Rex Tillerson proved a hapless US secretary of state. On the evidence so far, his successor Mike Pompeo will turn out to be a thoughtless steward of America’s global interests. Throw in President Donald Trump’s ego-obsessed mood swings and you have the end of American diplomacy.
Mr Tillerson knew little about affairs of state — a lifetime in the oil business did not bestow understanding of the geopolitical tides of the times. His promised reform of the state department became an exodus of top-flight diplomats. He never gained Mr Trump’s confidence. From time to time he was able to restrain the president, but he was more frequently undermined by Twitter storms from the White House.
Mr Pompeo is closer personally to Mr Trump — perhaps because he so studiously mimics the president’s weaknesses. Both imagine the US can do what it likes, where it likes, when it likes — an assumption paraded by Mr Pompeo in his approach to Iran’s nuclear efforts. Neither man asks, let alone answers, the question at the heart of all diplomatic calculations: “and then what?”
To the extent that the administration’s actions have a leitmotif, it is provided by a string of unilateral initiatives intended to demonstrate US power. They have had the opposite effect: weakening Washington’s capacity to promote its interests. Every time the US spurns its international commitments— whether over trade, climate change or Iran — it invites allies to step back and look for new friends and adversaries to press their advantage.
Mr Trump, we know, rarely thinks beyond the instant impact of his statements and tweets. He wants to make a splash. The likely consequences of any given decision or statement are studiously ignored. His aides boast that this “disruptive” approach has broken a series of historic logjams. Moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, and offering a summit to North Korean president Kim Jong Un are filed as “game-changers”.
To what purpose? When foreign visitors to the White House ask how the administration intends to follow through — the “then what” — they are met with blank stares: “Hey, we have shaken things up, rewritten the rules.” This apparently is enough. The president will think about what to do next, well, next. As to embedding into policy a rough calculation of how others might respond, no one could accuse Mr Trump of being a chess player.
Mr Pompeo used his first speech to set out what he described as an Iran strategy. Only he offered not so much a strategy as a laundry list of demands of Tehran. The requirements went way beyond the nuclear, reaching into almost every dimension of Iranian policy. By the end, you half-expected the secretary of state to add that Iran must convert from Islam to Christianity.
Some of the objectives are widely shared. The regime in Tehran is repressive and destabilising of the region. A diplomat would have seen, though, the gap between the desirable and the plausible. Most of the time nations are obliged to treat with other nations as they are. I am sure Mr Pompeo would like to see Saudi Arabia stop the export of the extreme Wahhabi Islamism that gives cover to violent jihadis as well as Iran withdrawing its militias from Syria.
Hubris — Iran must do what Washington says, or else — sits alongside the absence of means of achieving the administration’s goals. Mr Trump can wave the sanctions stick, but he has lost the support of the international community. The Europeans will defy the US sanctions regime where they can. Russia and China will ignore it. For their part, Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue to push for war against Iran. I am not sure Mr Trump’s core vote wants him to start another Middle East conflagration.
The same ego-driven impulses explain the farce of Mr Trump’s on-off summit with Mr Kim. The president offered the talks without a thought as to an achievable outcome. John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, filled the gap by saying the US would accept nothing less than North Korea’s abject surrender of its nuclear programme. The president then expressed himself surprised when Mr Kim took offence.
Mr Bolton counts himself among those who think the US has the power to do as it pleases. Mr Pompeo’s demands for submission from Iran are matched by the comparison drawn by Mr Bolton between Mr Kim’s North Korea and the late Muammer Gaddafi’s Libya. The snag is that tyrants do not wittingly vote for their own demise. No one can be certain of Mr Kim’s negotiating stance if, as we should hope, a summit does take place. One thing is as certain as it could be — Pyongyang is not about to hand over its nuclear arsenal anytime soon.
Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama is sometimes criticised for stepping back from the US leadership role. In part he was owning up to the reality of shifts in global power, but there were also moments when he was too eager to shrug off the Pax Americana. Analysis in the Obama White House too often became the midwife to paralysis.
Look through the noisy threats and bombast and Mr Trump has turned diffidence into retreat. In squandering America’s soft power, he has shrunk its ability to get things done. And in staking out a belligerent unilateralism, he has persuaded allies and adversaries alike that the American moment has passed. What replaces it will probably be something much worse.