Trump has blundered into conflict with competitors, insulted allies and made the US a laughingstock. No one is in charge, and it’s frightening.

If we take a moment to pull ourselves away from the daily melodrama of President Donald Trump’s efforts to suppress a report that he claims exonerates him, we might notice that American foreign policy has spiraled completely out of control.

Our trade war with China continues, for no other reason than that the president does not understand how the international economy works. After two splashy but vacuous summits that never should have happened, the North Koreans continue to press ahead with their nuclear program. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s clumsy ditching of the Iran deal has achieved the miracle of ceding the moral high ground to Tehran and making a terror-supporting regime seem like the aggrieved party. The Iranians are now threatening to resume parts of their nuclear program that would put them closer to potentially making a bomb — as the White House stares dumbfounded, with no second move for a contingency that anyone who can think more than 10 seconds ahead would have seen coming.

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After a promise to restore America’s standing in the world, Trump has blundered into conflict with our competitors, insulted our allies, and generally made the United States into a laughingstock.

Why is this happening? Who’s in charge in Washington these days?

A frightening leadership vacuum

The easy answer is to blame all of this on National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton had to swallow almost every position he ever held to get the job in the White House, and it would be reasonable to assume that he is now trying to execute his own agenda while Trump is busy trying to avoid any number of humiliations, including impeachment.

But this is unfair. Bolton doesn’t know what he’s doing, either. From Iran to Venezuela, Bolton is indulging a set of atavistic reflexes — a predilection for confrontation, a belief in the utility of intervention, a disdain for negotiated solutions, a hatred of treaties and international institutions — rather than following any kind of strategy. There is no more a “Bolton Doctrine” than there is a “Trump Doctrine.”

The more frightening answer is that no one is in charge. The president has no obvious interest in national security and foreign affairs, except insofar as such things affect him personally. Even if the president wanted to direct a more coherent foreign policy, there’s not much of a team left to direct. A quick read of the rosters in the departments of State and Defense leaves the impression that the most common last names in the higher echelons of government are “Vacant” and “Acting.”

Putin and Russia keep humiliating Trump

This has left the foreign policy establishment on autopilot, with various offices and bureaucracies continuing along — fortunately for America — with policies from the Barack Obama and even George W. Bush eras in the absence of any other direction. In those few times when Trump gets involved in policy, it is mostly to contradict his own administration, whether on intervention in Venezuela, forces in Syria, or sanctions on Russia.

Russia is a particularly galling example of the free-fall of American foreign policy. When Trump inexplicably felt the need to call Russian President Vladimir Putin and discuss the Mueller report, Putin — in a kind of reverse Monroe Doctrine — made sure to remind the president of the United States to keep his nose out of Venezuela. (This from the man who, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, persuaded Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro to stick around just as he was about to leave for Cuba.)

In any competent American administration, this would be a dire insult. Any other U.S. president would have then reminded Putin that his country has a GDP somewhere between Florida and Brazil, that Venezuela is in Latin America, and that maybe the Russians should think about ceasing their aggression against their neighbors. 

Instead, Putin made clear he wants the incoming president of Ukraine pressured to honor agreements with Russia — a brazen act of chutzpah (or, as the Russians call this level of nervy arrogance, naglost) with Russian troops occupying Ukrainian territory. The message to Trump: “Tell that guy that I want him to observe the accord I am violating.”

Our adversaries are watching us self-destruct

Trump likes to claim that he’s been tougher on Russia than any other U.S. president. though Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman and might take issue with that. His supporters note, rightly, that many sanctions are still in place against Russia, but there has been no lack of effort by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to dump them. Republicans brag about Trump’s toughness while Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska pours millions of dollars into trying to make aluminum in McConnell’s home state Kentucky.

So much for “tough on Russia.”

Meanwhile, the carrier Abraham Lincoln is heading for the Persian Gulf. And Trump supporters would note with pride that North Korea, which in 2017 tested a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States, hasn’t tested any other long-range missiles — yet. Instead, Pyongyang has been firing off the type of short-range missiles “that will start the war,” weapons expert Melissa Hanham told Reuters.

Trump has avoided a major conflict so far through a combination of luck and the opportunism of America’s enemies. The Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others have not yet forced us into a crisis, remaining content instead to see the United States floundering about on its own. There is no need, after all, to destroy American power and prestige if the White House is willing to do all the same damage by itself.

But this will not last. The United States, and the international system it helped create, cannot continue indefinitely along a path of incoherence and ignorance. Trump may not even be in office when the reckoning comes. The question is whether we will be ready.

Tom Nichols is a national security professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

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