The US President Donald Trump doesn’t do complicated. That’s one of his biggest weaknesses, as well as a major strength. Most real problems are complicated; but simple is easy to communicate. And the idea that “elites” use the excuse of complexity to mask incompetence or worse has a powerful resonance with many people.
Take Mr Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea. It is a hard problem, though arguably not all that complicated, and it has defeated every US regime that has tried to tackle it. Mr Trump’s is no different, though he assumed that his genius could crack it. He hopes that he can tempt the country into rolling up its nuclear programme by offering the benefits of an open economy. But convincing the paranoid is hard work, especially when you want to appear tough yourself. At least Mr Trump didn’t fall for the something-for-nothing deal that his counterpart sought. Meanwhile he hopes that his theatrics, and the reduction in tension arising with nuclear and missile tests now done, will be result enough, and he sticks to this simple message. While the intelligentsia gabbles on about his failure, there is unlikely to be much damage to his reputation.
No foreign policy problem is more complicated than that of the Middle East, a place where your worst enemy can be your friend elsewhere in the neighbourhood. But is Mr Trump onto something by pushing for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria? Sometimes it requires a simple vision to cut through nonsense.
Mr Trump’s stance has caused despair amongst foreign policy professionals. Extracting the US from Syria will mean that the country loses influence, and it would mean that the country’s most reliable ally, the Kurds, will go over into the Syrian government/Russian camp. Years of diplomacy and relationship building will be trashed.
But the US and its European allies have achieved nothing of value in Syria since its civil war erupted in 2011. The Islamic State terrorist organisation has nearly been crushed there, it is true, but was it a real threat in the first place? And has the level of threat diminished? IS’s leaders promoted it as a base for attacks against western interests around the world, in deliberately provocative propaganda. But did we respond to those provocations in the right way? Was there much practical sustenance to terrorists arising from IS’s Syrian bases? Such attacks as there have been were perpetrated by lone wolves and small cells, with little direct connection to Syria. They are more likely to have been provoked by western military action rather than deterred by it. Security experts are now telling us how little the wiping out of IS’s bases in Syria and Iraq makes to the level of threat – though admittedly they would say that regardless. The western powers simply gave what IS’s attention-seekers what they craved, with a bit of martyrdom thrown in. In the end the Syrian government, with their Russian and Iranian allies, would doubtless have dealt with them anyway, or they would have collapsed from their own contradictions.
Meanwhile the continuing western presence is creating more conflict, in particular with the Turkish government. The Turks are by no means good guys, but then are the Iranians, Saudis and Russians? Turkey is a European power as well as a Middle Eastern one: the war in Syria makes other aspects of our difficult relationship with it harder to manage. It was the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that started Mr Trump down this course in the first place.
By now the concept of liberal intervention should be dead. It was pioneered by Tony Blair, for use in the former Yugoslavia, and then picked up by the neoconservatives that surrounded George Bush Junior. The Balkans are part of Europe, and military intervention there was followed through with state-building by mainly European nations. It more-or-less worked. But such follow-through could never be replicated in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Instead all we have learnt is how alien these places are to our concept of society. Military intervention, unless contained within clear boundaries and part of a broad coalition, like the First Gulf War, is doomed because it has to be followed by the process of state-building, which Western countries cannot do.
So what is to be done instead? Military interventions may often be helpful to prevent civil wars from escalating, or to break a stalemate and bring peace – or even to bring down a murderous regime. But it needs to be led by local powers, with outsiders providing logistical or air support if appropriate. In Syria these local powers are Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. These regimes inspire no confidence: they are as likely to see civil wars as opportunities to develop their rivalries as crises to be fixed. But that is surely because the have become to used to the idea of superpower leadership. They are not used to taking leadership roles themselves. We in the west haven’t got used to that idea either. So many commentators, especially from the left, assume that all the problems in distant lands are the fault of western powers, and therefore it is our responsibility to fix them. They ascribe no agency to local actors. I call this way of thinking “post-colonialism” as it reminds me of the arrogance of the colonial era. Civil wars and state collapses do not benefit the neighbourhood. Sooner or later the local powers will learn how to manage them towards peaceful outcomes, even if this doesn’t look very pretty to our eyes. Mostly they are learning this the hard way (as Yemen shows – a civil breakdown that has been mainly left to the locals). But, for example in West Africa, there have been better examples. Western intervention doesn’t help. And if the Russians want to play superpower games, more fool them.
Mr Trump seems to get this better than most. The paradox of his ambition to “Make America Great Again” is that it means a retreat from global responsibility, and taking a narrower view of its interests: the opposite of greatness. But the colonial era is over; the Cold War has passed; and Pax Americana is now broken. It is about time the world joined Mr Trump and woke up to the consequences of that.