As 2017 wound down, the president had some reassuring words for a roiled American people — pushing the notion that some folks out there are doing the hard work to make our strife-riven world a better place. "All across America people chose to get involved, get engaged and stand up," he wrote on Twitter. "Each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try. So go keep changing the world in 2018."
Of course, that president was the one who left office in January 2017, Barack Obama. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue woke up on New Year's Day in his winter palace, Mar-a-Lago, and, with a decadent court ball that would have received a thumb's up from Louis XVI still ringing in his ears, decided to poke a stick right in the eye of one of the world's too-many nuclear-armed nations. President Trump lashed out — without any seeming specific provocation — at Pakistan, accusing the South Asian power of "lies and deceit," harboring terrorists, and ripping off America to the tune of $33 billion.
The tweet — which had the predictable results of sparking fiery protests on the streets of Karachi and prompting the Pakistani government to recall its ambassador — seemed, on one level, to come completely out of left field. Yet in a strange way it seemed to capture the ominous tone for the arrival of 2018 — a year in which the world seems closer to large-scale, destabilizing conflict than any moment since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, and arguably since those awful, goose-stepping years of 1938 and 1939.
Yes, it's about Trump, but it's also much, much bigger than Trump.
There are faint echoes of the economic calamities of the early 1930s that triggered a global wave of extremist and even totalitarian movements that quickly morphed into runaway militarism. Now, our last decade has seen the 2008 financial crisis put a spotlight on global inequality. And just like 80 years ago, liberal democracy struggles in the face of both religious extremism — from Kabul to Roy Moore's hometown of Gallant, Alabama — as well as radical political movements including far-right movements in Europe and the United States and an alarming new generation of dictators from the Philippines' Duterte to Turkey's Erdogan to Russia's Putin. And then there's North Korea's Kim Jung-un, in a league of his own — terrible at feeding his own people but shockingly good, we learned in 2017, at testing nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
It doesn't have to be this way.
For most of my lifetime — perhaps because the memories of the horrors of 1939 to 1945 were still fresh — leaders of the United States knew that leadership in a nuclear-tipped world meant to speak judiciously, to balance their private thoughts about various dictators, rogues and thorny situations around the world with what can be diplomatically done, and said in public. If you watched news conferences by Barack Obama or George W. Bush, you might remember how their speech slowed down when the world's hot spots came up, how they carefully seemed to measure every word before it passed from their lips. No such luck with Donald Trump, who learned how to rally his public at the right hand of radio shock jock Howard Stern. To Trump, "diplomacy" is a form of foreign policy that ranks on his scale with "political correctness," a sign of weakness. With no experience in world affairs, he believes leadership only means talking "tough."
The impact isn't just bringing the U.S. closer to a nuclear conflagration with North Korea every time he tweets about "Little Rocket Man" — although there is that. It's also the signals he sends about other diplomatic entanglements that the president is certain he can cut through in 280 characters or less. For two decades, American political leaders have paid lip service to the provocative stance of moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, while less vocally pushing for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Now that Trump is following through with the embassy move, however, hopes for Middle East peace are comatose, at best.
The New York Times is reporting today that Israeli's right-wing rulers — emboldened by Trump — are pushing to consolidate control over the disputed, occupied territories in the West Bank and kill hopes of a two-state solution for peace. "We are telling the world that it doesn't matter what the nations of the world say," the paper quotes Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. "The time has come to express our biblical right to the land."
The encouragement of boldness — and conflict — over diplomacy is busting out all over. Trump's seemingly fawning relationship with Putin, for example, certainly won't discourage Russian expansionism in Ukraine or elsewhere. The website Axios last week carried a disturbing report on Trump's plans for 2018 that suggested the president is obsessed with a military solution to the nuclear tensions with North Korea, despite predictions that such a move risks hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
Reported Axios: "Trump seems most interested in discussing military options on North Korea in these meetings. He is surrounded by advisers who share his concern about the rogue state, but not his fixation on a military strike. And some top officials have told us Trump's belligerent rhetoric on the subject makes them nervous. There is a reason the harshest assessments of Trump usually leak after North Korea meetings."
The thing is, history has shown is that there are indeed times when the iron fist is preferable to the velvet glove. The problem is we have a man in the Oval Office with no clue about how to make that distinction — and there are few other players on the world stage with the skill or the savvy to ease tensions rather than escalate them. We need a hero, or at least we need to pay homage to those mere mortals who still see a role for negotiation and diplomacy.
As the new year begins, it merits watching that North Korea and South Korea have started a very preliminary dialogue about having a more substantial dialogue on the eve of the Winter Olympics slated for South Korea in February. Any conversation with North Korea's Kim — the worst of the worst, burdened by a long history of his family's dictatorship breaking past agreements — needs to be watched closely. But with so much at stake in the Korean peninsula, every avenue short of war also needs to be explored to the fullest.
In the latter 20th Century, the world benefited from a generation of leaders who'd seen the horror of world war first hand. Now that a new millennium is at hand, the idea that real leadership is the pursuit of world peace seems a quaint idea, perhaps even radical. We need to rally behind those with the courage to fight for peace, even if that leadership is not coming from Washington. Or else 2018 won't be a happy new year, after all.