Washington: “You think this is bad? Wait until the Trump White House faces a real international crisis!” You’ve no doubt heard this warning.
Here’s the problem with that – an extraordinary constellation of complex global crises is boiling over right now in real time – and they are being exacerbated by US President Donald Trump and his team.
The global situation may be more dangerous than it has been at any time since the height of the Cold War.
Of the myriad serious geopolitical problems in the world right now, five of them involve nuclear powers and two involve near nuclear powers. Several of these cases could test whether old notions of nuclear security, like deterrence, can work in the new global risk environment.
Topping the list is North Korea. It now seems certain that during Trump’s time in office, North Korea will gain the capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon that can hit the continental United States.
North Korea is also close to having a nuclear stockpile big enough that it would be extremely difficult to eliminate in limited military action. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, believes having a large stockpile and advanced delivery capabilities will make guarantee him job security. But for the US and its allies like Australia, North Korea’s offensive nuclear capacity would mark the most destabilising shift since the end of the Cold War.
The choices we have are almost all bad. There are no military scenarios for intervention in North Korea that do not involve massive casualties in South Korea. But allowing North Korea to threaten massive destruction to the US or its allies is also intolerable.
Further, the West’s primary leverage with North Korea lies with the Chinese, who seem either disinclined to put too much pressure on Pyongyang or a refusal to be intimidated by the Twitter “pressure” on them by Trump.
On Iran, last week the country launched a satellite into orbit showing that it too is enhancing its weapons delivery capabilities. At the same time, Trump has indicated he will decertify Iranian compliance with the Obama-forged nuclear accord. Naval tensions also rose last week in the Persian Gulf, with confrontations between the United States and Iranian ships.
By announcing America’s intention to decertify Iran, Trump gave the Iranians more time to plan their strategy of confrontation with both the US and its allies, who are themselves confronted with another regional crisis: the standoff between four Arab bloc countries and Qatar. The US move would also likely produce a split with the other major powers that are part of the Iran deal, complicating the ability to settle this and other issues.
The weakening political position of Trump and the anti-Iran rhetoric of the administration also makes the Iran situation the one that seem most primed to be the kind of wag-the-dog distraction that might seem desirable to Trump and his team.
In nuclear Pakistan, the country is suffering with political instability yet again, even as its rival, a nuclear India, skirmishes with Pakistan’s ally, a nuclear China, along their disputed border in the Himalayas.
The US and nuclear Russia are locked in a political standoff regarding diplomats and sanctions. The US-Russia situation is made murkier by Trump’s Russia scandal, the desire of the US Congress to hold Russia accountable and Putin’s gleeful willingness to play both ends against the middle to achieve his dual goals of looking tough on the US at home while weakening America from within. That he continues to test the bounds of American influence by expanding Russia’s own power: Putin signed a half-century lease on a naval base in Syria last week, he continues to inch deeper into Georgia, and he menaces the Baltics. This all suggests this a diplomatic crisis that could escalate into something much worse.
Further, from the South China Sea to Venezuela’s unravelling, famine in Africa to political confusion in Japan, Korea and the UK, the world is reeling.
Indeed, what makes each of the situations above many degrees more dangerous is that the world is facing a parallel pandemic of leadership and institutional failures. At the centre of these is the decline in America’s standing as a leader.
Amidst the global turmoil, our modern-day Nero is choosing to tweet as Rome burns.
Trump surrounds himself with generals he views as more gold-plated bling to show off to his buddies. He has gutted America’s diplomatic capability just when it’s needed the most. Worst, this pig sty of a presidency has sucked all the oxygen out of the room so that none of the above issues are getting the attention they deserve from anyone.
It’s no wonder people worry what would happen were these guys to face a real crisis. But that’s just the problem. The crises are here. And the fact that neither the President nor the American people seem to know it may be the greatest crisis of them all.
David Rothkopf a visiting professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Washington Post