With the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, Trump proved it: we need a new country to lead the free world

Trump has brought the problem into terrifyingly sharp focus. A world in which ultimate power can be entrusted to a ranting, vindictive, hyper-simplistic moron by evangelicals is a world in mortal need of a counterweight to American supremacy

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 15 May 2018 17:36 BST
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu hail US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital

The approaching milestone may pack a more visceral punch than dry fractions tend to deliver. This Sunday, on the chilling assumption that he gets re-elected in 2020, Donald Trump will be exactly one sixth of the way through his presidency.

Taking in the state of the Middle East and wider geopolitical relations after 16 of his potential 96 months, the dilemma for leaders of other major global powers seems plain. Do they wait him out, hoping he serves only the one term (or that Robert Mueller and/or all the Filets-O-Fish finish him off sooner); but praying that, if he does make it through two, enough remnants of the established world order will survive him to allow it to be rebuilt? Or, acknowledging the extreme danger presented by the void where (for better or worse) the Pax Americana existed for over 70 years, do they try to fill it?

Whether it’s dead or frozen in cryogenic stasis, there is now no American leadership of the free world for the first time since Pearl Harbour. The four-step abrogation process began with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, speeded up with his floating of pernicious trade tariffs and gathered more pace with his reneging on the Iranian nuclear deal. It concluded this week with his relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

To ignore the pleas of every major democratic ally once might be considered a foible. To do it twice begins to look like disdain. To complete the hat-trick is palpably a gigantic f**k you. Notching a fourth, by jettisoning any pretence of impartiality between Israel and the Palestinians, is an unmistakable declaration of long-term isolationist intent.

Any lingering doubt about that died before the 58th Palestinian casualty of Israel’s bespoke interpretation of the phrase “proportionate response”: a baby whose life ended shortly after being exposed to Israeli tear gas, earlier today.

The scriptural demand that Jerusalem be the Jewish people’s eternal capital is generally sourced to Chronicles. But the flavour of footage from Gaza in the hours since the US embassy opened there belongs more to the Book of Revelation.

While the tangerine horseman of the apocalypse reclines on his bed lapping up the plaudits on Fox News, a shivering world looks for a saviour; or at least for some force to emerge to counterbalance brazen American imperialism run riot.

When Francis Fukuyama greeted the collapse of the Soviets by announcing the end of history, as has been obvious for a while, he jumped the gun. One period of history did end with the Cold War, of course, and humanity jubilantly jumped out of the frying pan. But the sudden global power imbalance that followed began a new era, by lighting the fire that threatens to become a consuming inferno.

Nearly three decades later, the perils for a world no longer held in check (however uneasy and sometimes scary) by the rivalry of two superpowers are clearer than ever.

They were hardly opaque when the US invaded Iraq – a folly so incendiary in that tinderbox region as to be unimaginable during the Cold War – and lit the fuse fizzing louder than ever today by destabilising the region and emboldening Iran.

Yet for all his limitations and faux good-ol’-boy imbecilities, George W Bush was a broadly conventional president. His key advisers were arrogant and repulsive, but not quite technically certifiable. Bush appreciated the need to feign some vague neutrality equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians. He was never recorded fantasising about using nuclear warheads.

Trump has brought the problem into terrifyingly sharp focus. A world in which ultimate power can be entrusted to a ranting, vindictive, hyper-simplistic moron by evangelicals is a world in mortal need of a counterweight to American supremacy.

But who? Only China has both the economic and military force, hence the paradox that eyes in the democratic West are coyly glancing towards a brutal totalitarian regime to protect their liberal values against the onslaught from the land of the free. Even ignoring the implications of that irony, China remains inherently isolationist itself, and unwilling or unready to lead.

The European Union has the aggregated financial muscle, and the ambition to project liberal democratic values beyond its borders. But it couldn’t fight its way out of choux pastry handcuffs – and in its fragile political condition, this is hardly the moment to create the federated United States of Europe required to build the military capability that could restore some global balance.

Russia is so enfeebled that it’s reduced to playing a knock down ginger variant of the guerrilla warfare game. Japan is a non-nuclear power that likes to keep itself to itself. As for us, nothing need be said there beyond the fact that leading the British flank in the rearguard to rescue the Iranian deal is Boris Johnson.

This is, in other words, a counsel of despair. For almost 30 years, the absence of a rival superpower has created the vacuum responsible for every post-Cold War geopolitical disaster.

Ultimately, a vacuum can end in only two ways. It is filled, or it implodes. If the planet’s second-rank powers decide they have no viable option but to wait Trump out for another 80 months (although at this tumultuous rate another 32 may suffice), that would appear to leave one.

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