By Jim Hoagland
Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Post and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The first glimpses the world has caught of Donald Trump’s America have unsettled allies and encouraged adversaries. Both camps anticipate that they will be dealing with the “Disunited States of America” throughout Trump’s presidency.
That phrase comes from Wang Jisi, a Chinese academic with a bent for straight talk. Trump’s election “was hardly a victory for democracy,” he harrumphed. But it was welcomed by the Chinese people, who gain from the weakening of U.S. moral authority in world affairs and who feel a certain kinship with the New York real estate magnate.
Wang spoke this week at the World Policy Conference, an annual gathering of a hundred or so government officials, international financial experts and other opinion leaders organized by the French Institute of International Relations, a think tank.
The United States’ domineering ways have long been Topic A at international gabfests. But this year there was a plaintive, even elegiac quality to the discussion of “the deeply divided American nation” and its perceived desire to quit trade agreements, wall itself off in a snit of “populist exclusion” and “cowardly look the other way” as Russia commits atrocities in Syria, to choose a few of the complaints registered here.
The delegates seemed to have absorbed the obvious: The strategic retrenchment begun by President Obama will accelerate under Trump’s conflicted leadership and end the post-Vietnam era of active U.S. deployment and leadership abroad centered on the Middle East.
That prospect was a particularly sore spot for the host nation and the dozen other Arab countries represented here. They have long counted on the United States to force Israel into a peace settlement guaranteeing a Palestinian state, and they made sure to mention Trump’s professed desire to bring about the Mother of All Deals on his watch.
But their statements about the future were bleak and offered no evidence that elements Trump would need to make such a deal are present. Neither did the words of the single Israeli speaker, Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States. When I asked him about the current health of the two-state solution that has been the goal of past U.S.-led negotiations, he offered an endorsement of the idea that had the ring of a man offering condolences to a dying friend.
Saudis complained that Egypt was not offering military help to their floundering war effort in Yemen, in apparent retaliation for Saudi Arabia having cut economic aid. A Palestinian negotiator voiced this lament with what I took to be a tinge of envy: “No Arab government can compete with the promises made by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” leader of the Islamic State.
Usually left unspoken but hanging in the air was the thought: “And you Americans are not doing anything about it.” France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, used the diplomatic ploy of stating his fears in a positive form: “The Middle East needs a fully engaged, multilateralist United States.” I tried to recollect the last time I had heard that particular desire expressed at the Quai d’Orsay, but I failed to come up with much.
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It has often been noted that the only thing U.S. allies dislike more than having too much America in their affairs is having too little America. But Trump’s lack of experience and demonstrated feel for the habits of alliance management are seen as new and dangerous for the world. His election marks the end of liberal internationalism as the guiding force of recent history.
Not everyone was plunged into gloom, however. A South Korean businessman, who began his talk by singing several lines from Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’,” noted happily that his company has gained 20 percent in stock market value since Trump’s election. “My company makes bullets” and weapons covered by the Second Amendment, he said.
And the irrepressible Wang, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, provided a list of ways in which China preferred candidate Trump to Hillary Clinton.
“He liked protectionism, and resisted globalization ,” he said. “Many Chinese see advantages for us in protecting manufacturing now. He appealed to aging blue-collar workers, an important segment of our population. He has made a lot of money, which Chinese admire. And he praises Vladimir Putin, who is the most popular foreign leader in China.”
And then this, which I could only take as a personal dart thrown at an American journalist: “Few Chinese read the American media, and they were the only ones who thought Trump would lose. Chinese who did not follow American media believed he would win and cheered him on.”