At least from the end of World War II and already probably after the end of the Great War, the United States was seen as the world’s leading superpower. Certainly during the cold war, America’s allies looked to Washington for leadership in fighting the challenging global conflicts. While the U.S. did not always succeed in achieving its goals—Viet-Nam being the most obvious failure—few friends or even enemies, denied the dominant position the U.S. was playing in the world.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the growth of China as a dominant power, America has been struggling to sustain its global leadership position. Economically, it is already clear that the U.S. has remained in a dominant, but there are a growing number of challenges which at a minimum are questioning America’s dominance in the world-wide marketplace.
Strategically and militarily the U.S. has continued to play a pivotal role. After events over the past week, however, it now appears that the Trump Administration has placed the U.S. role in international and security relations even among our friends in a more challenged place.
For a number of months, at least since the North Koreans launched their most recent missile, there have been signals from the government of Kim Jong-un that it is interested in opening a dialogue with South Korea. This has been signaled directly by President Jong-un and acknowledged by the South. The joint Olympics hockey team, was a small manifestation of some outreach by the North to the South, somewhat like Kissinger’s ping-pong diplomacy. It was further evidenced by the apparently cordial reception afforded the President Kim’s sister Kim-Yo-jung at the Olympic games and in Seoul. She in turn apparently invited South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to visit North Korea.
What was different was that President Moon appeared hesitant to move ahead even on conversations with the North given his sense of the dissatisfaction it would cause in Washington. Trump’s bellicose attitude toward President Kim had become so determinative of the politics in South Korea, that President Moon appeared frozen from moving ahead without the acquiescence of his sugar daddy in the White House.
Similarly, America’s response to Israel’s actions this weekend over the Golan Heights and on the roads to Damascus was to announce that Israel was now on its own. The Syria-Iran-Russia-ISIS-Hezbollah forces appear to be contained for the moment given Israel’s strong response—despite losing an F-16 fighter to anti-aircraft fire. Washington, however, was signaling that given Russia’s strong involvement in that region, the U.S. was not interested in encouraging or supporting a more aggressive, further Israeli response. While Israel will undoubtedly determine what appears to be in its own best interests, the U.S. does not want to engage Putin in his maneuvers to support the Syrian-Iranian–anti-Sunni efforts.
As in South Korea the U.S. appears here to be trying to control the relationships and the security options without any type of coherent plan. The Trump Administration’s national security policy may be based on making bigger and better weapons system, but there remains no global strategy coming from the White House or Foggy Bottom that can explain it policy goals; except America First. For the Trump skeleton crew of foreign policy makers, there will undoubtedly be even more dangerous tests ahead. It may well no longer be in a position to call all the shots, even for its friends.