Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Sailing stormy waters with an erratic hand at the helm

Looking around the globe these days, I’m worried.

I’m worried that we are entering what is likely to be the most dangerous, unstable era in international relations in the last 80 years. And yes, it’s worth noting that 75 years ago today, that previous era of instability culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor that pushed us into a second world war.

The stable, international order constructed in the wake of that war has begun to crumble.  Globalism has lost favor; the forces of nationalism are rising. Confidence in national and global institutions is collapsing, and as that confidence erodes, people around the world have begun to put their faith and confidence in leaders of another sort, leaders less interested in values such as compromise and negotiation and integration, and who promise strength through confrontation and isolation and separation.

We have witnessed this sentiment bubbling up around the world for several years now. In western Europe, in eastern Europe, in places such as Poland and Hungary. In the cult of personality built around Vladimir Putin in Russia. In the Philippines, with the election of strongman Rodrigo Duterte. The rise of fundamentalist Islam. The rise of authoritarian leadership in Turkey, where democracy is fading quickly. In China, with an assertive and increasingly nationalistic leadership. In the Brexit vote.  Most recently in the vote in Italy, and the widespread disenchantment with the European Union.

We’ve seen it, unfortunately, in the results of last month’s election here in the United States as well.

As history reminds us, the danger comes when these competing expressions of nationalism begin to bump up against each other, say in the South China Sea, or the Korean Peninsula, or in Ukraine or the Baltic States. Or these days, on Twitter. When passions get high, when tensions rise, an already existing atmosphere of nationalism can make it difficult for politicians to avoid confrontation and walk away and find some more peaceful way to settle disputes.

But wait, it gets worse. Not only do we find ourselves in the most dangerous era in international relations in the past 80 years, we have elected a president to lead us through these challenges who has little or no experience in foreign policy, a leader driven more by instinct than by careful consideration, and a leader who is fully in sync with the larger trends going on around the world and is more likely to compound them than mitigate them.

In times that require experience, judgment, a cool head, an ability to assess things calmly, to build trust and to build relationships, I fear those attributes are going to be in short supply. That is true not only of our president-elect, but of many of the people with whom he has surrounded himself. During the campaign, Donald Trump talked at times as if he rejected the neo-con approach to foreign policy that dominated the presidency of George W. Bush and led us into Iraq. However, to the degree that his true intentions and outlook can be determined by his personnel choices, he is in the process of populating his administration with people who make Dick Cheney look like Colin Powell.

It's still a month and a half until inauguration, and they are already picking a very public fight with China. They are committed to a far more aggressive stance toward Iran. They have signaled to Russia, which intervened in this election on Trump's behalf, that the price of adventurism has dropped significantly. And the transition process itself is looking like an amateur hour, or as a former deputy CIA director called it this week, a clown show.

Trump has reportedly skipped several if not more of the daily intelligence briefings that every president-elect receives. As of Monday, he has yet to receive any briefing at all from the State Department professionals, whom he and his staff reportedly hold in low esteem anyway. His phone calls with foreign leaders -- again, without input or even monitoring from diplomatic professionals -- have at times bordered on the bizarre.

If you were looking for a single animating philosophy behind the Trump foreign policy, it's probably the belief that the United States has been played for a sucker by its international partners. That's his attitude toward the Iran nuclear deal, and to our military alliances as well. It’s true also about trade deals with Mexico and other countries, including the Trans Pacific Partnership.  It's hard to point to any international commitment, agreement or alliance that Trump has fully embraced or endorsed.

The idea that we Americans are the patsy of the international world and global system is more than a little ironic, given that we designed the system, we lead the system, we dominate the system. The international system created in the aftermath of World War II is to a large degree the American system, and other countries no doubt find the notion that America is the victim of all this both confusing and very very worrisome.

And here’s the important part, the part that has me worried the most. We live in and benefit from the American system not just because we have the world’s strongest economy and the biggest military. Those are very important, to be sure, but they alone do not explain the extent of our global influence. That influence has grown because for the most part, we have been predictable and we have been dependable.

I don’t believe that we are viewed that way anymore.  Merely by electing Trump, we have damaged our credibility as the essential nation, the nation that is trustworthy because it is immune to the occasional case of the crazies. The erratic, confrontational operating style that Trump is already employing is only going to accelerate that loss of credibility, and once lost that reputation cannot be easily recovered.

If I were living in Latvia or Estonia or even Poland, I would have serious concerns today about whether I could depend upon the assistance of America and NATO’s Article Five, which requires mutual self defense.  If I were India or Vietnam, I’m not sure I would be willing to bet my nation's economic future on ties to the United States.

On the other hand, if I were Putin in Russia, I would see opportunity that ought to be tested.  If I were China, I would likewise see opportunity in our abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which many countries in Asia no doubt see as an American rejection of closer trade and economic cooperation with the nations of that region. And the nature of such things is that nations that feel spurned by one major power will naturally seek alignment with another.

So everything is up in the air.  American leadership is up in the air. The future of post-war international institutions is up in the air.  Nationalism is surging. Relationships are changing. Alliances that once seemed permanent are now questioned. Most of the slack within the system has disappeared, replaced by tension. And when I look to the places where we would normally look for leadership to guide us through these fraught times, I instead see people who don’t appear to understand this moment in history, who seem excited and exhilarated by the chance to dabble with big things that they do not comprehend and cannot hope to control once they begin to spiral toward trouble.



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.