Imagine Donald Trump as the leader of the free world.
It may be something we have to get used to.
Coming after eight years of Barack Obama, who came after George W. Bush, who came after Bill Clinton, one can wonder what made America great.
A population of 320 million and the world largest economy had a great deal to do with it, along with being the last country standing at the end of the most recent world war, and still having the greatest military assets.
However, 1945 was a long time ago. Those of us who remember it are too old to be relied on for anything cogent.
Europe and Japan are back in the middle of things, and China has developed an economy that may be larger than that of the U.S., leaving aside the issue of per capita. Russia is restive, and its leader has challenged others at some sensitive points.
The world’s most powerful army isn’t worth much if the Commander in Chief is reluctant to use it.
Then there are two issues associated with Islam: Iran and Sunni extremism.
Can any of us rely on the White House to keep things afloat?
It’s a lot easier asking this question than answering it.
Those who worry about an empire well into its crumbling can cite the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for a presidential speech that contributed to the brief hope of Arab Spring and the chaos that has been with us since then.
Donald Trump’s call to halt the entry of Muslims may pass as nothing more than an insignificant comment by a populist in the midst of a campaign marked by worry about Islam, or it may be a landmark on a further retreat from the world into an older pattern of isolation.
Obama’s reluctance to send American boots to the Middle East suggests the same retreat, buffered by his willingness to bomb and provide supplies and guidance to those willing to fight.
Bernie Sanders has made virtually no impact on media here, which may reflect his focus on domestic issues. While he is the darkest of horses, the life apparent in his campaign suggests a tilt of leftists away from a major role in the world.
Western Europeans appear to be hampered by the institutions of the European Union. We ought to applaud those as coming from one of America’s greatest moves after World War II. Commitments to European unity have kept the peace in what used to be the world’s tinderbox, but has not done much outside of that. Europe’s contributions to a campaign against the Islamic State are pretty far down in the category of occasional bombing runs, along with what the United States is doing. Germany, France, and Britain could be significant players, along with being obvious targets of the Islamic State due to their large Muslim populations. France more than others has acted in places it used to govern, but European constraints pretty much limit what can be expected. Libya has not been a good example of Europe’s contribution to world order.
Numerous military persons of stature say that you can’t win anything by bombing. You need boots on the ground to clean out the nests and establish the kind of order that you prefer.
Against that is a positive report about a weakening Islamic State in the recent issue of The Economist. It describes a combined effect of increased bombing with limitations on the arrival of recruits by way of Turkey and the closing of important Internet media to Islamic State messages and propaganda.
Nonetheless, The Economist hedges its optimism. It’s too early to project victory, or to decide if it is possible to deal with Islamic extremism the way Obama and his European colleagues prefer..
If there is no sign of an American taking an active role as world leader, the obvious question is, Who else?
There may be some friends of the United Nations who think that organization is up to the task.
Perhaps if the organization overcomes its obsession with Israel, some of our friends can take it seriously.
We hear a lot about international law, but it has done little to stop Russia in Ukraine. The West Bank is a place where markedly different views of international law are cited, with none of them applied by any body with the capacity to end the dispute.
Given the constraints on Europe and Japan, America’s turn inward, and China’s concern with managing its economy, we’re left with Russia as the prime candidate for international activism.
Russia’s population less than half that of the U.S. and an economy a fifth that of the US and China are significant limitations. However, the assertiveness of Vladimir Putin with respect to Ukraine and Syria, as well as his response to Turkey’s provocation, compared to Barack Obama’s flabby restraint on just about every issue of foreign policy makes up for some of the differences in raw power. There is also a lot of military capacity that justifies taking a look at Russia as a power that might be the one most likely to define things outside of its borders.
The performance of Barack Obama and his colleagues with respect to Iran is not encouraging. Iran is already violating constraints against testing long-range missiles, and the failure to deal with its support for terror is a major gap in the agreement.
The U.S. president’s recent speech about the Islamic State brought forth criticism that he seems inclined to defeat it by words.
Contrast his style with Putin’s willingness to use force in Syria, apparently without the niceties of worrying about civilian casualties.
Those who applaud the fine words of the American president should ask themselves if the sentiments are suitable to a region that has produced the barbarism of the Islamic State. The president’s sentiments may fit the better parts of the Middle West, but not the Middle East.
Question: Can the Russian bear be kept to modest levels of appetite and accomplishment?
Question: Who’s capable of doing it?
We may be at the point where no one is up to leading the world.
Among the signs of progress since World War II is that great parts of the world have developed to the point where they can take care of themselves without international interference. This is true of much of Asia outside of the problematic parts of the Middle East. The U.S. meddles less than it used to in Latin America. Mexico and Central America are not doing well, but Americans prefer drugs and cheap labor more than any greater order south of their border. Much of Africa is no better or worse than always, except for population pressure feeding into the migrant streams toward Europe.
Where Arab Spring has morphed to chaos, there is no obvious scenario leading to anything better. Russia seems capable of protecting portions of Syria for the Assad regime, but maybe not much more than that. The Kurds have gained a greater degree of autonomy in Iraq. Afghanistan remains a long way from being a real country with a functioning government. Iran’s stretch into Iraq and Yemen is far from resolved. Egypt is struggling to gain control of the Sinai and reestablish tourism there and closer to home. Libya, Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries remain problematic, as do minority communities in Europe and the U.S.
It seems best to leave the question of international order hanging, in order to gain more time to judge the agreement with Iran, and what happens with the Islamic State. Also on the agenda is a brand new declaration of intent dealing with pollution and global warming. The issue of migration is close to the center of things in Europe.
It’ll take a while to know how close we are to international anarchy or international order.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus), Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, firstname.lastname@example.org.