The US’s problem is that it is too big to be constrained by the world but now too small to dominate it

The country is gradually transforming into what is known in international relations as a “semi-hegemon”.

“Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable,” observed the New York Times on 4 January. That appears to have been the case following various Iranian provocations to the US. But Donald Trump seized on the most hard-line of the options presented to him: the killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top general. The president’s motives were almost certainly self-centred. Last October he had announced the US’s fatal strike on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic State, to great praise. Now he wanted a repeat of that and positive comparisons with a supposedly weak Barack Obama.

One man’s narcissism, in other words, triggered the events that followed: the US drone strike killing Soleimani on 3 January, the subsequent joy and fury across the Middle East, Iran’s retaliatory strike on US bases, the accidental Iranian missile attack on jet PS752 to Kiev and the deaths of the 176 people on board, and now the ensuing protests on Iranian streets. Can one apply the “law of unintended consequences” to a man with only a fleeting relationship with the concept of consequences?

Trump knows little about the world and has no foreign-policy doctrine. He acts on impulse. One minute the president repudiates “endless wars” in the Middle East, disparages Obama’s nuclear deal (the JCPOA) with Tehran, mocks Nato, demonises China and makes good with Kim Jong-un. The next he is putting troops back into the Middle East, arguing for Nato to get involved in the region, backing down on his trade war and attacking Kim again. If the American president has a doctrine, it is face-saving inconsistency.

World leaders are learning from this. The know-nothing, care-little narcissist in the White House can be easily manipulated with offers of cosmetic wins. Kim gave him vague commitments to peace. The EU offered to buy American soybeans in return for a pause to tariffs. The latest instance is Boris Johnson’s suggestion on 14 January that the Iran deal is flawed (it is not) and that a “Trump deal” on Iranian nuclear enrichment is needed. In practice this would be a tweaked JCPOA with the president’s name on it. Appealing to Trump’s ego is the best path to peace with Iran.

Trump may win a second term at the election in November. His ensuing sense of impunity will make him a much more dangerous figure on the global stage. Yet there will be other shifts in the wider world. As bound up as Washington’s uncertain foreign policy is with Trump’s psychology and flaws, in the long term it will outlive his presidency. A straight line runs from George W Bush, through Obama’s presidency and now to Trump’s administration. The US is gradually transforming into what is known in international relations as a “semi-hegemon”.

The term was originally applied to modern, reunified Germany’s place in Europe: as a state too big to slot neatly into the continental order but …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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