America is looking inward, resembling a sullen, sometimes confused navel-gazing couch-potato. It’s tired of going outside and bored with the world.
The president of the United States went to the United Nations this week to let foreign leaders know we were picking up our marbles and going home. He just told the entire world that globalism is dead. Long-live insular, parochial patriotism!
National pride, defense and attention to domestic issues are keenly important, of course. But America’s two wide oceans and friendly neighbors do not divorce us from the rest of the world’s trade, economy or politics, even if our national “Netflix and Chill ” attitude makes foreigners seem distant and irrelevant.
As America sits in darkness, twiddles its thumbs and fiddles with its video-game controller, our country is also desperately trying to figure out how to reckon with our failed overseas adventures. How do we extract ourselves from our foolish foreign wars. Recent steps forward seem instead to take us down a notch. We’re still trying to reconcile how we spent such unjustifiable amounts of our nation’s blood and treasure in places we bombed and occupied, uninvited, after 9/11.
During this expensive 18-year distraction and our current global withdrawal, the rest of the world has taken advantage of our insecurity and division, recognizing that this is the moment for our adversaries to grow their influence and stretch their borders — a chance to build their global futures.
China is busy constructing islands to expand its territory, Russia is building bridges to physically tether its illegally occupied neighbor to the motherland. America’s strategic power competitors are actively developing, squatting or usurping land to grow their power and presence beyond their current boundaries. They are sparing no expense to buy and bully their way further onto the world stage.
What about the United States? Under the current leadership, it’s still trying to get Mexico to sign an IOU to build a border wall with a “big beautiful door.” Instead of bridges, America is building walls.
America’s new foreign policy lens is a monocle focused on China’s meteoric growth and insatiable ambition. Our policymakers should instead be wearing bifocals. Better yet, progressives should see the whole picture, because as America actively tries to ground a high-flying China, it has lost sight of a Russia quietly spreading its wings.
Russia’s recent 12-mile, $4-billion dollar bridge to its occupied and annexed Crimean peninsula is the most obvious of connectors to an expanded future. Less visible are Moscow’s growing military and economic ties to various nations around the world.
In Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s presence is increasingly permanent. From Syria to Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, Moscow’s strategic and regional interests are an exercise in thuggish petro-politics. Its unstated “Energy First” security policy is driving its aggressive meddling in Venezuela. Most concerning, the Kremlin’s relationship with Beijing is warming up.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping now are besties who conduct joint military exercises and form a U.N. Security Council veto bloc. With Russia economically sanctioned and China in the U.S. penalty box, these two nations are accommodating each other’s needs and finding common cause. They are witnessing a fracturing, anti-globalist and increasingly insular West ready to forsake the world entirely. New Russian relationships may seem like ephemeral convenient alliances, but Putin wants to make them enduring and permanent, beyond just friends with benefits.
President Trump may think his personal touch, Russian outreach and Putin praising is going to entice Moscow to help contain Beijing, but this scenario is a policy fantasy. Russia pursues its raw economic and security interests in a cynical zero-sum game. It supports authoritarians and ignores abuses of human rights, press freedom and democratic norms. This suits many world leaders perfectly.
Erdogan, Orban, Sisi, Assad, Xi — a rogues’ gallery of authoritarians and assassins make up Moscow’s expanding universe. These nations together seek to challenge the previously stable Western-dominated world order and are maneuvering to limit Washington’s influence.
The Trump administration favors bilateral agreements over multilateral institutions and alliances, hoping for weaker partners and better deals by dumping allies to pursue an America First folly. This practice allows Russia both to build bridges and destroy American inroads. It helps give Xi a boost when America threatens his economy. It keeps Nicolás Maduro in power — despite Vice President Mike Pence forcefully telling Caracas he must go.
China and Russia are going for broke in this great game by building ports, dams, roads, railways, pipelines, communications infrastructure and political partnerships around the world — and, eventually, all the way up to America’s borders. They may be making an expensively bad geopolitical bet. Or not.
Trump doesn’t really care. Instead of countering or matching our adversaries’ expansionist global strategy, America’s developer-in-chief wants to build only one permanent thing: a solid, reliable, and exclusively nativist political movement at home.
Markos Kounalakis paid his way through college driving buses and working construction; he now builds global scholar bridges from the Hoover Institution.