Trump's America: The End Of Exceptionalism
In foreign policy such rhetoric has potentially lethal consequences. Already one flashpoint has emerged over Iran’s ballistic missile tests. The administration’s rhetoric means that, intended or otherwise, it has imposed a red line on Iran. The danger is that when, rather than if, Iran conducts further missile tests, Trump will be forced to respond. The worry is that the administration lacks the toolkit, short of military action, to back up its warnings.
The precursor to this was Obama’s infamous assertion of “red lines” in Syria. The mismatch there between rhetoric and action seriously undermined American power. Trump is repeating the mistake in his mishandling of strategy in Asia. His bellicose campaign rhetoric, suggesting he would abandon America’s longstanding “One China” policy, was compounded by a phone call with the Taiwanese president in December. Trump’s sudden policy reversal back to the “One China” policy weeks later will be interpreted by Beijing as a sign of weakness. The gap between what Trump says and what he does is dangerous because it significantly increases the chance of spectacular misjudgment by a great power. If Beijing misreads US willingness to defend Japan or Taiwan or Russia misreads US willingness to honour its commitment to Nato, the result could be war.
As this article goes to press, the Trump-Russia situation has erupted into full scale chaos. Flynn’s resignation appears to have exacerbated Trump’s position rather than drawn a line under it. It seems likely that there was repeated contact between the Trump team and Russian intelligence officials. It is hard to imagine that Trump did not know about this himself. Allegations of him lying are starting to surface, he is actively seeking to divert attention from the story. There are significant echoes of Watergate. Defence Secretary Mattis’s comments to Nato mark a serious strategic change, suggesting that America’s engagement with Nato is now conditional and no longer normative — this really is the end of the post-war security order. It is of course linked to the Administration’s relationship with Russia. His comments come at exactly the moment that Russia’s new, secretly deployed cruise missile significantly increases the military threat to Nato members. The missile violates a 1987 treaty on intermediate range missiles. Putin is testing Trump’s resolve with a masterful mix of strategic threat and political exploitation.
Trump is the first US president who seems to see the destruction of the norms of international instutions as in America’s interest. A fundamental division is emerging between Europe and Washington about how the world should be organised. So far, change has yet to be made permanent, as shown by the arrival in the Baltic states of US troops and armour. But the dangers of Trump’s approach are already apparent. This is far removed from Reagan and Thatcher’s global defence of indivisible values. The danger is that “America first” will destroy US credibility as the leader of the free world. Both Beijing and Moscow are readying themselves in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to fill the power vacuum. Trump’s vision for “making America great again” will make America less exceptional and more like any other country. America and international stability will pay the price. That, surely, is language Donald Trump understands.