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Asia Pacific

Number 45: Irreparable Damage?


We’ve just passed the 180 day mark[1] of Donald Trump as President of the United States, though it may seem hard to believe that we’ve already suffered through 6 months of madness, Mooch and mayhem. Looked at another way, Mr. Trump is one-eighth through his mandate and almost a third of the way to the 2018 Elections when things might get really crazy if Democrats win back Congress. So far, none of the worst predictions from last November have been realized: there has been no coup against or in favor of Trump; no trade wars have erupted; we are not bombing China, North Korea, Germany or Mexico; Mr. Putin does not have his own office space in the White House. In fact, the counter-reaction to Donald Trump has generated positive results: more citizen engagement at home, a weakening of support for populist parties in Europe, and a renewed commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement even by lukewarm supporters like India and China.

None of these are reasons to clap ourselves on the back, or breathe a sigh of relief. Let everyone admit, once and for all, that Donald Trump will not suddenly become “Presidential”. If it hasn’t happened in six months, it will never happen. His radical and undisciplined behavior will continue for however long he is in office. The outlook for US institutions, prestige, the international system and even world peace remain distressingly bleak at the end of a full Trump term. Already we are seeing the “normalization” of Trump’s aberrant and wholly unacceptable style of management and proclivity towards government by decree, the expectation by the American people that this is simply how things are going to be done from now on. That is unacceptable: our Republic might very well survive one Donald Trump. It cannot survive two.

Taken broadly, the impact of the Trump Administration has been highly damaging to America. So far, American civil institutions have held up very well under pressure, demonstrating the strong foundations our Republic has established over its 241 year history. But they remain under pressure by a President who has continuously demonstrated his willingness to obstruct and limit press freedom, obstruct investigations, circumvent political and legal process, threaten and cajole individuals and potentially to perjure himself in the furtherance of his self-interest. Their survival to date is no guarantee of future resilience. But even if the Republic survives Donald Trump, America will have suffered grave, perhaps irreparable, harm for a generation.

  1. Federal civil service

President Trump continues to treat the Federal Government as if it were an appendage of one of his poorly run family businesses. He is going through high-ranking officials faster than my young daughter goes through diapers and with similar results. But while the hiring and firing revolving door at the White House is chaotic, and watching the arrival and departure of Flynn, Priebus, Scaramucci and others makes for great ratings, the real damage is being done at a lower level.

Mr. Trump has so far managed to fill only about 15% of the 1,100 key Executive Branch positions requiring Senate confirmation. The President has blamed Democratic obstructionism, and it is true that the average Trump nominee is taking 44 days for approval versus 32 days for previous longest confirmation time record holder, Barack Obama. Part of the problem is that a number of Mr. Trump’s nominees have dropped out of the process in order to avoid the grilling their peers were receiving[2]. But a bigger part of the problem is that the President simply isn’t nominating people at anywhere near the rate his predecessors did.

To put it in terms that Mr. Trump will be more familiar with: he’s just be appointed CEO of the largest multinational corporation in the world and he is attempting to run it without a Marketing department, with half a Finance department, with a gutted Legal department that is investigating him, with no one leading the Product and Operations departments, and with an actively hostile IT team. Instead of hiring the people he needs to direct all of these departments, he prefers to try to do the job of 4,000 employees with a core team of 50 trusted insiders. He’s created a massive split in his Board of Directors and the majority of shareholders think he is doing a terrible job. How well will such a business do? How long will a CEO like that keep his job in the private sector? The argument is specious – the government of this country is emphatically not a business, nor should it be run like one, but I think it gets the point across.

Running the Executive Branch requires significantly more effort than simply signing executive orders, much less tweeting out orders at midnight. There is a process by which the President’s instructions are passed on to his senior staffers and from them to their deputies and then to their sub-deputies in order for policy to actually be formed and implemented. The reason this process exists is precisely to avoid situations where the President finds himself signing off on unconstitutional orders that will immediately be slapped down by the courts; or agreeing to military operations that have not be properly vetted and that end up getting civilians and American soldiers killed needlessly. The “process” ensures that laws are being obeyed and that all possible circumstances have been considered and interpreted regarding the President’s wishes before the full machinery of government starts to churn. The last thing a mid-level civil servant, occupying a temporary post without the least hint of support, is to “interpret” what the President wanted in a 140-character tweet.

Without the “process” and the properly staffed and functioning departments and inter-departmental committees, the disconnect between the head (President Trump, though I use the analogy aware of its irony) and the body (the rest of the government) prevents any real change from happening. Mere inertia will ensure that the preference for continuing down the existing paths overwhelms the changes the President and his team are trying to implement. So when Mr. Trump complains that there is “obstructionism” in the civil service to his reforms, he is only displaying his ignorance of how government actually works: the wound is entirely self-inflicted.

The long-term damage to the civil service will be as great as it will be difficult to assess. The life of a civil servant is not that of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. Most of them work long hours at decent, but not exceptional pay. No one becomes filthy rich from becoming a bureaucrat. They enjoy some benefits (always threatened with cuts by Republicans) and some job security (see previous comment) that the average American worker might envy – now that they’ve allowed the unions to be destroyed – but they are scorned, denigrated and mocked by their private sector peers. Nevertheless, the 2 million or so federal workers keep the country running and the job they do it of vital importance, however thankless.

Now imagine that your own boss has become your worst enemy. He has publicly humiliated you and your work; he has openly started a political witch hunt to “root out disloyalty”; he leaves you leaderless and directionless and complains that nothing gets done. Who is really going to want to stay and take this extra abuse? What’s more, how many bright young patriots, who might otherwise have been willing to put up with the aforementioned disadvantages in order to serve their country, are going to look at this situation and decide that ANY job is better than a Federal job. Love of country might have been enough to keep Admiral Nelson warm at night, but it will not staff the government agencies that are vital for our security and the proper functioning of our country. There will be, in the best case, a period of three or four years of a severe talent gap that will lessen our capabilities in cyberspace, in intelligence gathering, in analysis, and in diplomacy. At worst, Mr. Trump might cause enough damage that an entire generation of potential civil servants will be lost. That puts the country seriously at risk. The State Department has been particularly hard hit: together with the departure of Obama-appointed officials, many career staffers have also given up in disgust, while morale is at an all-time low for those who remain. Secretary Tillerson is building a parallel staff that makes hay of the existing organization and processes, prioritizing loyalty over expertise (and even over minimal competence), which is resulting in a broken system. The direct result of this is a series of damaging gaffes, blunders and unforced errors that have brought American prestige to its lowest point since the Great Depression. This unforced concession of US leadership is reshaping the international system as we watch helplessly and entirely to our detriment.

  1. America’s alliance structure in an “America First” context

Another victim of President Trump is the international security structure that the United States has built since the end of the Second World War. This world order was built on the philosophy that American power could best be projected and maintained within a framework of mutual prosperity, shared values and unbreakable commitments. American wealth and influence would grow even as the world economy grew; the success of the European and Asian economies was also America’s success. The Great Virginian, George Marshall, new this to be true – so has every President and Secretary of State since Truman. They also knew that for deterrence to work and for America to avoid having to foot an unbearable military burden, our commitment to defending our allies needed to be iron-clad. The Soviets might speculate whether the US would really trade Chicago for Berlin, or New York for Antwerp…but no word or deed could ever give weight to that speculation and tempt the Soviets into testing our resolve. When they did test it in the early Cold War, the United States responded strongly: with the Berlin Airlift and the defense of South Korea.

Today we have a President that explicitly rejects this fundamental basis of our entire foreign policy. Free trade? Doesn’t exist; for Mr. Trump, trade is a zero sum game[3]. If you win, I lose. Mr. Trump has a similar approach to alliances: they are for chumps. His completely transactional approach to foreign relations is completely situational: today Germany is a trade competitor full of “bad, very bad people”, but if Mr. Trump ever needed them, they would be our best buddies again (one hopes…). He said as much while still President-Elect: “I start off trusting both (Merkel and Putin) – but let’s see how long that lasts”. There are many ways that the new President could have signaled his willingness and desire to reset relations with Russia, and that statement was by far the worst possible choice. On top of Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to unconditionally support NATO’s mutual security guarantee, the sense of abandonment amongst our former allies is overwhelming.

Potential allies in Asia against a growing China will seek accommodation and cede regional hegemony to Beijing rather than roll the dice on now insubstantial American guarantees. Feisty Vietnam, who has had enough pluck to fight a war and a number of skirmishes with China in the past 50 years, has already decided to cave in on the South China Sea. The Philippines had already flipped its support to China during the Obama Administration, but what is the chance that the volatile Mr. Duterte will come to regret his decision with Donald Trump in office? He is more likely to be congratulating himself for his prescience. President Trump has also managed to insult and alienate our two remaining allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea; and while Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have visited them a number of times to try to smooth things over, it remains to be seen what faith they have in their promises.

The bellicosity of Mr. Trump and members of his circle is well-known, originating in their belief in a clash of civilizations which the United States ought to precipitate while still retaining military and economic advantages. Mr. Bannon as publicly stated that he believes a war between the US and China is inevitable and imminent. And to be sure, the belligerent ineptitude displayed by this Administration – riven by competing factions, led by an indecisive amateur, and completely lacking the experienced staff needed to keep up with developing crises all over the world – is turning Mr. Bannon’s prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The incompetence of the Trump Administration invites challenge and it is impossible that Beijing, Pyongyang and other rivals will pass up this golden window of opportunity. If this woeful performance continues, in another six months we will either lose all influence in Asia or be involved in a shooting war that could cost millions of lives. In the last Korean War, 15 nations contributed combat troops to fight alongside American forces defending the Republic of Korea. In the next Korean War, we will fight alone. Does that prospect make you feel safer? Or less safe?

The risk of nuclear proliferation, which has been America’s most significant foreign policy challenge for years, has increased by an order of magnitude. There are many nations that previously rested under America’s nuclear umbrella, secure in our guarantees for their safety. That guarantee has been torpedoed by Mr. Trump: if every foreign policy decision will be subjected to the “America First” litmus test[4], then no one will believe that the President will defend Seoul or Okinawa or Warsaw at the risk of San Francisco or New York. The obvious response is obvious for those who have the money and technology: build your own iron-clad deterrent, which will have to be a nuclear one. South Korea and Japan[5] are prime candidates and either or both have the capability to make a bomb in very short order. If the Iran Nuclear Deal is willfully and foolishly scuttled by the Trump Administration, then it is very likely that a nuclear arms race will break out in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia was already probing Pakistan to provide them with nuclear technology in 2013. Does a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia make you feel safer? Or less safe?

Donald Trump has never understood, or never believed, that a successful global leader requires both hard power and soft power. Soft power alone is not enough – sorry Europe – without the backing of force, it is merely an invitation to be plundered. But what Mr. Trump doesn’t understand is that hard power alone is not enough either; you end up without allies, only occupied vassals and rebellious subjects. Military force is necessary sometimes – just ask Nazi Germany – but overreliance on it increases costs and conflicts across the international system. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and no country wants to be the next nail – which is precisely why former President George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech did so much more harm than good. Countries that are threatened with regime change by the US will obviously increase military spending and attempt to find other guarantees – nuclear guarantees – of their safety. That makes their neighbors nervous and leads to more military spending across the region. With so many nations re-arming themselves, we Americans also become alarmed and feel ourselves overwhelmed by the sudden emergence of so many challenges and hotspots. We didn’t create all of the tension in these regions, for the most part they were already there; but we were the catalyst agent that turned a relatively stable dynamic into an increasing unstable one. We are caught in this dangerous cycle already and it is likely to accelerate.

Trump and his associates pass over the immense contribution that our allies have made to our security. They willfully ignore the fact that our NATO allies are shedding their blood at this very moment to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Syria. They are not doing this because of a “Germany First” or “Britain First” attitude; they do it because they know that we are all stronger together and that the long-term gains far, far outweigh the short-term costs. “America First” is a senseless and stupid repudiation[6] of this. Alliances of convenience are not alliances at all: we would be as fickle as the Italians who never finished a war on the same side it started on – unless the war lasted long enough to change sides twice[7]. And they offer nothing, no new doctrine, to replace it – in fact, the Administration continues to undermine America’s historic mission of the past two centuries by shamefully eliminating “justice” and “democracy” from its mission statement. What the hell kind of world are they then dedicated to building? The answer is not one I care to contemplate.

We can legitimately ask if the “America First” policy has in six months made us stronger or safer? The answer is a resounding “No”: it has only made us isolated. We have gone from leader of the free world to universally despised in just 6 months. How much safer does “America Alone” make you feel?

  1. American democracy on the slippery slope to war

I began the article by stating that the worst predictions had not come to pass. But it has only been six months. Even if American institutions have resisted, all the worst fears regarding Mr. Trump’s authoritarian proclivities have been confirmed. The amorality and disdain for law and procedure of those he surrounds himself with is every bit as bad – if not worse – than feared in November. As President, Donald Trump continues to use his office to heighten racial and ethnic divisions, to promote a nihilistic vision of America and the world, to ignore long-established precedents and procedures that make government function more smoothly, to indulge in gross nepotism, to use the office of President to further his own business interests and enrich himself, to impede justice and the course of an investigation which may implicate him in high crimes and misdemeanors, and to impede and marginalize the free press, so fundamental to a functioning democracy. These are all common characteristics in every dictator of every banana republic throughout history.

We run a grave risk of “normalizing” all of this. After six months, there is a very serious problem with Americans accepting these behaviors. We must not. They are not normal. They are completely aberrant; they are a violent assault on over 240 years of democratic rule and the example of abnegation and sacrifice by those past generations who sworn to serve the Republic. Even if the Republic survives him, we are all duty bound to cry out daily: “This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not America.” And cry loud enough for the world to hear us, so that perhaps, just maybe, they will not entirely lose faith in the promise of America.

But the Republic may not survive Donald Trump. Without ascribing any more sinister motives, the probability of a major war breaking out in the next three and a half years is exceptionally high. The Trump Administration’s grotesque incompetence guarantees that our adversaries will test his resolve. They will create crises: in September, Russia will conduct a large-scale military exercise (“Zapad”) with Belarus involving over 100,000 troops. That is provocative enough, but the wily Mr. Putin may feel that he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take advantage of an amateur President, a fragmented Congress and a disunited NATO to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence across the former Soviet lands – if not further. Those 100,000 armored troops, together with Russian airborne forces, could be on the banks of the Niemen River in 3 days; if Trump blinks, it is the end of NATO, the European Union and American preeminence.

Mr. Trump might also stumble, or dive headlong, into a Second Korean War. The current crisis in Korea is as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis, though with a slightly longer fuse. North Korea is a military with a country; they have been preparing for Round 2 since 1953. They could level Seoul and kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans using their conventional artillery alone. In order to prevent this, and to ensure the complete destruction of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability, the United States would have to use tactical nuclear weapons across a number of sites in the North, some close to civilian population centers. Or we could avoid the use of nukes and use a massive, sustained air campaign followed up by a “limited” ground incursion, in exchange for massive South Korean casualties and the risk that the desperate North Koreans would launch one or several nuclear weapons at the South, at Japan, perhaps at the US. And there is every indication that either course of action would prompt a vigorous Chinese response – and not in our favor. We would fight the Second Korean War against a far more capable Chinese opponent across 3,000 miles of ocean, atolls and islands.

In each of those scenarios, almost all of the downside lies with us. We risk humiliating defeat and the deaths of millions of people; we risk an international system that has brought historically unparalleled peace and prosperity to the world; and even in victory, we risk all of our founding principles and institutions. The American people have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to grant their President extraordinary authority in time of crisis and war and, until now, we have always been fortunate enough to have honorable and circumspect men in power who rarely abused and always returned this power when it was no longer needed. We have already stepped away from this tradition thanks to the never-ending and debilitating “War on Terror”[8] – but I shudder to think of the potential consequences of granting Donald Trump and his team the sort of broad powers necessary to successfully direct a war. I have no confidence in his ability to unite the nation and lead us into conflict, and I have even less in his willingness to give this power back. If Washington was America’s Cincinnatus, Trump bears every characteristic of an American Sulla or Caesar.

Donald Trump is a less competent Silvio Berlusconi, with nukes. He is the most dangerous man alive today – bar none. And every day he is in office, he is doing irreparable harm to America, to the West and to the world.

Sources and Notes

[1] It’s day 196 as I write this article, but 180 days is a nice round number

[2] Or perhaps they don’t want to disclose all their assets and divest themselves of their portfolios and potential conflicts of interest, as required by federal law

[3] A strange argument for a so-called Republican, since it was Adam Smith and his disciples who proved that free trade benefited all parties above and beyond whatever losses were incurred.

[4] Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address

[5] Japan’s constitution expressly prohibits the development of nuclear weapons, but it also prohibited the sending of Japanese forces abroad and that clause was amended in 2015. It could easily be amended again in the face of a rising Chinese hegemon and a United States in full retreat.

[6] Every American President has put America first; it is a dishonest and disloyal misrepresentation by Mr. Trump to suggest otherwise

[7] As quoted from a French newspaper by Jean Edward Smith in “Eisenhower in War and Peace”

[8] Former Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama wielded extraordinarily broad powers related to surveillance and not granted to previous executives prior to the nefarious PATRIOT Act.

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