One of Republicans’ favorite critiques of former President Barack Obama during his time in office was that he undermined American credibility on the world stage through his reticence to project U.S. hard power to its maximal extent.
The main and most compelling case for this critique was Obama’s 2013 warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he would face consequences if he used chemical weapons against his own citizens. Assad did so anyway, and Obama declined to follow through on the threat, leery of getting the U.S. embroiled in another messy Middle Eastern conflict or repeating the destabilizing consequences of our intervention in Libya.
“Credibility” was also bandied about as a reason why it was wrong for Obama to withdraw U.S. soldiers from Iraq and attempt to draw them down in Afghanistan as well, with right-wing hawks complaining that “the job was not done” in these countries — though of course, the ever-changing nature of “the job” had always been the fundamental problem these entanglements. Obama was likewise dinged by the right for not mustering a more forceful (that is, “credible”) response after Russia low-key invaded Ukraine, even if that threatened a direct confrontation with Russia.
Less than a year and a half into his term, President Donald Trump has done more damage to U.S. foreign policy credibility than even the right-wing bogeyman version of Obama managed to do in eight years. Yet, strangely, few of these credibility hawks seem particularly perturbed by his choices. Of course, Trump is guilty of some of the exact same sins they pin on Obama, particularly in Syria, where the U.S. is still failing to hold Assad accountable for his continued brutality. Yet ,he is also undermining our credibility in another, equally important way: by diluting our allies’ confidence that the U.S. can be relied on to uphold its commitments.
Take for example his abrupt decision on Thursday to cancel a planned summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over his country’s nuclear weapons program. The summit was the product of Trump’s own misunderstanding and rash decision-making in the first place, and not in any way coordinated with our allies or other key players in East Asia (i.e., China).
Trump’s letter to Kim announcing the cancellation was likewise uncoordinated and came as a surprise to Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and even Foggy Bottom, from which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been touting the diplomatic progress the administration was making a mere hour before the letter was published. (Welcome to the Trump State Department, Mike. It isn’t going to be any better for you than it was for Rex Tillerson.)
Right-wing pundits were quick to spin the letter as an example of Trump’s muscular, dominating, alpha-male approach to negotiation. Trump’s (ghostwritten) book, The Art of the Deal, was referenced repeatedly. Forget that namby-pamby consensus-building crap that comrade Obama trafficked in; this is how Real Men do diplomacy. North Korea responded respectfully to the letter, saying it was still interested in talking to the U.S., and now the summit may or may not be back in the cards. (Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting on Saturday, as well.)
See, say the right-wing pundits: Trump’s abusive style of negotiating works. Don’t believe the nattering naysayers of the liberal media.
Aside from the facts that the summit could still get canceled again or end in failure, that North Korea might still be playing a long game to embarrass the U.S., and that Trump probably could have achieved this turnaround without making such a dramatic gesture, there’s a glaring problem with this line of argument. In business, sure, suddenly pulling out of a deal in order to scare your counterparty into meeting your terms can work, sometimes.
Imagine, however, how you might feel if your business partner in a joint venture pulled such a stunt without asking, or even so much as warning, you about it. Would you ever trust or work with that partner again? That’s precisely what Trump did on Thursday to Moon, with whom he had met just two days before in Washington.
The South Korean government was blindsided by the announcement that the summit was canceled, and none too pleased to be treated this way by its ally. Trump’s hardball tactics have undercut Moon’s efforts at reconciliation, whereas what little enthusiasm China had for participating in sanctions against North Korea has waned. If Trump’s strategy is to pressure Kim into making a deal, he has done a fine job of alienating the regional partners he will need to apply that pressure effectively.
In the right-wing critique of Obama’s foreign policy, U.S. credibility is defined rather one-dimensionally, as the willingness to follow through on threats and to back up our words with hard power. But credibility also means keeping your promises, especially to friends and partners, which the Trump administration appears unwilling or unable to do. Is the U.S. actually committed to resolving the Korean situation diplomatically or not? Right now, nobody in Seoul can really say for sure — and that’s a big problem, because they’re the ones who will suffer and die if the crisis spirals into war.
Trump has treated our allies no better when it comes to the other item on his foreign policy agenda this year: Iran. The president withdrew the U.S. from the deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program — effectively ensuring its demise — over the objections of every other country involved in making it, including key American allies in Europe along with Russia and China. That he did so at the urging of Iran’s enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia does not inspire confidence in foreign capitals that the U.S. is committed to avoiding yet another catastrophic war in the Middle East.
Trump’s threats to U.S. credibility also include his unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and his reluctant commitment to NATO’s common defense. Needless to say, the increasingly visible web of personal and money connections between Trump and the Russian plutocracy also diminishes American credibility in obvious ways, as even the suspicion that the U.S. president might have unsavory ties to Moscow could lead other world leaders to second-guess his decisions.
But to the right, none of this matters. To them, credibility means we do what we threaten to do and nothing more, keeping our promises to allied countries only as those allies pay up or kowtow. This is in keeping with the contempt for internationalism that forms a core principle of Trump’s self-centered, jingoistic ideology, which the GOP has with few exceptions wholeheartedly embraced. It is certainly what you’d expect in a foreign policy directed primarily by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who despises the United Nations, has no interest in what the rest of the world thinks, and openly favors military “solutions” in both Iran and North Korea.
For decades, the free world has operated under the assumption that the United States will act as its leader, using its might to advance not only its own interests but also those of its kindred nations and the international community writ large. Under Trump, the world is finding that we can no longer be trusted to engage in consultation, deliberation, or dialogue of any kind. Instead, we do whatever we want (or whatever he wants) with no real concern for the impact our decisions have on other countries, be they allies or adversaries.
When other countries behave this way, we have a word for it: We call them rogue states. How long will our allies put up with this behavior before they simply stop believing a word we say? And how long will it take to repair that damage after the Trump era is over?