Donald Trump has sounded America’s global retreat

Russia and China will be the big winners from the end of US leadership

Philip Stephens

The guiding assumptions of modern American foreign policy were set out in a document written in 1950 for president Harry Truman. NSC-68 as it was called (the paper was prepared at the National Security Council) was Washington’s answer to Soviet communism. At its core was a belief that US national interests were best pursued through international leadership. This is the foundation stone to which Donald Trump has taken a sledgehammer.

Much of NSC-68 focused on countering the military threat from the Soviet Union. Signed off by Truman at the start of the Korean war, it was the basis for a rapid build-up in US defence spending. But mindful of how the national mood could turn to isolationism, it also aimed to quash the idea that America could retreat again into its own hemisphere.

Thus: “Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. It therefore rejects the concept of isolation and affirms the necessity of our positive participation in the world community.” Here was the strategic rationale, lasting beyond the cold war, that enmeshed the US in the fabric of what we call the west.

When today’s US diplomats remark they expect Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take great care in preparing for his Helsinki meeting with Donald Trump this month, they leave the next thought hanging in the air. The US president, they know, has already decided how he wants to spend the time immediately preceding the encounter. He intends to be hitting a golf ball in Scotland.

If the only concern was Mr Trump’s preference for watching Fox News over reading anything resembling an official policy brief, it would be manageable. After all, Ronald Reagan stole time at international meetings to watch videos of old Hollywood westerns. But Helsinki will follow on the heels of a Nato summit in Brussels. The fear among diplomats, US as well as European, is of a rerun in Brussels of the angry exchanges at the G7 meeting in Canada.

A shouting match with America’s allies might then be followed by a day of backslapping with Mr Putin. The president, after all, has made plain his disdain for Nato. He says the Europeans set up the EU as part of an economic conspiracy against the US. His response to the myriad allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign has been to double up on his professed admiration for Mr Putin.

The mistake made by the rest of us has been to imagine that Mr Trump could somehow be managed through his presidency — that the ignorance and prejudice that inform his worldview could be sidestepped and softened. With enough teeth-gritting indulgence and flattery, the argument has run, the president could be kept within boundaries. Yes, he wanted to shake things up, but to tilt them to US advantage rather than to bring the house down.

The evidence is increasingly otherwise. The more persuasive explanation of the US president’s behaviour is that he simply does not accept the assumptions made by the authors of NSC-68 about global leadership, alliances and international institutions. Instead his instincts say that, as the world’s most powerful nation, the US is better off setting its own, bilateral, terms with allies and adversaries alike. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, got it right when he remarked the other day that “He [Trump] has a method and is serious in his mission against an international rules-based order . . . He is on a mission against what we stand for.”

Seen through this lens, Mr Trump’s admiration for Mr Putin is readily explicable. They are both self-declared strong men. They share an outlook that says the prizes should go to the powerful, that multilateral institutions and rules are calculated to ensnare them, and that norms, values and what they call moralism do not have a place in the conduct of relations between states. As for the weak, well they can go hang.

This is the mindset that leads Mr Trump to tear up the Iranian nuclear accord, to suggest that Mr Putin has a point in wanting to run Russia’s near-abroad, to tell French president Emmanuel Macron France should leave the EU to do a trade deal with Washington, and to indicate he will bargain away America’s security commitments to east Asia in return for trade concessions from China’s Xi Jinping. Infusing it all is a powerful dose of manic self-delusion. Thus, against all the evidence, Mr Trump may really believe that after their recent summit in Singapore North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will give up his nuclear weapons programme.

On Mr Trump’s present course — and even his unashamedly America-first national security adviser John Bolton is showing signs of alarm at the president’s behaviour — the concept of a western order will be drained of substance and meaning. US allies, in Asia as well as Europe, will have to find other ways to safeguard their security. Some may look to China; others may think about a nuclear deterrent; Europe may understand it has to be able to defend itself.

The big winners of course are Mr Putin and Mr Xi. Their shared strategic goal has long been to put an end to the American-led order sketched out by Truman. China has bristled at the US presence in Asia; Russia wants a return in Europe to 19th-century power balancing. They could never have imagined that a US president would deliver to them such a prize.

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