International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago, the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Soleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly abandon allies like the Kurds; we honor war criminals; we slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course, after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Soleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.