It’s hard these days to meet with governmental and business leaders from around the world and not be struck by their growing feelings of anxiety, impatience, and resentment toward the United States.
What is “America First” to President Trump and his supporters is interpreted as “America Alone” to our friends and allies. Alliances carefully built and nurtured for over 70 years are now under more strain than at any point in our lifetimes. Polling from the Pew Research Center last year in 37 countries revealed that the United States has a sharply declining reputation around the world. Fewer than a majority of respondents had a positive view of the United States, down from 64 percent in the same countries during the final years of the Obama administration. Only 50 percent of the British had a positive view of the U.S., while 62 percent of Germans, 60 percent of Spaniards, and 59 percent of the Dutch had unfavorable views of our country. In Australia, the one country that is with us through thick and thin, the respondents were evenly split with 48 percent favorable and unfavorable.
It is particularly jarring to watch all of this while reading the terrific 1986 book by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. The book looked at Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy—two bankers, two diplomats, and two lawyers who were effectively the architects of post-World War II American foreign policy, particularly as it related to dealing with the Soviet Union. Between them they became secretaries of State, Defense, and Commerce and ambassadors to the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France, and also held a multitude of other offices. The brilliance, wisdom, and insight that these men and others exercised during that critical period in world history seems strangely incongruous with what we are experiencing today.
To the extent that the situation in North Korea has been the most volatile of the many tinderboxes around the world, Trump’s meeting this week with Kim Jung-un is a good thing. If a nuclear war were to break out over the past few years, it would most likely be with North Korea. Our leader sitting down with Kim pulls us back a bit from that, and for that, we should be grateful. It didn’t happen under Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, or Clinton; it happened under Trump and the president should get credit for that.
But for Trump to say that North Korea “is no longer a nuclear threat” to the United States is difficult to fathom. To say the least, our allies in Japan and South Korea, who have the most at stake with North Korea, are exceedingly nervous at what transpired; reportedly neither ally in the region was consulted on the announced cessation of U.S. military exercises in that immediate area, nor was the Pentagon. Having negotiations conducted and decisions made by a president with little knowledge of national security policy, who reportedly chafes at briefing papers more than a page long or extended briefings from experts, who is reliant on his own extremely inexperienced instincts, should concern any serious person.
Trump should get plenty of credit for moving the ball in an important area where his predecessors couldn’t or didn’t, but where exactly the ball is going and with what consequences matters a lot too. And it’s hard to find anyone who knows anything about national security issues who actually believes Kim and North Korea about anything, much less that they will denuclearize in the foreseeable future.
Since the end of World War II, America has been looked upon as the leader of the free world. With that honor came responsibilities and more than a little deference. Even when some of our allies had reservations about a course of action that the U.S. was pursuing, many stuck with us. Time and again, our allies—not every ally in every case, but many in most cases—had our backs. Now that those relationships are in danger, sooner or later we will pay a price for having taken them for granted and treating our best and most important friends shabbily. That has consequences.
So why is a political analyst who specializes in U.S. politics and elections writing about this? Because we know that midterm elections are referenda on the incumbent president. Everything that a president does is important and potentially decisive in a pivotal midterm election, one with the House teetering on a knife’s edge, majority status in the Senate likely to be decided by a fairly small number of votes in a half-dozen states, and the GOP having more exposure in terms of governorships and state legislative seats than either party has faced in many years. Indeed, as my friend, fellow political analyst Rhodes Cook (no relation) points out, Republicans hold more offices from top to bottom than they have since the 1920’s. So the risk in November for Republicans is enormous, and yet they seem to be sprinting along in a distinctly uncareful way — both at home and abroad.