Thomas Friedman: U.S. foreign policy luck runs out

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

The year 2019 will be remembered for a lot of things, but in foreign policy it may well be remembered as the year our luck ran out.

How so? The period after World War II was one of those incredibly plastic moments in history, and we were incredibly lucky that a group of leaders appeared who understood that this moment of Western and U.S. dominance would not necessarily last. It was vital, therefore, to lock in our democratic values and interests in a set of global institutions and alliances that would perpetuate them.

They were leaders like George Marshall and Dean Acheson and Harry Truman in America, and Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European Union, and Konrad Adenaur, Germany's first postwar chancellor.

In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, we were lucky that a group of leaders came together who peacefully managed the fall of communism, the reunification of Germany and the rise of a quasi-capitalist China. They were Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand and James Baker.

Now we are at another hugely plastic moment — a moment when the world is experiencing four climate changes at once: There's a change in the climate of the climate — the hots are getting hotter, the wets wetter, the droughts drier, the forest fires fiercer. There's been a change in the climate of globalization — we are going from an interconnected world to an interdependent one. There's been a change in the climate of work — machines can think, reason and manipulate as fast, and increasingly better, than humans.

And there's been a change in the climate of communications. Smartphones are superempowering good people to be reporters, photographers, filmmakers, innovators and entrepreneurs — with a global reach — and they're superempowering bad guys to be cybercriminals and breakers with a global reach.

These four climate changes are creating a whole new set of governing challenges — of stemming the erosion of the pillars of democracy and order built in the previous two eras — but without a single big, obvious boogeyman or falling wall to galvanize us.

I'm talking about disorder that comes from nation-states fracturing under the pressure of these climate changes and spilling out masses of refugees, triggering populist, nationalist backlashes all across the West. I'm talking about disorder spread by a Russia that wants to keep the West in turmoil.

The Russians are using a new kind of warfare that I call "Deep War.'' Deep War uses cybertools to disrupt Western democracies and elections to discredit them as an alternative to Vladimir Putin's autocratic kleptocracy and to maintain Russia's freedom to intervene around its borders. But it operates deep beneath the surface and is not easy to retaliate against or even identify, and it's very low cost, high impact.

I'm talking about the disorder that will come from more and more extreme ideas spread by social networks. And I am talking about the crushing of freedom that autocrats can now do so much more efficiently with cybertools, like facial recognition and big data, that favor centralized systems.

But this time it feels like our luck is running out.

The countries and leaders we counted upon in the past to build a global, systematic, strategic adaptation to these challenges — the United States of America and Europe are AWOL. And so is their secret sauce, beautifully described in a valuable new book, "The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,'' by William J. Burns, who retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014, after a 33-year diplomatic career.

Burns' argument is that what made American (and EU) leadership effective was a spirit of "enlightened self-interest" — sometimes we assumed greater economic or leadership burdens to build a coalition or buttress allies because in the long run, as the world's biggest economy, we would benefit most from the stability and the commerce those would generate.

President Donald Trump has gotten rid of most of the "enlightened" part of "enlightened self-interest," notes Burns. Trump's approach, he adds, is more "transactional muscular unilateralism." But its viability is yet to be proven anywhere.

And the EU is fracturing — thanks to a new generation of leaders who are not building big systems but just playing with them, like the Brits breaking the EU.

Trump, too, plays with big systems. Trump almost broke Obamacare, without an alternative. He broke America out of the Paris climate treaty, without an alternative. He is breaking a set of arms control agreements with Russia, without an alternative. He has broken the Iran nuclear deal, with an untested alternative of broad oil sanctions.

We have never had a greater need for the EU and the U.S. to be led by people motivated by enlightened self-interest, who appreciate that virtually every problem destabilizing the world in this plastic moment is global in nature and can be confronted only with a coalition that is global. But instead, we are saddled with leaders who are much more adept at breaking things than making things — at going for broke rather than making the best of the bad.

It just feels like our luck is running out.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for The New York Times.