Witnessing the Decline of the U.S.?

Witnessing the Decline of the U.S.?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Donald Trump has a reputation as a host of television reality show.  America has always had an affection for soap operas beginning first on radio, then day-time television, followed by prime-time TV, and today streaming episodes of multi-segment cable shows.  Never would anyone have ever dreamed that Washington politics would become a streaming reality show with daily, unpredictable segments and no definitive end date in sight. While the congressional or the legal systems might remove the show, this is the state of affairs “As the World Turns”, under contract 24/7 until 2020.

The most serious impact of this show is the damage it is causing to the precipitous, decline of United States prestige abroad. It is on the international stage that the harm is most alarming as well. There are some well-intentioned officials trying to do their job while total amateurs are embarrassing the U.S. at every turn. Within the past few days alone the examples are numerous.

Secretary Tillerson has begun speaking out concerning global issues in more diplomatic tones, albeit with some controversial recommendations about Russia, North Korea, Iran, and the Middle East.  His articulated positions are emerging now as he attempts to conduct foreign policy while at the same time using a personnel management style that may well have been very effective at Exxon-Mobil but is seriously undermining foreign-policy decision-making.  To develop and conduct U.S. foreign relations, the State Department needs to function at full-staff and high morale. After more than six months in office, there are still numerous vacancies in major foreign posts and high-level policy positions. The Department has already announced that there would be a considerably lower level of diplomatic engagement by the U.S. at the fall meeting of the U.N.

The advent of the John Kelly era in managing the White House can only improve the operation; although it is unlikely to be able to manage the President. On the international stage, Kelly’s arrival is a positive step as well, except that given the presence of so many former military people in critical foreign policy positions, this move ought to be disconcerting. Trump may be enamored with military brass but foreign policy decision-making is best achieved with a dynamic, mixed, and diverse cadre of advisers. McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly all have impressive military resumes. While Intelligence is under former politicians or civilian control, reports suggest that Trump is considering another military or law enforcement person to replace Kelly at DHS. Given the fact that Tillerson is still coming up to speed, this situation ought to leave observers—at home and abroad–deeply concerned about the diversity of guidance the President will receive in crisis management.

Jared Kushner, the so-called chief U.S. Israel-Palestinian negotiator, addressed a group of Washington interns on Monday, as if he were making a major statement about U.S. policy before the National Press Club. It was quite sweet for him—a bit over ten years out of these young people’s shoes—to speak to interns. It was hardly appropriate to comment—off the record but in a released version of his remarks obtained from at least two sources—on the state of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  It was scary to hear a total diplomatic and academic novice speak about the regional conflict as if dismissing years of efforts with the brush of a hand. To say he has read and spoken to people involved in the issue is intellectually embarrassing. Israeli and Palestinian leaders ought to be appalled and shaken by the fact that this is the current state of thoughtful leadership on the struggle in Washington. (If one wishes to ponder further as to the paucity of thoughtful thinking on the conflict, consider what insights might have emerged from Trump’s meeting with his former lawyer turned U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Monday as well.)

Having rebuffed U.S. entreaties regarding North Korea, it should be no wonder that the Chinese now appear to be extending their good offices to facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. Similarly, after watching Trump at both the G-7 and the G-20 meetings, France and Germany (assuming Merkel is re-elected at the end of September), have already announced their intention to engage in Middle East peace-making this fall. U.S. saber-rattling in Iraq/Syria/Iran as well as in the Far East has not yet produced a very serious response. These all may be some the most obvious observations of the decline of U.S. dominance on the world stage that has evolved in only six months.

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