The Transitions in America, the World, and the Middle East

Remarks to the McLean Foreign Policy Group

On January 20, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. He will confront a changed world. We are only two-fifths of the way through the interval between the election and the inauguration, but the ebb in deference to American global leadership is already unmistakable. It is likely irreversible.

Both the primaries and the general election paved the way for this. For two years, the American political elite shamelessly paraded its xenophobic ignorance, venality, incivility, militarism, intolerant religiosity, and smug indifference to the casualties of U.S. foreign interventions before an increasingly dismayed global audience. The net effect was to raise serious doubts about the fitness of American democracy to continue making decisions for the rest of the world. The outcome of the election has compounded these doubts.

Whatever you think of Mr. Trump, our president-elect is distinguished by no history of public service or considered foreign or domestic policy judgments, no embarrassment about pandering to popular prejudices, and no commitment to existing U.S. international relationships. Americans may be prepared to gamble that a leader with these characteristics can make our country “great again,” but — for the most part — the world is not. It is now preemptively writing down its expectations of the United States and preparing to go its own way.

In fairness to President-elect Trump, he can’t do much about this yet. He is busy putting together his team. So far, it consists of plutocrats, retired generals, right-wing propagandists, his own children and in-laws, and a mainstream Republican or two. Neither Mr. Trump nor any of his current or prospective appointees, with the notable exception of General Mattis, is known for reflection on statecraft and diplomacy. Those with experience abroad have gained it by making war on Muslims in the Middle East. None has experience with Asia, now the world’s center of economic gravity.

No one, very likely including the president-elect himself, knows where he and his team will take America and the world. We must all wait and see, hope for the best, and do what we eventually can to help the Trump administration succeed in managing our nation’s affairs. But, while we wait, international willingness to follow the United States’ lead will continue to slip.

Uncertainty allows drift, and drift alters the geometry of power. There is a sense abroad that America no longer intends to give even lip service to the rules it helped compose and that Americans will exempt ourselves from participation in collective responses to international challenges. Lack of confidence in future U.S. policies has already undercut America’s traditional preeminence in global governance. In the growing leadership vacuum, China has moved to position itself as the new global spokesman for action on climate change, further liberalization of trade and investment regimes, and reinvigoration of the world economy. Many now point to Germany as America’s successor as the exemplar and defender of democracy, human, and civil rights.

US-China military antagonism continues to grow. Fears of a global trade war are rising. Even before American populism kneecapped the TPP,1 decisions by the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand had hamstrung the muscle-bound military leg of America’s so-called “pivot to Asia.” Others, even Australia, are now visibly hedging politically, militarily, and economically against a future regional order centered on China. Japan and south Korea are preparing for diminished reliance on American military protection. Some, though not all, of these changes might be turned to U.S. advantage. But what is happening in trans-Pacific geopolitics will clearly make it harder for the incoming administration to reshape U.S. foreign relations to the benefit of American prosperity and well-being.

Similar slippage is evident in Europe. Russia has pushed back against U.S. efforts to hem it in, rejected subordination in an American-led world order, and turned southward to the Levant and eastward to China, Japan, and Korea. Ukraine’s future geopolitical orientation is hard to predict. Brexit has set Britain adrift and deprived Washington of London’s usually helpful voice in the European Union (EU). For the first time since World War II, Europeans are engaged in serious discussion of collective defense arrangements that would not depend on the United States. Turkey has accepted that it has been spurned by the EU and has made up with Russia. It is talking about associating itself somehow with Mr. Putin’s proposed Eurasian Economic Union, China, or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. European decisions about relations with Russia, West Asia, and North Africa are now often made in councils in which America is unrepresented. The Russians and Turks have begun holding peace talks with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. No Americans are involved.

This brings me to the Middle East, where the United States is currently engaged in cold wars with Iran and Russia and directly or indirectly in hot wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Some people close to the president-elect have argued that we should declare that we are at war with Islam. An expanding swath of the Muslim world is in fact being subjected to U.S. drone warfare. No one knows whether America will now pursue conflict or rapprochement with Iran, criticize or court the Saudis, halt or redouble efforts to promote violent regime change in Syria, cooperate with or oppose Russia and Turkey, or stand with or against the Kurdish enemies of the Turks.

How does the Trump administration plan to deal with Daesh (the misnamed “Islamic State”) as it loses territory and its warriors disperse? Will the United States retain or give up its longstanding insistence on resolving the Israel-Palestine problem before relocating our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? Will we embrace or distance ourselves from the potentially explosive autocracies of Egyptian President Sisi or Turkish President Erdoğan? There are a lot of policies and relationships that require urgent review and revision.

What the United States decides and does about the many issues in the Middle East is likely to determine America’s standing not just in that region but globally. U.S. policies must take account of the region’s roles in the world economy, global identity politics, and national security. And all of these are in rapid evolution. Business as usual won’t work in such an environment.

Persian Gulf and other OPEC member governments now influence but no longer determine supply levels and set prices in global energy markets. Saudi Arabia has become the swing producer in OPEC but not in world markets. The global swing producer is now a mutually competitive class of mostly small and medium-sized U.S. companies engaged in fracking. Their decisions are driven by demand levels and interest rates, not politics or government budgetary requirements.

This promises to dampen price volatility. It will not diminish the importance to global prosperity of uninterrupted flows of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf. But the fact that energy production levels are now driven by markets rather than government policies gives energy-importing countries less reason to court Middle Eastern governments. At the same time, it is forcing those governments to risk instability by attempting the radical reform of their political economies.

The risks inherent in change are exacerbated by the fact that Islam has entered a state of internecine warfare that is reminiscent of the Thirty Years’ War in Christendom four centuries ago. In some parts of the Muslim world, sectarian identity has become a matter of life or death. Who is a true Muslim? Who can be branded as an unbeliever? What consequences should or will flow from these designations? There are as many answers as there are regions in the realm of Islam, and most are bad news for those to whom they apply.

The catalyst for the spreading wars among Muslims and between them and non-Muslims was the US-engineered regime change in Iraq. Since then, additional American interventions and escalating drone warfare have helped sectarian strife to metastasize. There is a concomitant upswing in Islamist reprisals for Western attacks and perceived humiliations of Muslims in Europe, Russia, the United States, and China. Islamophobia has begun to inspire hitherto well-assimilated Muslim Americans to join sporadically in carrying out such reprisals.

Islamophobia has also created a new class of political activists, anti-Semites whose approval  of Israel’s hard-line policies toward its captive Arab populations makes them strong supporters of the Jewish state. Meanwhile, for the most part, Jews in the West remain staunchly committed to humane, universal values. Many — especially younger Jews — are repelled by the apartheid and police-state cruelties that Israel has come to exemplify. Wealthy Jewish donors continue to condition campaign contributions to politicians on their unconditional backing for Israel’s settlement policies. But popular attitudes toward Israel in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States, are increasingly unsympathetic.

Outside the West, despite much admiration for the abilities and achievements of its Jewish population, Israel is anathema. Israel’s behavior is becoming an international wedge issue on which the United States is almost completely isolated. This means there is an increasingly stark contradiction between the imperatives of U.S. domestic politics, which dictate one-sided support for Israel, and the demands of U.S. foreign relations, which require credible American efforts to secure justice for the Arab victims of Zionism. Candidate Trump addressed this contradiction by shifting from studied evenhandedness on Israel-Palestine issues to promising Israel pretty much everything it wanted, regardless of the obvious collateral damage this would do to other U.S. international interests and relationships. As president, will the master of the “art of the deal” follow this something-for-nothing approach? If so, then what?

The Middle East’s Arab Muslim inhabitants currently account for about five percent of the world’s population but half of its acts of terrorism. Their violent politics are beginning to infect other Muslims, four-fifths of whom are non-Arab. Domestic tranquility in societies as far from the Middle East as China, Europe, Russia, and the United States is hostage to events there. The panicky American reaction to 9/11 resulted in grave damage to the rule of law both in the United States and abroad, impaired the U.S. constitutional order, and eroded Americans’ civil liberties. Both our constitutional democracy and the liberal world order it did so much to create are in serious jeopardy.

To my mind, the most important questions raised by the current presidential transition have to do with likely American reactions to further incidents of Islamist terrorism in our homeland. It’s worth noting that the United States is now in a period of special vulnerability. The Obama administration is disintegrating as its policy officials whiz out the revolving door, leaving their positions vacant. It will take the Trump administration months to take hold. What would Americans do if we are attacked before Mr. Trump has built a competent government? And who would do it?

Finally, once the Trump administration has been effectively staffed, confirmed, and installed, how much weight will it put on the defense of our liberties as it defends our homeland? The United States has put in place all of the mechanisms to establish a police state but implemented only some of them. Donald Trump will shortly have the power to decide the balance between our freedoms and our security. On this, I stand with Benjamin Franklin, who said “those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” I hope our president-elect agrees.

1The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) | Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

Washington, DC

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