So much for the distraction that is the endless media reporting on which personalities are supposedly up or down in TrumpWorld. That stuff always ignores Donald Trump’s default positions, which are driven by his erratic megalomania and knee-jerk ultra-nationalist know-nothingism. Which means that it is the likes of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, speechwriter Steve Miller, and anti-environment EPA chief Scott Pruitt — and not Trump’s secretary of state, national security advisor, secretary of defense, daughter dearest and first son-in-law — who are celebrating the triumph of their world view in Il Duce Donald’s performance in Poland and at the G20 Summit over the weekend in Hamburg, Germany.
Gee, congratulations, guys. America, or, more accurately, Donald Trump’s American presidency, is now isolated from all but a few world leaders, namely those in Moscow and Riyadh. And even they turned on him when it came to climate change.
Meanwhile, that which has been Trumpism all along is creating a vacuum in emerging world politics into which multiple players are flowing: China, Russia, Germany, France, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, California …
“The West,” Trump declared in his Warsaw speech before going on to his latest debacle on the world stage, this at the G20 Summit, “will never be broken!”
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” said Trump as he stood in front of a massive Polish memorial to the tragic Warsaw Uprising. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Well, to borrow an old Tonto and the Lone Ranger joke, who’s we, white man?
There aren’t many people on the planet outside the Fox News audience who see Donald Trump as champion of Western civilization. More like its would-be destroyer, considering how many of its values he trashes on a routine basis. For it is the Dark Ages version of Western civilization that Trump truly extols, the pre-Enlightenment, pre-Renaissance version marked by white ethnic identity politics and fundamentalist religionism.
Yes, he is against jihadism. So what? It turned out, utterly unsurprisingly, that he has no plan to defeat it. Mosul is finally falling, but only after nine months of urban fighting, most of them on Trump’s watch. Trump’s only “contribution” has been to allow more civilian deaths as “collateral damage” in U.S. air strikes.
That sure won’t hurt Isis recruitment.
But enough on the “ideas” of the likes of Trump and his intellectual caddy Bannon, who memorably went on Fox News some years ago to blame Wall Street greed, manipulation, and economic dysfunction on the Woodstock Music Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
The Trumpists are tearing down America’s leadership role in the world even faster than they are dismantling federal environmental regulation.
Long before Trump and another New Yorker were the most unpopular presidential nominees in history, two great presidents from New York, both named Roosevelt, established America on the world stage. First as a great power, then as the leading superpower.
For now, at least, that is swiftly grinding to a halt. But world politics, like the nature that Trump also fails to grasp and so despoils, abhors a vacuum.
So into the breach springs a not exactly magnificent seven, led by the likes of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin Salman, and Jerry Brown.
It should have been another 20 years before China posed any serious challenge to American leadership. That the future has so suddenly arrived is not a good thing for either China or the rest of the world, even if one believes in China’s virtue, as the Middle Kingdom is clearly not prepared. But that is not stopping Beijing from moving.
Aside from an expansive but still somewhat amorphous multinational infrastructure project called The Belt and Road Initiative, roughly around the historical Silk Road linking China and Europe (and the old “Hippie Trail” I roamed as an inquisitive grad student tourist), China’s policies in world politics are multifaceted but still emerging. Even though it has lately embraced renewable energy (helped by California) and has its investments all over the world.
Can it play a leading role in managing a world trading system, a world financial system, a world peacekeeping system? Doubtful. It’s barely getting into the power projection business, with its ludicrous (and United Nations tribunal-rejected) claim to sovereignty over the strategically crucial South China Sea, just now creating a new cadre of pilots proficient in carrier landings, something the U.S. Navy has been doing for over 90 years.
But China is certainly capable of taking the lead in trade and finance in the vast Asia-Pacific, and Xi Jinping shows every sign of grasping that mantle.
In Vladimir Putin, Russia has a leader who is capable of running a superpower. But Moscow hasn’t the wherewithal to play much beyond the great power level to which Putin has guided it following its post-Soviet nadir in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, the G20 Summit in Hamburg was a triumph for Putin.
He and Trump met privately, attended only by their foreign ministers and translators, for nearly two and a half hours, far longer than scheduled. At the end of the summit, it was Putin who gave an expansive news conference, while Trump cancelled the session that has been customary for every president since these summits began.
The advantage was all on the Russian side, with Putin and Sergei Lavrov having more than 80 years of government/intelligence/military experience to Trump and Rex Tillerson’s collective single year.
The translator set-up also greatly advantaged the Russians as well. Lavrov is something of a wit in English. As for Putin, whom I encountered when he was director of the FSB intelligence and security service, he actually does speak English. He just doesn’t sound nearly as cool as he would like in English as he does in Russian and German. The translation gambit gives him twice as much time as the poor Americans to evaluate and direct the discussion.
Which he obviously did, with Trump claiming to have aggressively raised Russia’s outrageous intervention in our presidential election before deciding to “move on,” with Russia taking the leading settling the Syrian civil war.
I have great respect for Putin as an intelligence professional, and recognize that Russia has some legitimate concerns about NATO encirclement from my time in the ’90s trying to help the sort of Russian democratic reformers that Putin went on to squash.
But Trump is, for whatever set of reasons, a Putin sycophant who is obviously trying to hide some embarrassing things about links between his organization and Russia. The Russians are running rings around him, even bamboozling him into a patently ludicrous joint “Cyber Security Unit” to prevent foreign interference in American political campaigns.
And when a photo of Ivanka Trump sitting in for dad at the head table was tweeted online, it came from someone who research reveals to be a member of Putin’s presidential staff. She deleted the photo, but the jostling point was made on social media. Is fun, Donald, yes?
If anyone is prepared for positive leadership on the stage of world politics, it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her leadership of the G20 Summit kept things from falling apart. In November, she will help Fiji host the first Trump era UN climate summit in the former West German capital Bonn.
In Hamburg, she played the leading role in holding the “G19” solid front on climate change, helping prevent Trump-happy fossil fuel powers Russia and Saudi Arabia from slipping their Paris Accord commitments. Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany John Emerson reminds that Merkel has leverage over Putin — who issued a strong anti-greenhouse gas statement in Hamburg after extolling the virtues of Arctic oil drilling and expressing new doubt about climate change a few months ago — in the form of a natural gas pipeline Moscow very much wants. (No one, by the way, has replaced Emerson as ambassador in Berlin. Indeed, the ambassadorial and State Department sub-cabinet ranks, all of which are crucial to a functional American diplomacy, are nearly empty.)
But Germany, though a tremendous nation with great strengths, is no superpower. Nor, given the history of two world wars, is anyone anxious, including in Germany, for it to become one.
Still, there is much that can be accomplished in holding a community of nations together with Merkel’s assertively collegial style of leadership. And she is obviously eager to play that crucial role.
As is, in his own way, new French President Emmanuel Macron. Something of a bete noire for Trump, whom he will host in a few days on Bastille Day, he is working with Merkel to not only hold the European Union together but revitalize it in the wake of Britain’s very slow-rolling “Brexit.”
And he is moving on climate change, working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former California governor and UN global advocate — who recently received the highest degree of the French Legion of Honor from outgoing President Francois Hollande for his global climate and energy work — and others on a proposed “Global Pact on the Environment.”
Macron will host a climate summit in Paris in December, a month after the UN climate summit in Bonn.
Dictator Kim Jong-un may have been a little off-balance early in the Trump presidency, unsure of how to take Trump’s threats or how to deal with the Barack Obama-ordered cyber ops disrupting his missile test program.
But ever since Kim realized that Trump had ostentatiously touted the impending arrival off the Korean Peninsula of an aircraft carrier strike group that had actually sailed in the opposite direction, Kim has found his footing.
Not only have the failed missile tests of the Obama years turned to successful ones in the Trump era, North Korea now seems to have a rudimentary intercontinental ballistic missile. Along with rudimentary nuclear weapons. They aren’t deployable yet, but these are dark developments.
Against this, Trump is reduced to blathering about military action — which would lead to the immediate destruction of Seoul, South Korea, one of the world’s great cities — and blaming China for not reining in the moon-faced little tyrant. Who turns out to have ties all across Africa and who knows where else?
Another 30-something leader, Saudi Defense Minister and new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is pushing the petro-superpower desert Kingdom into Trump-approved super-assertiveness. As I discussed at length in May, and again last month.
Saudi Arabia seeks to be the preeminent Middle Eastern power, as well as leader of the world’s oil cartel, something slipping from its grasp. But with its reflexive anti-Iran stance (basically, Riyadh has drawn Trump in on one side of a complex religious schism that predates our Declaration of Independence by 1144 years), its intervention in the Yemeni civil war causing many civilian deaths and a massive cholera outbreak, and its attempted bullying of Qatar, largely for its sponsorship of the pro-Arab Spring Al Jazeera news channels, the heavily assertive Saudi Arabia, now spending massively on U.S. armaments, looks like a major destabilizer.
No, the State of California was not at the G20, though as the world’s sixth largest economy (a hair behind Britain), the Golden State certainly would have been were it not for its role in the United States. But Governor Jerry Brown, whose big move into world politics and new climate change post with the UN I discussed last month, had a strong virtual presence in Hamburg.
Introduced by former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, now global ambassador for Brown’s Under2 Coalition, the former presidential candidate spoke to a large rally held in Hamburg by Global Citizen, inviting them and the rest of the world to a global climate action summit in San Francisco in September 2018. Brown will have scientists, musicians, activists, political leaders, and a host of others on hand.
And why not?
California, arguably the most successful multi-racial and multi-cultural place on the planet, has world-leading programs on climate change, renewable energy and energy efficiency, and new vehicles. Brown himself was one of the original champions of it all back in the 1970s.
And California, with Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and some of the world’s leading universities and research labs, is a global “soft power” superpower.
Climate itself may be the ultimate crosscut issue, pointing up the fundamental interconnectedness of our world that Trump — with his Charles Lindbergh-derived “America First” blathering — does his blustering best to deny.
Not only is it one of the two fundamental existential crises facing us, it also greatly impacts the other. Which is of course the prospect of instability which can lead to the use of nuclear weapons. The reality is that even a limited nuclear war would be disastrous for the planet.
Why San Francisco? Aside from it being one of the world’s most popular and cosmopolitan cities, handpicked by FDR for the founding conference of the United Nations, historical center of counter-cultural and ecological movements, and Brown’s hometown? (And mine.) The question answers itself.
We’ll certainly have plenty to follow as this darkly fascinating cavalcade rumbles on.
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