Looking back at key foreign policy events of 2019, a line from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” popped into my head: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
Back in the day, there was much debate over whom Dylan had in mind. But “Mr. Jones” soon came to symbolize folks who remained oblivious to the seismic cultural shifts of the 1960s.
So who is the Mr. Jones of 2019? In one sense, “Mr. Jones” could be all of us, as the jumble of foreign policy spikes sped by too fast for the pattern to become clear.
But America’s gradual retreat from global leadership has become painfully obvious this year and accelerated so swiftly it has set off a scramble to fill the vacuum. Yet the man with his foot on the gas appears oblivious to the danger.
“Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Trump?” is an apt mantra for foreign policy in 2019. Here are some of the key foreign policy developments of 2019 that produced a situation the country can’t afford to ignore.
Most importantly, 2019 was the year that China’s global ambitions came fully out of the closet.
With its military buildup and growing economic clout, Beijing made clear its intent to challenge America’s positions and alliances in East Asia (including Taiwan), in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Instead of firming up longstanding U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, Trump continued to pick fights and insult their leaders in 2019. Even in Taiwan, as I learned on a recent visit to the region, there is growing worry about Trump’s reliability.
In 2019, China presented itself as the global go-to nation the way the United States was in the post-World War II era. As I was told in Beijing, Chinese leaders have observed Trump’s disinterest in alliances and international organizations and concluded America is a country in retreat. The Chinese are taking key roles at the United Nations, including in specialized agencies that set global standards in key areas such as communications networks and technology.
And Beijing is wooing nations in Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific islands with huge cash loans for infrastructure. Those loans guarantee China immense political say on issues that Washington cares about, from U.N. votes, to international support for Taiwan, to control of shipping lanes in the South China Sea or beyond.
In 2019, in full display of his growing self-confidence, Xi Jinping played Trump on the only area of U.S.-Chinese relations where the president seems fully engaged — trade. After two years of tariffs got no results, Trump finally accepted a mini-deal — details not finalized — that appears to offer nothing more than he could have had in 2017. No structural changes to China’s unfair trade policies.
In 2019, Xi Jinping was only one of Trump’s favored autocrats who recognized his greatest weakness — he has no broader foreign policy strategy beyond serving his whims or personal needs.
In 2019, Trump’s chum Kim Jong Un steadfastly refused to denuclearize, continuing to advance his nuclear arsenal. Trump continued to praise him, unwilling to admit his self-touted policy had failed.
In 2019, Iran’s ayatollahs learned they could down an armed U.S. drone and their proxies destroyed a key Saudi refinery without U.S. retaliation. Recognizing America’s fade, Gulf allies began to think about patching up differences with Tehran. Even Israel is unnerved.
In 2019, Trump demonstrated with one phone call America’s indifference to key allies, when it abandoned its Syrian Kurdish allies to the mercies of Turkish autocrat, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The world took notice.
In 2019, the Ukraine scandal revealed that Vladimir Putin could plant conspiracy theories in Trump’s brain, convincing him Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democrats in 2016. China, Iran — and America’s allies — took notice.
The 2019 upshot: more allies and adversaries are discounting the U.S. leader, convinced that Trump is mercurial, unreliable and ill-informed (bereft of any senior counselors who will contradict him).
This turns the world on its axis. China and Russia veto U.S. resolutions at the United Nations, and hold military drills with Iran. Russia works hard, unimpeded, to undermine the European Union and NATO (helped by Trump’s disdain for both organizations). Pyongyang builds more bombs.
The world waits gingerly to see who will win in 2020, as America’s clout and reputation decline. The president has no clue. Do you, Mr. Trump?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.