America is contracting. It pulls back from the world, its people pull away from each other. Last week’s Wall Street Journal report that President Trump had ordered the withdrawal of slightly more than a quarter of our troops in Germany went unnoticed amid the domestic unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. The truth is that the two stories, foreign and domestic, are related. They are dual aspects of a loss of national self-confidence, an outbreak of intellectual and moral uncertainty, and an unpredictable, erratic, and easily piqued chief executive. Violence — here, there, and everywhere — is the result.
The drawdown is not necessarily bad in itself. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama reduced troop levels in Europe. What is troubling is not the policy per se but the way it was rolled out and the context in which it will be actualized. At the precise moment when it should be strengthening partnerships and expanding its presence to deter adversaries, including Russia and China, America sent another signal that its days of global leadership are coming to an end.
The timing was inauspicious. Word leaked to the Journal a few days after German chancellor Angela Merkel rejected the president’s invitation to Washington in June (a senior U.S. official told the paper the two events were not connected). There was no presidential explanation, no public attempt to mollify European and NATO allies. And while Germany certainly could pay more for its defense, and Merkel has been recalcitrant on the Nord Stream II pipeline, alliance maintenance requires active measures from both sides. One of the reasons the post–World War II liberal international order is unraveling is that transatlantic governments have too often put domestic politics ahead of shared interests.
It is easy to forget this mutual concern for a world order of free governments and open commons of sea, air, space, and cyber. Institutional degradation makes it even easier. The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. says the American people need to decide whether the organization is “worth it,” the French president calls NATO brain-dead, the German Constitutional Court rules the European Union’s bond-buying program is illegal, the World Trade Organization is handicapped, and the American president pledges to halt funding for the World Health Organization.
No open steps have been taken to reclaim or rebuild these institutions, or to build new counter-institutions that could carry out their original functions. The U.S.–U.K. trade deal, which could be the cornerstone of a renewed transatlantic relationship, has been subordinated to the more pressing concerns of pandemic, recession, and protest. What characterizes international relations is conflict, antagonism, mistrust, disregard, and drift.
This is the sort of environment that demands the forward presence of American forces to reassure host governments of our commitment to international security and to deter opponents from hostile action. Everywhere you look, however, America is leaving. We want out of Syria, out of Afghanistan, out of Iraq, out of Africa, out of Germany. In the coming years we may want out of South Korea, and even out of Japan. One or even several of these moves might be reasonable in isolation. Together they communicate to the world a disinterest in fulfilling the role of guarantor that America has played in international politics for generations.
And the world has noticed. Violence surged in Afghanistan despite the peace agreement with the Taliban. ISIS has stepped up the pace of attacks in Iraq. China has surged troops along its border with India and ramped up its activity in the South China Sea, and on June 9 Chinese fighters violated Taiwanese airspace after a U.S. overflight. Russian bombers and fighters probe U.S. airspace, with one formation coming within eight miles of the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone on June 10. Kim Jong-un has severed communication with South Korea. Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning, and recently the Iranians constructed a fake U.S. aircraft carrier so that they can blow it up in live-fire exercises.
The conditions of global disorder and domestic unrest that America experienced during the final years of the Obama administration have recapitulated (and magnified) themselves in advance of November’s presidential election. The president faces three interlocking crises of public health, economics, and social instability. The emergence of a fourth crisis, involving national security and great-power conflict, has the potential to place incalculable strains on an already beleaguered system. An international flashpoint is not inevitable, but it has happened before in similar circumstances. The world always grows more dangerous when the superpower takes flight.