Nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula have diminished since last summer’s Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. In the run-up to this month’s Vietnam summit, Trump is acutely aware that a potential landmark deal on Kim’s complete, verifiable and permanent denuclearization would be a significant foreign policy win for him, the region and the world.
Unfortunately, that potential deal is where Trump’s foreign policy successes both start and end.
By any other measure, the president’s aggressive pursuit of nativist policies has weakened America’s global leverage, given its adversaries strategic openings and made the world a little less safe for democracy and human rights. In normal times, this would be seen as a failure of leadership and a threat to America’s fundamental values, global stature and international dominance.
These are not, however, normal times.
The Trump Doctrine is an “America First” agenda that plays well at home and sounds good on the stump. At best, it is a shortsighted and dangerous foreign policy play that ultimately creates a global leadership vacuum. It’s not surprising that America’s adversaries are dying to fill this vacuum.
This is not partisan ideology talk. It’s dollars and cents. When America retreats and withdraws, its markets retrench, its buyers look for better deals and its partners start looking for the exits.
Trump’s America is either up and leaving longstanding U.S. commitments or setting radically different and sometimes onerous terms on long-term partners for the delivery of the same — or even worse — goods and services. Those partners are open to new and different commercial, military and diplomatic relationships elsewhere. They are more open to Russian and Chinese overtures. Why buy American? Why rely exclusively on one Western supplier or questionable security guarantor? Why trust Trump?
The simple answer is, they don’t.
As a result, polls are showing that in certain disparaged NATO countries — Germany and France, for example — citizens trust China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin more than POTUS. Let that sink in for a second. European allies can’t count on America to help in times of need, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear when she said Europe could no longer “rely on the superpower of the United States.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
In the short run, these nations recognize they are entirely dependent on America as a security supplier. Political scientists call this current hard reality a path dependence on American military hardware and professional services, from interoperable weapons systems and aircraft to integrated communications infrastructure. They are locked in to American products and suppliers. But that can change over time. In fact, it already is.
Suddenly, countries that would never consider buying Brand X from another, adversarial nation are opening their arms and their markets to Chinese technology and Russian weapons systems.
If data is the lifeblood of the modern era, then 5G telecommunications infrastructure is the 21st century’s global circulatory system. Digital information courses through the world at a head-spinning pace. China’s Huawei has moved quickly to develop much of that data circulatory system. As a result, if America can’t compete and Beijing wins this race, free-flowing data will pump through a Beijing-based digital heart to feed China’s Artificial Intelligence-driven brain — giving it unparalleled insights and intelligence.
The stakes are high as heated competition for next generation digital dominance is fully under way. America’s bullying reaction and response to Huawei’s global growth may not ultimately be as effective as China’s profligate financial underwriting for Sino-systems around the world. As they say in Trump’s New York, “Money talks and BS walks.”
In the military realm, orders for America’s next-generation F-35 fighter jet and any number of other future American military systems are being either cancelled or countered. One example? Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles will find new homes in India, Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Russia is successfully courting allies, a deeply worrisome development that can be traced directly to Trump’s policies — or lack thereof.
The list of new Russian and Chinese globally underwritten projects is growing, from critical port and road infrastructure to nuclear power plants. The world does not wait for America to find its voice and provide global leadership. Two more years is a lifetime in geopolitics, and the rebalancing of power has been under way since Nov. 9, 2016, when a candidate unschooled and inexperienced in foreign policy and insensitive to its subtleties and systems won America’s presidential election.
China saw its opening. Russia grabbed its opportunity. The United States now watches agog as, one-by-one, the global chess pieces get moved and America keeps losing its partners and its pawns. What Trump has not yet realized is that foreign-policy chest beating is not chess playing.
Markos Kounalakis writes a weekly McClatchy foreign affairs column. He is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.