Jan 10, 2020

Trump puts America's superpower status to the test

Dave Lawler, author of World

Trump's White House address on Iran. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump has shrunk America's global presence in many ways, but he has also at times placed high-risk bets on its superpower status.

Driving the news: Trump didn't want war with Iran, yet he ordered the killing of Iran's top commander. That requires enormous faith in the shield of American military superiority.

  • Engaging China in a trade war requires a belief that the world’s second-largest economy will blink first in a showdown with the largest.
  • The “maximum pressure” campaigns — first on North Korea and then on Iran — were testaments to American economic might and to Trump’s confidence that countries and companies would fall in line, even when reluctant to do so.

The results of Trump’s geopolitical muscle-flexing are uneven. 

  • China has not made anywhere near the model-shifting concessions Trump has demanded.
  • North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are more formidable than before “fire and fury.” 
  • Crippling sanctions on Iran have led not to a tougher deal, but to a series of escalations. Asymmetric retaliation for Soleimani’s death remains likely. 
  • Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is still in power after a year of American insistence that his days were numbered.

Closer to home, Trump’s threats yielded significant tweaks to NAFTA and a pledge from Mexico to hold tens of thousands of U.S.-bound asylum-seekers.

  • Holding NATO hostage over defense spending infuriated allies, but budgets have nonetheless increased.
  • And Iran’s military retaliation to Trump’s audacious strike in Baghdad came with an early warning and was clearly designed to avoid a showdown with the world’s most powerful military. 

The bottom line: Trump's America isn't much liked, and it certainly isn't trusted, as new Pew data shows. But it can't be ignored.

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