Is America stronger after 11 months of Donald Trump or not?
It is demonstrably weaker, mainly because of his diplomatic moves and non-moves, but also because Trump has done nothing to reduce American military commitments and a good deal to expand them. Let me enumerate:
The diplomatic front:
- Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) early in the game. The remaining negotiating partners have X-ed out the provisions the US wanted on labor and environmental protection and are preparing to proceed, without American participation. TPP was America’s ace in the Asia Pacific.
- He is withdrawing as well from the Paris Climate Change accord. That is also proceeding without the US, which will be unable to affect international deliberations on climate change unless and until it rejoins.
- He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.
- He hasn’t announced withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the negotiations on revising it are thought to be going very badly, mainly because of excessive US demands.
- He has refused to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the US interest, which is so patently obvious that the Republican-controlled Congress is making no moves to withdraw from it.
- His ill-framed appeal to the Saudis to halt financing of terrorists has precipitated a dramatic split among US allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Through his son-in-law he encouraged the Saudis to try to try to depose Lebanon’s prime minister and embargo Qatar, making the prime minister more popular than ever and shifting Doha’s allegiance to Iran.
- He has continued American support for the Saudi/Emirati war effort in Yemen, while at the same time the State Department has called for an end to the Saudi/Emirati blockade due to the humanitarian crisis there.
- His decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, undermined his own peace initiative, and obstructed the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia he hoped for.
- He has done nothing to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine.
- He initially embraced Turkey’s now President Erdogan but has watched helplessly while Turkey tarnishes its democratic credentials and drifts into the Russian orbit.
- He has also embraced other autocrats: Philippine President Duterte, China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to name only three.
- He has failed to carry the banner of American values and preferred instead transactional relationships that have so far produced nothing substantial for the US.
The military front:
- Use of drones is way up.
- So is deployment of US troops in Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, not to mention ships and planes in the Asia Pacific.
- The Islamic State, while retreating in Syria and Iraq, is advancing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are also holding their own.
- Allies are hesitating to pitch in, because the president is erratic. Japan, South Korea, and the Europeans are hedging because the US can no longer be relied on.
- The US continues to back the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
- Cyberthreats to the US, including its elections, have increased, without any counter from the administration.
- Promises that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a missile that could strike the US have gone unfulfilled, and Trump did nothing effective once it accomplished that goal.
- Military options against North Korea, which are all that Trump seems to be interested in, will bring catastrophic results not only for Koreans but also for US forces stationed there and in the region.
- Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, with no effective military or diplomatic response by the US, and Moscow continues its aggressive stance near the Baltics, in the North Sea, in the Arctic, and in the Pacific.
The diplomatic record is one of almost unmitigated failure and ineffectiveness, apart from new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The military record is more mixed: ISIS is defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but that is a victory well foreshadowed in the previous administration. It is also far from reassuring, since ISIS will now go underground and re-initiate its terrorist efforts. None of the other military pushes has done more than hold the line. Anyone who expected Trump to withdraw from excessive military commitments should be very disappointed. Anyone who expects him to be successful diplomatically without a fully staffed and empowered State Department is deluded.
The US is more absent diplomatically than present, and more present militarily than effective. We are punching well below our weight. This should be no surprise: the State Department is eviscerated and the Pentagon is exhausted. Allies are puzzled. Adversaries are taking advantage.
Where will we be after another three years of this?
I naturally agree with large parts of the Atlantic Council report on “Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region,” even if I think the title overblown. It’s more like a course correction they have recommended, but that presumably wouldn’t have satisfied the donors. I in particular agree that the US needs to return to a more activist approach on some issues in the Balkans, because EU leadership in a period of big strains on its unity and coherence has failed to resolve some key issues.
That said, I disagree with some of the specific recommendations and will try to clarify why. I also wonder why it highlights corruption and offers no recommendations to deal with it, apart from avoiding excessive reliance on “Big Men.”
A permanent US military presence
I would be prepared to consider a permanent US military presence in Southeastern Europe, but I can’t agree that “Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is ideal for the purpose.” It is not. It lacks the 10,000-foot runway that a serious US base would require, and building one would be difficult given the topography. There is also no need for one, since an F-16 doesn’t know much difference between Aviano (in northern Italy) and Bondsteel.
More important: a US base anywhere should serve US purposes, which are heavily focused on the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve got bases much closer to those theaters than Bondsteel. The Pentagon has long wanted to close Bondsteel, because it doesn’t serve US purposes well.
Nor do I think we can assume that we will always be welcome in Kosovo. Young Kosovar Albanians don’t understand why the country doesn’t have an army. NATO is starting to be seen as a barrier to getting one, and Bondsteel in particular plays looms large in that regard: some internationals don’t think Kosovo needs an army because it has a NATO presence. That won’t fly forever with the country’s citizens. Better to fix the problem than wait for them to protest.
Pursue a “historic rapprochement” with Serbia
This has long been a Belgrade talking point: Washington does not sufficiently embrace us. I’ve been hearing it every since Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls in 2000. The truth is that the US normalized relations with Serbia quickly after that, removing sanctions and instituting cooperation on a wide array of issues. I’ve never seen us do it faster.
From the American perspective, today’s barriers to a closer relationship are on the Serbian side. The Atlantic Council mentions the difficulty that Serbia’s relations with Russia pose. But that is not the only barrier. There are others: Belgrade’s restraints on the press, its failure to establish a truly independent judiciary, its increasing inclination to normalize those responsible for war crimes (and failure to prosecute people responsible for killing Albanian Americans), and its slow approach to normalizing relations with Kosovo. There has been serious backsliding on several of these issues in recent years, which makes it difficult for a US president or vice president to embrace Serbia more warmly.
Regain the United States’ reputation as an honest broker
I don’t think we’ve lost it, though I also think we are more power broker than honest broker. We just haven’t used whatever it is lately. Nothing in the report convinces me otherwise.
Bet on the region’s entrepreneurs and youth
Sure, bet on them but for what? This is the eternal recommendation of all think-tank reports when confronted with lingering problems in post-war countries. Economic development will fix it. But it won’t so long as the politics don’t allow it to happen. In all of the Balkan countries, there are too many resources under the control of political parties for normal free market capitalism to operate effectively. That needs to change, through internationally supervised privatization and liquidation. Only politicians can make that happen.
As for youth, there are a lot of indications that in several Balkan countries the past 20 years has seen ethnic tension passed on to the next generation, sometimes in more virulent forms than the last. I wouldn’t want to bet on some of the region’s youth, because they want to take the region backwards not forward.
The report is a competent analysis of many current issues in the Balkans, but it offers nothing like a new US strategy for the region. Nor is one needed. What we need to do is complete the strategy we adopted around 2000: get all the countries of the region that want to enter NATO or the EU qualified as quickly as possible and admit them to membership whenever the political winds blow in the right direction.
Donika Krasniqi of Gazeta Express asked some questions; I responded:
Q: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee said during a roundtable, which you attended as well, that the West should be more direct with the corrupt Balkan leaders by not inviting them to Washington and Brussels.
How serious do you think his remarks are and is this a new policy of the US State Department with immediate effect or it is merely an opinion expressed in a discussion panel?
A: He sounded serious to me. And I suspect that some otherwise difficult-to-explain moves, like Dodik’s cancellation of dates for referenda, might be related.
Q: How do you see the demarcation issue between Kosovo and Montenegro now that Ramush Haradinaj is in office? We saw that as soon as he took office he set up a new committee to measure the demarcation line, as the pressure from Brussels and Washington to adopt the deal continues to mount on Kosovo officials.
A: This is an issue that Ramush should have abandoned as soon as he took office. Kosovo has little to gain and a great deal to lose if it continues to resist demarcation.
Q: Mr Haradinaj seems to be a leader with his hands tied, so which do you think should be the solution? Is there any advice you would give to Mr Haradinaj?
A: My advice is to get out of this rabbit hole as quickly as possible. Kosovo has far bigger and more important issues to worry about.
Q: Serbian officials have never spared their bellicose statements towards Kosovo. Just recently, head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo Marco Djuric said that Serbs were ready to fight against Kosovo. Do you believe there could be a new conflict in the Balkans?
A: Mr. Djuric should know better. There will be no fighting for Kosovo so long as the NATO-led forces are there. I hope they will stay until complete normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including UN membership for Kosovo and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level. Djuric’s remarks make me wonder whether he is the right guy to be conducting an internal Serbian dialogue on the subject. Serbia needs introspection and realism, not fantasy and threats
The week has already been tumultuous. President Trump has
- dissed Puerto Rico by suggesting it is not worthy of the Federal assistance Texas and Florida are still getting,
- thrown the talks about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement into chaos that threatens to cause their collapse,
- decided to withdraw the US from UNESCO because we owe the organization millions while demonstrating that he does not believe in the First Amendment commitment to press freedom that is a pillar of the organization,
- continued to threaten to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while the rest of the world and his principal advisers have concluded that Tehran has met its obligations,
- issued an executive order designed to further undermine the affordability of health insurance for those Americans who need it the most,
- gotten into a spat with NATO ally Turkey that has eliminated visas for Turks to come to the US and Americans to go to Turkey, and
- prompted the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to suggest, believably, that the White House is an adult day care center without proper supervision.
Even for Trump, this is an unusual amount of unmotivated and unjustified chaos. No American administration can manage this level of random acts of spite and provocation.
A few Democrats in the House have started to think about articles of impeachment, but that is the least of Trump’s worries right now. No Republicans have demonstrated any real interest in impeachment, or even in supporting a 25th Amendment challenge to Trump’s ability to perform the functions of his office. They are simply too frightened of sinking their own boats along with his.
The world is showing a good deal of maturity in dealing with the madness in Washington. Even Kim Jung-un for now appears ready to stop at childish name calling. The Iranians have indicated they will retaliate against the US if the President decertifies their compliance. But at the same time they appear ready to maintain the nuclear deal with the Europeans. That is smart: it will wean Europe from support for the US and weaken America in its efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, making it harder once the Iran nuclear deal gets ready to expire to extend its terms.
I can’t really think of a lot more things Trump can do to weaken the US, but I’m sure he can. We are all waiting for his noon-time speech on Iran, which will enumerate a long list of its sins, but so far in the White House public affairs preparations there is no sign of anything more substantial. Trump is mostly bark and little bite. But a dog who barks enough will lose a lot of friends.
It’s Friday the 13th, but unlikely to be much worse than the days that immediately preceded it.
I prepared these speaking notes for a briefing on the Balkans today:
- The US is responsible for three peace agreements in the Balkans: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, leaving behind a web that has prevented war for more than 15 years.
- All the countries of the region have made substantial progress in political and economic reform.
- But progress has slowed and even stalled since the European recession.
- The Greek financial crisis, the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Brexit have made it doubtful that the promise of EU membership can be fulfilled any time soon.
- EU charm is not working as well as it once did, despite Mogherini’s strong statements.
- This is a problem for the US because we have been depending on Europe to carry the burden in the Balkans, with US support when needed.
- But if Brussels fails, the peace agreements could unravel, with serious consequences: heightened migration not only through but from the Balkans, growing radicalization of Balkan Muslims, and increasing Russian troublemaking near and even inside NATO.
- What is needed is mainly a diplomatic, not a military, effort to complete Balkan peace processes so that all the countries of the region can join NATO and the EU, if they wish to do so.
- This diplomatic effort could include the following:
- Recommitment with Brussels to existing Balkan borders and states, including a planned response to any scheduling of a Republika Srpska independence referendum.
- Accelerated NATO and EU membership.
- Better carrots and sticks, including expanded trade and targeted sanctions.
- Refocus aid on rule of law, particularly anti-corruption and countering extremism.
- Increased emphasis on National Guard cooperation with Serbia, Kosovo Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.
- Establish a region-wide truth and reconciliation effort.
- An enhanced effort to solve country-specific issues: Bosnia’s constitutional and electoral inadequacies, UN membership for Kosovo, Macedonia’s name.
- In addition, we need to counter Russian troublemaking by reducing Balkan dependence on Moscow’s gas, sanctioning those who finance Balkan leaders who threaten peace, beefing up our media capabilities, and consulting with Balkan governments on Russian election meddling.
- These are not expensive things, but important ones. Doing them would preserve peace and stability, avoid major costs, limit Russian troublemaking and give us a lot of secure and prosperous friends.
- NATO at a Crossroads: Next steps for the trans-Atlantic alliance | Monday, July 31 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump called into question the usefulness of today’s NATO and spoke of building a better relationship with Moscow. Would the president be prepared to go further and suggest ending NATO expansion while seeking a new security architecture that might accommodate and reduce the risk of conflict with Russia? What would be the benefits and costs of such an approach? On July 31, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” will be joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.” Torrey Taussig, pre-doctoral research fellow at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
- Stabilizing Iraq: What is the Future for Minorities? | Tuesday, August 1 | 1:30 – 3:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Following ISIS’ rule, the inclusion of minority groups will be crucial to stabilizing Iraq. Nowhere in Iraq is this initiative more essential or complex than around Mosul, with its diverse community of Christians, Yazidis, Turkoman, Shabak, and others. On August 1, the United States Institute of Peace and the Kurdistan Regional Government present a discussion of how to help Iraq’s minority groups rebuild their communities and contribute to a more secure Iraq featuring remarks by Ambassador William Taylor (ret.) of USIP, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen of the Republic of Iraq, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States.
- Justice for the Yezidis: ISIS and Crimes of Genocide | Thursday, August 3 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked the Yezidis of Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Thousands of Yezidis were massacred and many others abducted, while more than half a million fled for their lives. Three years later, the conditions that led to ISIS’ rise and genocide against the Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities have not been addressed. The successful political reconstruction of Iraq and Kurdistan depends on the ability to ensure justice and fair treatment for the region’s most vulnerable populations. On August 3, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Nathaniel Hurd of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will join Hudson Institute’s Eric B. Brown to assess how adherents of the Islamic State movement can be brought to justice for their crimes of genocide, how the safety of vulnerable minority communities can be ensured as Iraq rebuilds, and what role the United States should play in preventing genocide in the future.
- Gaza Approaching a Boiling Point? | Thursday, August 3 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Political and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are in a critical state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry and the Gulf countries’ rift with Qatar have stymied funding to the territory and exacerbated an already desperate energy crisis. In the midst of pressing humanitarian concerns, what options do Palestinians and Israelis have to help prevent renewed violence? How can the United States and the international community bring the question of Gaza back into regional deliberations and the peace process? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a discussion with Tareq Baconi of al Shabaka, Laura Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA, and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on ways to mitigate political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.