Trump Creates a Leadership Vacuum on Global Affairs

When North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, Donald Trump did what he usually does when challenged…looked around for someone else to take responsibility.

For all his bluster, we now have a U.S. President who gets played by countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, while no one takes him seriously.

This situation is dangerous. But I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about it all. On the one hand, Trump’s detachment from reality coupled with his impulsiveness could lead to a series of events that would be a disaster for this country, as well as the rest of the world. But on the other hand, his inability to lead is resulting in other countries examining how they need to step up to the plate—most recently Canada.

I know those who think the United States should dominate every corner of the globe to pursue our own national interests will hate this, but that is actually a good thing. I’m old enough to remember when the neocons of the Bush/Cheney era were dreaming of a “Pax Americana” where this country was the sole superpower and could position itself as the next great empire. We had a taste of just how dangerous (and ineffective) that kind of thinking can be.

The idea of this country being a leader on global affairs, but via partnership rather than dominance, was something Obama articulated pretty regularly. Here he is talking about that with Jeffrey Goldberg.

If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me…

Part of his mission as president, Obama explained, is to spur other countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the U.S. to lead. The defense of the liberal international order against jihadist terror, Russian adventurism, and Chinese bullying depends in part, he believes, on the willingness of other nations to share the burden with the U.S. This is why the controversy surrounding the assertion—made by an anonymous administration official to The New Yorker during the Libya crisis of 2011—that his policy consisted of “leading from behind” perturbed him. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told me. “Sometimes we’re going to get what we want precisely because we are sharing in the agenda…

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

During the Bush years, other parts of the world were beginning to discuss the idea of multipolarity.

Well before the second Gulf War, China, Russia and France had voiced preferences for multi-polarism, in which American leadership is replaced by negotiation among regional power centers, among them North America. The Iraq war may have tipped the balance so that it favors the multi-polarists. If the United States cannot be trusted to take the interests of allies and collaborators into account in its strategic policy, these governments will seek to retrench, moving to gain as much control as possible over their regions, so that they can exert a veto on American interventions into them. Although each regional power center has its own independent interests, they all have a shared interest in fending off American dictation and, therefore, constitute an incipient defensive alliance.

The approach of President Obama for eight years meant that kind of defensive approach to the United States was no longer necessary. He even addressed the idea of an increasingly multipolar environment himself. Here’s a quote from an interview with David Remnick:

I do think that part of effective diplomacy, part of America maintaining its influence in a world in which we remain the one indispensable power, but in which you’ve got a much more multipolar environment, is for other people to know that we understand their stories as well, and that we can see how they have come to certain conclusions or understandings about their history, their economies, the conflicts they’ve suffered. Because, if they think we understand their frame of reference, then they’re more likely to listen to us and to work with us.

At least at this point, Trump doesn’t seem interested in the kind of military adventurism we saw during the Bush years. The rise of a more multipolar world during his presidency might be necessitated more by the vacuum of leadership than a threat. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.