WASHINGTON: One moment in October captures a foreign policy in chaos: In Syria, two American F-15E warplanes bombed a military base to keep longtime North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally Turkey from taking control.
The president’s abrupt decision to withdraw about 1,000 US troops from northern Syria to Iraq and alleged attempts to coerce Ukraine for personal gain have shaken the confidence of US allies and partners during an uncertain era of geopolitical transition.
US actions in Ukraine and Syria have demoralised America’s friends and emboldened adversaries. The US and the world are less safe as a result.
Expect friends to reduce reliance on the US further as they hedge their strategic bets. Many partners have limited capacity and choices and may find the available alternatives, such as China and Russia, to be more unpalatable.
But let’s be clear, many allies now trust the US less than at any time since World War II. The damage to the country’s image and reputation will be hard to repair.
TROUBLE IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Even before the recent events came to light, the administration’s foreign policy has been refracted through the prism of domestic politics to an unprecedented degree. The White House’s alleged efforts to leverage almost US$400 million in military aid to Ukraine for dirt on a political rival reinforces this view.
Less than two decades removed from post-Soviet independence, Ukraine struggles to manage internal divisions and rebuild democracy.
The US Congress decision to launch an impeachment inquiry into the president’s actions is draining time and attention of the White House, Congress, the State Department and other parts of the government.
As the process drags into 2020, Washington will have little time to focus on alliance management.
Fine points generally fall to dedicated public servants, but leaders set the strategic direction. Without leadership, friendships drift apart. Thorny issues cannot be delegated to mid-level managers.
Yet, the president’s inner circle lacks the bandwidth to help resolve, for instance, the dispute between US allies Japan and South Korea.
Impeachment inserts a new gratuitous element of unpredictability that factors into the calculations of US friends. If the president’s decision in Syria is instructive, allies will gird themselves for a leader whose gut tells him to turn the country inward when under pressure.
US BETRAYAL OF THE KURDS
President Trump explained his decision to abandon Kurdish allies who helped take back northern Syria from Islamic State fighters by reminding that he campaigned in 2016 on ending “endless wars”.
In Trump’s worldview, national interests are narrowly defined, values are largely irrelevant, and much of what happens outside US borders are other people’s problems.
Initially slow to grasp the rapidity of the disaster he had wrought in Syria, the president defiantly tweeted, “I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”. Over 18 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Trump has been oblivious to the emerging security vacuum and the risk that America’s enemies could once again use favourable conditions to bring the fight to its doorstep.
READ: Commentary: Trump’s impeachment highly likely but don’t hold breath (yet) for conviction or removal
The abrupt decision led to the predictable collapse of a delicate truce in Northern Syria. Turkey’s ensuing assault on the Kurds claimed hundreds of lives and left at least 176,000 people homeless.
More than 100 Islamic State fighters detained by the Kurds escaped, their whereabouts unknown; the Islamic State’s ability to reconstitute itself amid the tumult has grown.
The Kurds then watched helplessly as Russia and Turkey carved up the border region. Syria’s other ally, America’s long-time adversary Iran, will also benefit from the precipitous US withdrawal.
A SILVER LINING?
Those searching for a silver lining may find it in the bipartisan condemnation of the White House’s conduct in Syria and congressional leadership’s efforts to reassure allies from Jordan to Afghanistan.
Trump still operates under constraints. Intense criticism from the president’s own party over self-dealing led him to revisit using his own hotel to host the 2020 G-7 summit.
In the near-term, France, Germany and Japan will also participate in damage control. Of course, these guardians of a rules-based order are not immune from populist temptations, nor can they afford to back blindly a US government that dismisses pan-European institutions and threatens security ties to extract short-term economic benefits.
Some like-minded friends might see American isolationism as a reason to join in defending international principles, as suggested for Asia earlier in Trump’s tenure. Big trade deals are getting inked, just not with the US.
Countries such as Australia and India, for example, may enhance cooperation to counter a more powerful China.
In the South China Sea, as Beijing asserts itself, European and Asia-Pacific countries have conducted joint patrols in defence of the global norm of freedom of navigation.
Yet, even if the differences that complicate collective action were finessed, virtually no configuration of countries would be a sufficient substitute for engaged American leadership.
The country’s military and economic strength is still unmatched, and it plays a unique convening role. Forming international coalitions to protect well-established norms will be harder, especially given that this administration often works to erode them.
As doubts grow about US commitment to treaty allies, some countries will invest more in their militaries or make temporary friendships with strange bedfellows.
Others will place a renewed premium on keeping options flexible, selectively partnering when national interests happen to align in a more multipolar world.
The hedging will also take the form of a more pragmatic engagement of China and Russia. Even a nationalist Japanese government firmly anchored in the US alliance system has taken noticeable steps to improve ties with Beijing.
America is learning the limits of its global influence under this president. Few have acceded to US demands to cut ties with Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei over security concerns.
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
There is a growing recognition that life after Trump may not mean a return to business as usual.
That could be healthy if US parties can forge a consensus around engaged US leadership in the world focused on diplomacy, alliances and the power of the country’s example as key pillars.
America’s partners will be watching the impeachment process and presidential elections for clues to see if the principal architect of today’s international system is intent on further unraveling.
But they aren’t waiting to see if Trump’s brand of diplomacy is a passing phase. Restoring US allies’ lost trust will be central to securing a safer, more prosperous world.
That process will take a number of years, if not decades or more, and will test anew America’s remarkable capacity for self-renewal.
Atman Trivedi is a managing director at Hills & Company, International Consultants and an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum. Santiago Herdoiza is a research associate at the same firm. This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.