American Power in the Age of Trump

| Carmen Medina
Carmen Medina
Former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence

The administration of President Donald Trump has thrown key tenets of U.S foreign policy into question. After campaigning on a platform that skewered global free trade deals, called for economically nationalist policies, and questioned the U.S. alliance system, President Trump has so far done little to assuage international fears that America is stepping back from its traditional role of global leadership.

The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with Carmen Medina, former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence, about America’s role as a world leader and whether she is seeing a global realignment of power away from the United States.

The Cipher Brief: When you look at the way that countries are reacting to the actions of the Trump administration, specifically those that confirm fears of isolationist or protectionist tendencies, do you see any kind of strategic realignment starting to happen?

Carmen Medina: China has surpassed the U.S. and France as Germany’s largest trading partner, and I think this slow and gradual realignment toward China is inevitable. I certainly think the way Trump is choosing to characterize American interests in the world will accelerate that realignment a bit, but barring some catastrophic occurrence, I think this will still be a gradual process.

Fifteen or twenty years from now, when you look back at the slope line of economic and strategic realignment away from the United States, you’ll see that it steepened somewhat during the Trump administration, but I think the downward adjustment in American influence in the world and other countries’ alignment towards us is kind of inevitable.

I became aware of it 15 years ago when I read a projection based on unclassified data, which showed that China would likely surpass the United States on a number of strategic and economic measurements of power by this coming decade.   I find that completely believable, and I don’t think it has to be a tragedy. Everything has a lifespan and being a great power is no different.

I do think we will see a decline in U.S. influence in soft power in the short term. I was reading that the U.S. is going to join Mexico and Canada to put in a bid for the FIFA World Cup. How will the world look on U.S. bids to host international events given Trump’s immigration stance? I think people are going to look at Trump’s immigration stance and say, “wait a minute, why would we agree to have an event in your country given these xenophobic views that you seem to have?” These things matter, and they will add to the sense of inevitability of U.S. decline.

TCB: Would you say that Trump’s election – and some of his actions – are not necessarily creating new problems but just helping to strip away the veneer of the unipolar, U.S.-led world order a bit faster than we expected?

CM: Yes, I would say that’s true. Obama had already accepted the fact that the U.S. could not solve all the world’s problems, and that it wasn’t a very healthy foreign policy doctrine to try to do so. Even this whole idea of a “doctrine,” people throw around the word doctrine without really thinking. I’ve always thought it’s a crazy, nutty idea. It’s as if an important power is supposed to have all these accessories, and one is a “doctrine.” It’s a goofy carryover from another time.

A lot of the conversation about U.S. decline is exaggerated, but at the same time, the gradual U.S. decline is inevitable. Demographic and economic growth and power, we just can’t fight that.

In this context, I think it’s interesting to think about being a small to medium-sized power. Europe is going to find its way. And, for the countries around China in Asia, they will just have to accommodate to Beijing’s rise, one way or another.

That said, India is a wild card. Where do they fit on the game board? China has been on the board for a long time as sort of a decayed entity, but at least there was a place for it. India, on the other hand, was a British colony. For 70 years or so it has been an independent player, but it still hasn’t really found its place on the board. There was a brief moment in the 1960s when India was a big player in the non-aligned movement, but China’s unexpected emergence as a dominant power in its own right punctured this idea of a non-aligned movement. India was going to be this leader of the third way, but this just fell apart.

The recent rise in the price of Bitcoin has also caught my attention. I think, in at least a small way, it represents individual and perhaps even institutional investors losing confidence in the international system. If you don’t think governments in the West are headed in the right direction, you might wonder whether there’s any “safe currency.” Hence the appeal of Bitcoin.

TCB: Is all this a question of tone? Even if the relative decline of the United States is inevitable, the way that decline is managed is not. If a multipolar international system is where we’re heading, what do you think the best way is to manage the U.S. transition into that system, and where do you think we are headed now?

CM: I personally worry more about the consequences of the U.S. trying to aggressively maintain its first place standing longer than it should. It’s like a great football team that tries to have just one last championship season, trades all of its prospects and number one draft choices just so it can get that 36-year old quarterback who will give it one more super bowl run. That’s the scenario that worries me most.

I read this book about 20 years ago called, The Tsar’s Last Armada. It’s the story of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, in which the Japanese destroy the Russian Pacific fleet at Port Arthur, and Tsar Nicholas II had no choice – in his mind – but to send his Baltic fleet all the way around the world to Japan to fight the Japanese fleet. It took months to get there, but the battle lasted about three hours, and the Russian fleet was decimated, absolutely decimated.

I remember reading this and all I could think about was parallels to the United States. The thing that would really be a debacle for the U.S. and would create this kind of precipitous moment, where you have a shift change and an entirely new dynamic emerges, is if the U.S. miscalculates in the projection of power. The likeliest, and probably only part of the world where it could miscalculate in the projection of power, is Asia. Just imagine if we lost an aircraft carrier in Asia, just imagine it. It’s kind of over, right? 

For me, I always thought that the best role for the United States – the one that preserves the greatest power and influence – to play is one where its foreign policy strategy is to “mentor” the Chinese. We are going to ease China’s entry into its proper role in the world, that’s what we’re going to do. To me, that makes sense, and oddly enough, Trump may inadvertently be doing this. By forsaking U.S. leadership on climate change, free trade, and all of that, he is in a way helping to ease China into a leadership role in the world. He’s giving them an opportunity to practice.

I know there are people out there who think that it will be a great global tragedy when the U.S. and the West are not the leaders of the world. I don’t ascribe to that. I find that to be a very pessimistic way of looking at the world, because clearly, there will come a time when Asia will be more dominant. And the first moments of that time have arrived.

I remember when I was thinking about this many years ago, I thought it would be interesting when Asia is the most dominant world culture, because for so long, this Judeo-Christian ethical and philosophical set of values has guided how people thought about international relations and the world, and how the world is organized. I anticipate that, again, when you look 50 years ahead, people will look back and say, “ah, this was the first time we began to see the difference that a different cultural mindset made on how international relations work.”

TCB: So you see President Trump as sort of the mean teacher who the classmates can rally against?

CM: Yes, I think that’s right in a lot of ways. Trump at his most Trumpish does present unifying force for other people.

There is an argument, which I find believable, that says the Chinese have figured out how to deal with Trump. He is very transactional, so all you have to do is persuade him that he is getting the better deal. And I’ve been thinking, could you have a series of transactions that if you take all 20 of them together, China ends up with the better deal, but if you’re dealing with someone who is looking for a little win in every single transaction, he’ll go along with this series of deals as long as he thinks he’s winning each one?

Imagine you’re a real estate developer and you know that in 40 years Tyson’s Corner in Virginia is going to be the center of the Washington DC economy. Now, there’s a guy who owns 20 key properties in Tyson’s Corner – he owns a 7/11, a landscaping company, an old Holiday Inn, etc. So in each one of these 20 transactions, you offer him the deal he can’t refuse, knowing all along that when you get all 20 of these pieces, you will be the real winner.

That is the way China may be thinking about this. If on each individual deal Trump thinks he’s winning, then this is not a problem for Beijing as long as they know where they’re trying to go long term.

TCB: On the darker side of things, how could all of this go wrong? What’s your worst case scenario?

CM: The aircraft carrier scenario, losing an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, would be huge. If the Chinese did it, who knows what happens then. If the North Koreans did it, then it’s also horrible, but I don’t think it would lead to World War III.

Believe it or not, when I’m driving around, I’m thinking these thoughts. I think “OK, let’s say the North Koreans don’t sink the USS Carl Vinson, but they damage it. Will Trump argue that we should retaliate with nuclear weapons?” I kind of think that he would. I think in that scenario people would have to convince him not to do that.

To me, this has always been the flaw in nuclear deterrence. When you have a large nuclear power like the United States, and then you have a really small one like North Korea…

I would have these arguments with friends over the years: I would ask, “if the North Koreans did something horrible, would we really destroy them with nuclear weapons?” We would be destroying South Korea too, we would affect China and Japan. Would we really do this? And I would have these conversations with nuclear strategists, and they would say, “well that’s the plan.” Doesn’t this seem weird to you? It does, but this is the plan, this is the strategy.

There’s another important idea here beyond the worst case scenario, however.

When you’re not trying to accomplish a big, audacious goal, people get kind of lost. When Europe was fully partnered with the U.S. and leading the world, everyone saw this as the big audacious goal, and this created a climate where people were psychologically willing to let things play out, because something great was going to happen in a few years. When that aspirational goal is gone, people have a more “f**k it, I’m just going to get my piece” attitude….

TCB: Is that the biggest possible loss, a U.S. retreat from this rhetorical, psychological leadership of the world?

CM: Yes, that’s right. My friends in Europe would school me on what U.S. aspirational leadership meant to the world. They said, “Carmen, Americans have no clue. They don’t understand it.” Whereas China is becoming more influential, it has yet to, and may never, establish itself as an aspirational leader of the human race. That’s what the U.S. was. The U.S. was an aspirational leader of the human race.

Briefly, the Communists – the Bolsheviks of 1917 Russia – also had that kind of influence in the world, maybe for two decades. India and the non-aligned movement had a piece of it.

But the question is, how important is it for there to be an aspirational power? How important or how necessary is this aspirational momentum for the human race? If the U.S. no longer provides it, is there anyone who could?

TCB: Just the simple idea of a more perfect system for international governance and growth?

CM: Exactly, just the simple idea of a more dignified human existence. Thinking of it in terms of nations can just confuse the issue. What should really matter is people.

Let me just give you another thought on this aspirational role of the United States. Why did Obama win the Nobel peace prize his first year in office? Why did the Nobel committee think in any way that that was a good decision? In my opinion, what they were reacting to was Obama bringing back the aspirational nature of the U.S. for the rest of the world. And they were so happy about this that they gave him the peace prize. It was about bringing hope back to the world.

TCB: Do you see hope for Trump coming around to that aspirational vision?

CM: I’ve been thinking about Trump as a real estate guy. You could certainly think of real estate as a very linear business – it’s definitely transactional. And I really do think that Trump misses the forest for the trees. He’s such a transactional guy that it doesn’t even enter his mind to understand these larger questions, other than this sort of visceral desire to return America to greatness, whatever that means.

TCB: No vision of the arc of history?

CM: No, I don’t think he’s got much a vision of the arc of history. [Trump strategic advisor Steve] Bannon does, but it’s a very bizarre arc. It’s the anti-arc. 

The Author is Carmen Medina

Carmen Medina is a former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. A 32-year veteran of the Intelligence Community, she is also the author of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within.

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