WASHINGTON ― History will take note of this week, and not in a good way.
This week’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, will demonstrate there is no center in world affairs, no clear first among equals, not much structure and the possibility of deadly conflict in hot spots around the planet.
President Donald Trump, the presumptive “leader of the free world,” remains casually ignorant of diplomatic affairs. His chaotic, understaffed and divided administration frightens officials in other nations.
“We can’t understand who is actually leading the U.S. government,” an official at a prominent European think tank told me. “We know Trump is president, but is the real force [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson or [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster? Or maybe it is Ivanka Trump? We don’t know.”
The president amplifies the confusion by manic tweeting, flip-flopping, verbal grandiosity and sheer (and only vaguely tactical) unpredictability. He has run hot and cold on China, Russia, North Korea, and Germany, and mostly cold on international regimes to manage trade, immigration and the environment.
It’s quite likely that others have taken his measure and concluded that the confusion masks weakness. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and master of all the dark arts of intimidation, starts with a huge advantage over the play-it-by-ear methods of Trump.
And Trump is just one of many international leaders who share a questionable worldview. With the exception of Germany’s Angela Merkel and China’s Xi Jinping, far too many heads of government today are preening, theatrical figures more interested in bellowing about national pride than in assembling what John F. Kennedy once called “the Brotherhood of Man.”
Trump didn’t start the trend of corrosive nationalism ― Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were pioneers ― but he has helped make a punchline out of the title “world leader.”
Perhaps the appearance of these grandstanders was inevitable. The Cold War put globe-spanning ideology ahead of nationalism. The post-Cold War period, after the Berlin Wall fell, was more about international commerce and banking profits than politics.
Now we are in a post-post-Cold War world of jingoism. It’s far less stable, less predictable and more worrisome, even for Americans protected by vast oceans and friendly neighbors. As Merkel lamented this week, the U.S. president looks out and sees “an arena and not a global community.”
Trump claims to like arenas. (Recall his big turn in the WWE spotlight.) But consider the many hot contests he faces heading into the G-20 summit:
Korean Peninsula: The last active volcano of the Cold War, the never-officially-ended conflict between North and South Korea has been largely ignored for decades. Now the possibility of someone over there launching a nuclear war is real, or soon will be.
This one didn’t start with Trump, but he has little or no leverage. China and Russia, the only two countries that might be able to control Kim Jong Un, are willing to give the North Korean leader a long leash to harass and distract America. They want a double “stand down” that would freeze Kim’s nuclear weapons development while beginning to unwind the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. Trump is simultaneously asking China for help on North Korea and threatening it with new trade sanctions on steel. Good luck.
South China Sea: Xi is playing the avatar of international order this week, delivering pandas to Merkel in Berlin and promising to be a force for global stability and free trade in the face of Trumpian isolationism. At the same time, with obdurate efficiency, the Chinese are militarizing the South China Sea in hopes of turning it into their own private lake. President Barack Obama sought to unite the Pacific Rim nations against China on this issue; that’s what the Trans-Pacific Partnership was about. Trump withdrew from that trade deal in one of his first moves.
Vladimir Putin: No one in modern history has been better at playing a losing hand. Russia isn’t an inspiration or model to any other nation these days, and its hopelessly corrupt and lawless economy is at the mercy of the price of oil and other commodities. But Putin is popular at home because he has pranked, punked and undermined the U.S. and other Western democracies ― the “winners” of the Cold War ― whenever and wherever he can, including, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, in the 2016 campaign.
Putin has already wrested from Trump most of what he wanted: the equal standing that Obama and Hillary Clinton refused to bestow. He doesn’t want much else except to be left alone while his hackers do their dirty cyber work. That means Trump can’t arm-twist Russia on Korea, Syria or Ukraine. If he tries, Putin can always tell CNN what really happened with those fake news stories and sites during the final weeks of the race in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Europe: In the G-20 host country of Germany, confidence that Trump will do “the right thing” in world affairs is currently at 11 percent. Much of the rest of Europe feels the same, and it was no surprise that Hamburg erupted in mass protests the moment Trump got to town. It’s a long way from Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment.
Despite a Trump address in Warsaw designed to reassure other NATO countries of America’s commitment to their common defense, the allies were not reassured ― because no one knows who was really speaking in that speech. “That was scripted and he read it from a teleprompter,” an ambassador from one NATO country told me. “We can’t assume that that is what the president believes.”
Trade: Having pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatened the European Union, Trump created space for China’s bid to become the next central player in global commerce. Japan just announced a massive new trade deal with the European Union as if to say to the United States, “We don’t need you.”
That isn’t true. The world still needs us. Just not as much.