Back in October, Secretary of State John Kerry told our audience at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that the popular notion of American retreat was bunk. “The truth,” he said, “is that the United States today is more deeply engaged in more places simultaneously on more critical issues with greater consequence than ever before in the history of this nation.”
His message was true indeed—and to Kerry’s credit, the United States made a series of diplomatic breakthroughs during his tenure, from the Cuba opening and Iran nuclear deal to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Of course, in other instances (notably the Middle East peace process and the war in Syria) Kerry's indefatigable diplomatic efforts didn't pay off.
Yet the question now is not whether America is engaged, and if it can be successful, but how the scope and nature of its engagement will change with the incoming Administration.
What should we expect? One key change is very likely to manifest in US-Russian relations. In nominating ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, President-elect Donald Trump has given another indication that he will deal with Russia in a fundamentally different manner than his predecessor. Tillerson, as Julia Ioffe notes in an illuminating POLITICO piece, has a long and complicated history with Russian President Vladimir Putin—one that may signal a more conciliatory US approach to the Kremlin. Notwithstanding, any approach the new administration takes will have to face up to an increasingly assertive, disruptive, and capable Russia.
American engagement in the Middle East is also at a turning point. Already Trump has signaled his intent to break with decades of US policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has repeatedly called for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, expressed his support of Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, and last month selected as his US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a lawyer who has dismissed the two-state solution.
The incoming administration’s attitude toward nuclear proliferation, too, may represent a break from the past. Trump’s apparent willingness to restart a nuclear arms race would upend nearly 50 years of diplomatic efforts by the United States to reduce the world’s nukes. As Eric Schlosser writes in The New Yorker, this would come as the risk of nuclear catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental, is already greater than many realize.
The bottom line is that the United States under Trump is likely to play a very different role than it has under previous presidents. This week’s reads provide insights into some of the diplomatic challenges awaiting the next administration and show how American engagement may change as a result.
Julia Ioffe/POLITICO Magazine
Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson is seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin—yet this closeness comes with a price, says Julia Ioffe. Though in 2008 Tillerson criticized Russia’s rule of law, in 2011 and 2014 he negotiated multibillion-dollar deals between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant, and has publicly lobbied against sanctions. On this reversal, Ioffe argues that to maintain relationships, CEOs such as Tillerson have to “dance to Putin’s tune, and take whatever favors and humiliations he sends your way.”
Molly K. McKew/POLITICO Magazine
Molly McKew describes the “all against all” mentality pursued by Russia (which she calls “a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy—and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal”) and charts a course Donald Trump should follow to counter its machinations. “If Russia were a strong economy closely linked to the global system, it would have vulnerabilities to more traditional diplomacy. But in the emerging [disorder], it is a significant actor.” She says a renewed approach to dealing with Putin’s Russia should begin with unity and strength to deny Russia the multipolar world in which it wants to operate.
Masha Gessen/The New York Review of Books
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin both believe themselves to be the most powerful person in the world, which can’t end well, writes Masha Gessen. In fact, she says the situation could be worse than the Cold War because “the Cold War was fought by men who had different visions of the future… Trump and Putin, on the other hand, lack a concept of the future.” Putin is great at seizing opportunities but can never think through consequences, and Trump’s short attention span is equally legendary. “Applied to global politics and combined with Trump’s ballistic temperament, this augurs a war that will not be cold.”
Chris Miller/The Wall Street Journal
The Soviet Union collapsed when it ran into low oil prices, costly military adventures abroad, confrontation with the West, and a sluggish economy in which political dictates overrode market forces, writes Chris Miller. But why didn’t Russia meet the same fate when faced with the same circumstances? Miller says it is devotion to conservative fiscal and monetary policies, plus an autocrat’s ability to impose austerity measures, that keep Russia afloat while the Soviet Union sank.
Neil MacFarquhar/The New York Times
Hacking is just one lever the Kremlin pulls to influence states. Others include disinformation campaigns across a range of Russian-financed media outlets, support for violent fringe groups, and even occasional plots against high-profile government critics. Experts say in some cases, such as the Czech Republic, the Kremlin and its allies will try to buy seats at the table of mainstream politics. The main difference now is that while the Soviet Union had sought out ideological allies, the modern Kremlin looks for anyone who might be able to serve its purposes.
Eric Schlosser/The New Yorker
Harsh political rhetoric, combined with the vulnerability of the nuclear command-and-control system, has made the risk of global catastrophe greater than ever, says Eric Schlosser in The New Yorker as he writes about his new book, “Command and Control.” Episodes such as the Cuban missile crisis show that miscalculation is an ever-present concern, and nuclear technology makes it possible for “an entire squadron of fifty missiles” to “be launched accidentally without anyone turning a key.” Schlosser’s essay is a warning about what he sees as an existential threat. “These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will.”
Justin Vaisse/War on the Rocks
Justin Vaisse outlines four scenarios for how Trump’s foreign policy could unfold: an extraordinary impeachment procedure that removes Trump entirely; a fairly traditional Republican foreign policy; chaos stemming from inexperience and infighting; and the United States shedding the role of benevolent hegemon in favor of a unilateral posture of primus inter pares, using America’s assets to extract rent from others. Vaisse explores the implications of scenario four, saying it would accelerate the current trends toward a competitive multipolar international system.
Bernard Avishai/The New York Times
President-elect Donald Trump presumes to side with Israel in its regional fight, but Bernard Avishai says that “one cannot be a friend to Israel without actually being a friend to some Israelis over others, one conception of Israel, the region, and Jews, for that matter, over another.” Avishai portrays the myriad factions of interests and opinions among Israelis and American Jews and says that Trump’s position will only advance the cause of extremists in Israel, ultimately harming American interests. “Safeguard American interests and, as a byproduct, you strengthen Israeli democracy;” but the “Israeli advocates of Greater Israel, and their American allies, subvert both.”
Elise Labott depicts John Kerry as a “modern-day leader whose… diplomacy harks back to an earlier era… an old-fashioned statesman who likes to get to know his adversaries, to turn them into friends.” The “Kerry Doctrine” is to “boldly pursue historic, diplomatic resolutions to the world's toughest conflicts, leveraging long-term relationships with international leaders and employing an infinite amount of patience, persistence, and audacity to make a lasting difference.” While his persistence succeeded on issues such as the nuclear deal with Iran, solutions to intractable conflicts such as the crisis in Syria or peace between Israel and Palestine have proved elusive.
Roberto Stefan Foa/Foreign Policy
“Public opinion data proves the earthquakes of Brexit and Trump are not simply the result of chance or bad timing,” says Roberto Stefan in Foreign Policy. “Instead, they are the outcome of deepening fissures in the long-running project of globalization.” Stefan writes that rising nationalism, concern about immigration, and growing skepticism about international institutions have culminated in the revolt that resulted in Brexit and Trump. It’s unclear where this will lead, but one thing to look for is how states will find a new balance between national sovereignty and transnational cooperation.