As America Grapples With Unrest, It Leaves a Vacuum on the World Stage

And the question whether Trump is the catalyst or a symptom remains open

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Demonstrators gesture and hold a sign next to a fire during a rally near the White House against the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, May 30, 2020.
Demonstrators gesture and hold a sign next to a fire during a rally near the White House against the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, May 30, 2020. Credit: ERIC THAYER / REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite the rise in the number of coronavirus cases in Israel this week, the West Bank annexation plans and even the spread of the virus globally, all news has been overshadowed by one epic drama: the apocalyptic images from America. The suffocation of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, caught on camera, sparked disturbances across the United States. Even though America has known similar violence – in 1965, 1968 and 1992 – this time a crisis of a different magnitude seems to be unfolding.

Many observers will say the genesis was November 8, 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected president. But the question of whether Trump has been the catalyst of events or whether his presidency is largely a symptom of America’s overall gloom will probably remain open. For now the fury at the police’s treatment of African Americans is fusing with other upheavals to stir a near perfect storm.

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It’s not only a matter of race relations, which have always been the most volatile issue in the United States. Compounding the situation are a massive health crisis, a recession that could loom larger than the pandemic, and a fierce political dispute around a divisive president. Of course, that president is up for reelection in November, though it’s far from clear how the election will be held, whether outside intervention can be avoided and whether the president will accept the result if he loses.

Of all this week’s iconic images, probably the most indelible will be that of Trump walking with bodyguards and top officials to St. John’s Church near the White House. For Trump to be photographed brandishing a Bible – it’s doubtful he has ever opened one – police and soldiers violently dispersed demonstrators who had been protesting peacefully. Dragged along were Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.

On Wednesday, former Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized the use of the military to suppress demonstrations and called Trump a threat to the Constitution. Esper and Milley squirmed as they tried to explain their participation in the event.

Maybe Israel’s chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, should find the time to exchange a few words with his American counterpart. Kochavi would hear from Milley about the slippery slope down which decorated generals sometimes slide; they become props of leaders relentlessly eroding democratic values.

Pundits are still divided over whether Trump’s call for a firm hand against demonstrators and looters will divert the debate from his contribution to the nearly 110,000 American deaths from the coronavirus. In ‘70s America, they used to say that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t yet been mugged. More violent incidents among the demonstrators could bring some voters over to the president, who’s portraying himself as the protector of the security forces.

But there’s no dispute over the damage the events are causing to America’s foreign relations. The country’s perceived weakness is creating a vacuum being filled by other powers.

The conservative columnist Walter Russell Mead wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal that although Europe is choosing to ignore Trump, Russia and China are taking advantage of his woes. Moscow has stepped up its intervention in the Libyan civil war and is continuing to wield force in Syria, while China is taking a hard line against Hong Kong, threatening to use force against Taiwan and igniting an old border dispute with India. Beijing has concluded that there’s no way to appease Trump, but there’s no need to fear him either.

In Europe, Germany and France dodged an invitation to a G-7 summit that Trump wanted to host this month at Camp David. The United States has entered a period of chaos and dysfunction, Mead argues; it’s no longer capable of leading the international community.

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