Whenever Donald Trump gratuitously insults an American ally or casually degrades our country’s reputation, it is hard not to wonder what he thinks he is doing. Could the president of the United States perpetrate these damaging stunts, over and over again, merely to massage his own ego? Of all the explanations for Trump’s astonishingly destructive behavior, immaturity and narcissism are actually among the more innocent possibilities.
With each episode, the suspicion increasingly arises that Trump’s constant undermining of American alliances, credibility and prestige is not simply stupid or petulant but purposeful. And then the question is whose purpose that pattern might serve.
Until the next news cycle, the freshest example is his Twitter assault on London Mayor Sadiq Khan. For no reason at all, Trump falsely claimed – in the wake of last weekend’s terror attack in the British capital – that Khan didn’t take the horror seriously enough. Even as heads of state from around the world sent messages of support to the great city on the Thames, the president engaged in a petty provocation that predictably infuriated the citizens of America’s closest ally. (Imagine the outrage here if the prime minister of a NATO country had chosen Sept. 12, 2001, to insult Rudy Giuliani as a posturing fraud.)
Now Khan has urged the British government to withdraw its invitation to Trump for a state visit, which assuredly will not happen. Trump will go, Londoners will express their understandable displeasure at his presence, and the United States will be embarrassed again.
The Khan incident momentarily overshadowed Trump’s far more ruinous action in withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord. With that single stroke, he alienated every single country in the world (except perhaps Syria and Nicaragua, which distrust the U.S. already), elevated the stature of our adversaries and competitors, and proved that no American president is bound by the pledges of his predecessors.
In explaining his decision, Trump uttered numerous obvious falsehoods, such as his claim that the climate pact would hold back the U.S. economy while boosting the growth of other nations. All of the Paris signatories know that’s a lie, but it was said in the White House Rose Garden, with the president’s staff cheering him on – a disgrace from which America’s reputation may never fully recover.
The coal miners for whom Trump supposedly sacrificed the future of the planet may wonder why neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping felt that they too should ditch the climate accord. Suddenly, those authoritarian leaders look responsible and serious in contrast with the American president. In fact, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing felt such an awful loss of face over the Paris debacle that he resigned on principle.
But while Trump’s climate action represents a potentially cataclysmic policy, on another level it is yet one more installment in a long list of gaffes, affronts, stupidities and omissions that have badly weakened the United States. During his recent visit to Europe, the president seemed absolutely determined to offend as many NATO partners as possible, delivering a speech that disparaged their efforts and then going so far as to reportedly shove aside the prime minister of the treaty’s newest member, Montenegro.
Scarcely a day has passed without Trump instigating some kind of pointless diplomatic trouble, whether it is his cloddish sharing of Israeli intelligence with the Russians or his abrupt slap at the Chinese over relations with Taiwan. And every day, his continuing failure to appoint important officials in the State Department and other vital government departments makes the United States less able to respond to global crises, less reliable in dealing with other countries, less competitive and less cooperative in economic, environmental, health, and security matters that matter deeply to our future.
Whose interest is served by all this clownish chaos? Not the United States, which Trump took an oath to defend. But it is easy to imagine Putin smiling.