prioritized short-term, pragmatic gains over long-term goals or interests. This could mean that he simply has his own view of what America's long-term interests are. Or, it could mean that he thinks America's strategic position is much weaker than most people think it is, with the consequence that previous long-term goals and values have to be abandoned. But it may also be that he is being manipulated and outmaneuvered by Putin, who is far more experienced than he is, and by Kim, who faces a much less complex set of choices.
The consequence, nevertheless, is that America's withdrawal as an influential global power, which was already visible under President Barack Obama, is being accelerated by Trump, despite his boasts about "making America great again." Both Russia and China are gaining greater freedom as a result. This may also help a country such as Japan that aspires to make a deal with Russia over the Northern Territories, but has hitherto been restrained by its participation in U.S.-led sanctions.
Support for those sanctions seemed in the past to be a necessary price to pay for being a close ally of the United States. But Trump has shown through his use of trade tariffs that he no longer thinks allies should be treated differently from anyone else, that security interests no longer override trade policy, and that post-1945 alliances such as NATO and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, are simply pragmatic tools.
This, of course, is partly personal, based on the longstanding views of one man about trade and allies. But it is coming to feel as if it also reflects an instinctive assessment of America's diminishing power. Truly, we are in a new world.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)