Many in the US and among close allies think President Donald Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian airfield and dispatch of a nuclear-armed armada against North Korea are restoring Washington’s credibility devalued by former President Barack Obama.

But alarm about his bellicosity and impulsiveness is increasing in other nations that prefer to avoid problems with Russia or conflicts in the Far East.

The latest signs included today’s Cold War frostiness between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who earlier earned a rare Order of Friendship medal from him as chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

As hostility grows between the US and Russia in Europe and the Middle East, the overwhelming fire power of a US armada speeds towards North Korea, including missile-laden submarines and an aircraft carrier with 100 warplanes.

Both moves are sending shivers down the spines of distant foreign governments and peoples. While North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is an implacable enemy of America, most of the world’s other nations do not feel directly threatened by him or his weapons.

Many would also prefer not to see further worsening of relations between Washington and Moscow. They would not want to be trampled as the grass under enraged elephants.

Trump may be putting the US on a downward slide losing influence and trust around the world. At one time, the US was the globe’s indispensable power because of trust in its benign intentions. Now, it may be shaping as the power that many prefer to keep at arm’s length.

Even if nothing more happens in the US-North Korea confrontation, many governments are unlikely to forget that a US President might be willing to risk a nuclear war killing hundreds of thousands of non-US citizens simply to make a point about his credibility.

They will also note that the much-vaunted system of checks and balances of US democracy, including its voters, could not resist Trump or might prefer to preemptively protect Americans at the cost of massive devastation elsewhere.

That nothing happens this time would be a relief but trust in Washington is already shaken. Recovering it will certainly not be easy for Trump and may be difficult for his successors.

There are several good reasons for Trump to resolutely confront Putin and particularly Kim Jong Un. But his dangerous sabre rattling and gunboat diplomacy are nerve wracking especially when combined with his compulsive personality and lack of strategic policies towards either Russia or North Korea.

He is also acting unilaterally without explaining himself or building support for his decisions that impact upon other nations, as if he knows best for everyone else.

Of course, the US remains overwhelmingly powerful as a military, economic and financial presence. It has the world’s most dynamic and innovative business environment.

These superb attributes will not diminish anytime soon. But they are not enough to win or keep friends and continue to exercise influence. Nor can Trump succeed on his own anywhere in the world.

Trump’s cannons and smart bombs may force some other governments to acquiesce to his exigencies. His ability to deny trade and financial networks to foreign companies may also force them to bend to his will.

But such short-sightedness, which he seems to be embarking on already, can produce only sullen neighbors around the world. They would hide their hostility behind hypocritical words.

Just as Americans are proud, no foreign peoples forget slights. They bend when weak and determinedly gather strength to exact vengeance whenever they can.

A central lesson of American history is that the fastest gun in West inevitably runs into someone faster after a while.

Trump is navigating the US towards such a world peopled by sullen or hostile nations, many gathering strength covertly to deter the American military.

Even previously firm friends seem to be turning into doubtful allies. For instance, his missile strike on Syria produced only lukewarm words from the French President and German Chancellor.

Tillerson failed to build bridges to Moscow today. After meeting Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he admitted, “There is a low level of trust between our countries… The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

Nothing much was achieved apart from a token group to study why US-Russia relations have plummeted so low. Impasse continued on Trump’s missile strike against Syria and Russian support for President Bashar Assad.

Wide gaps remain about the basic facts of the deadly chemical weapons assault on civilians that provoked the punitive US strike.

Trump and his supporters may value his “in your eye” pugnacity. But it makes for poor foreign policy and increases distrust among others.

In any case, Kim Jong Un remains unfazed. He continues to threaten massive nuclear retaliation against the US and its local allies. Treating his words as entirely bluster would be exceedingly unwise because he can certainly cause grievous harm to South Korea and Japan even as his nation collapses in suicide.

Brij Khindaria, Foreign Affairs Columnist
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