That effort is not only silly, but guaranteed to further embarrass and isolate the U.S., further alienate our closest allies, and further risk collisions with Tehran. The only “snapback” will be against U.S. interests, and the only result will be scorched diplomatic earth for Trump’s successor, exactly as the administration intends.
Navigating the serious challenge posed by Xi Jinping’s China is another area in which the administration can make it harder, not easier, to mobilize other countries to manage the rise of a more aggressive and ambitious Chinese competitor. The president has already trotted out his four horsemen of the apocalypse—National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Bill Barr—to give speeches castigating China for the “Wuhan virus” and Xi for being the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin. The severity of the threat posed by Xi’s China is real enough, but casting the struggle in cosmic terms will only make it harder to manage. That tactic will also undercut the administration’s born-again zeal for assembling an “alliance of democracies”—after four years of unprecedented assault on both allies and democracies.
The Trump administration is not the only one with agency during this fragile period. Other leaders will continue to perceive opportunity in Trump’s autocrat envy. Having invited Vladimir Putin to undermine his last Democratic rival, Trump is entirely capable of doing it again—and incapable of the kind of firm, consistent approach, and careful coordination with allies, that could be essential to limiting Russian overreach in crises in Belarus or elsewhere. Other authoritarian leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, will be tempted to take advantage of the U.S. while they can still count on Trump’s indulgence.
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Meanwhile, the rest of the world will continue to work around, not with, the United States in this terrible pandemic—during which “America First” has come to mean winning in all the wrong categories. American passports, once a symbol of our country’s appeal and reach, will open fewer and fewer doors abroad. Our national-security institutions will continue to be gutted by the Trump administration, our career public servants pilloried as “deep state” political enemies.
If Trump is reelected in November, what happens in the next 150 days in foreign policy will be an insignificant footnote to the end of an American-led international order. If he loses, I doubt that he will suddenly embrace the traditional bipartisan commitment to effective transitions. At best, he’ll be consumed by efforts to rationalize his defeat and paint the election as rigged; at worst, he’ll seek to contest or undermine the result. Like so many other features of the Trump era, the transition would bear little resemblance to any before, or any of the many I served through as a career diplomat. The costs of confusion, mixed signals, and bureaucratic turmoil could be very high.
The Trump era has been one long quarantine of common sense and competence in American foreign policy, and the next 150 days aren’t likely to be an exception. With a president unfit for office, an administration bent on creating as many “facts” in its favor as it can, and a variety of foreign players trying to score points amid the chaos, we are entering a combustible moment. Trump could still trample many U.S. foreign-policy interests if this is truly his last dance in the White House.