It could be that this tweet will go down in history like the German Empire’s declaration of war on Aug. 1, 1914, or like U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation at the United Nations ahead of the Iraq invasion. As a document that historians will analyze when retracing the road to ruin.
But perhaps nothing will come of it. Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin will ignore the provocation. And that hope serves to illustrate the lunacy we are facing these days: The prospects for world peace lie in the hands of the Kremlin autocrat. Because nobody trusts the man in the White House to display judgment or discretion.
All too often, Donald Trump has rejected reason. All too often, the U.S. president has taken the path diametrically opposed to prudence. And he did so again this week, responding to Russian threats with a drastic threat of his own. “Get ready Russia,” he tweeted on Wednesday in a 223-character threat of war. And a chilling one at that, because it sounded almost as though he were talking about a new video game: “Nice and new and ‘smart!'” he wrote. Let’s play!
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Some hope that Trump’s unpredictability might be by design, to serve the purpose of confounding America’s adversaries and putting them on the defensive. But that is nonsense, the futile attempt to make sense of the chaos at the top echelons of a superpower — because it would be so reassuring if it were possible to do so. But there is no all-encompassing coherence behind the willingness to escalate. There is merely a craving for destruction and ruin. Who would know that better than us Germans?
So much has changed in the one year since Trump bombarded Syrian military positions in response to the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, an assault German Chancellor Angela Merkel called “understandable.” Since then, almost all voices of restraint have disappeared from the White House, almost all the moderates have either been fired or have left of their own accord. The American president is now surrounded by warmongers, scandals and defeat: the Russia investigation, the Stormy Daniels affair, the most recent election losses suffered by the Republicans. The relationship with Russia has cooled significantly with the Skripal case and the expulsion of dozens of diplomats, not to mention the latest round of U.S. sanctions that have sent the Russian stock exchange plummeting.
And something else is different this time around as well: Trump has allies. France, perhaps Britain, Saudi Arabia and Israel stand at his side — in opposition to the Syria-Russia-Iran alliance.
The stakes, in other words, are much higher. At the same time, though, the West no longer has any influence on the outcome of the Syrian war and virtually no influence on what happens to the country after the guns have finally fallen silent. Just a few days ago, Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. There is no strategy for the Middle East, neither in Washington nor in Europe. The options available to the West have been reduced to this one single alternative: sending a message. That, though, isn’t a plan; it isn’t something that deserves to be called politics.
War crimes that go unpunished represent the greatest dilemma facing foreign policy. As contemporaries, we share the blame if we don’t attack when a ruler massacres his own people. A punitive operation targeting Assad and his military would be appropriate. But in the current climate, the risks are simply too great. The benefits of such an operation must be weighed against the possibility of a global conflagration. There is no comparison.
Russia is now profiting from the fact that the price of intervention has been driven up. Indeed, Trump’s threats are even beneficial to Putin — domestically, of course, but they also serve to improve Russia’s standing in the West. Putin has a fine nose for the sensitivities of Western societies. “We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy,” the Kremlin said this week. Suddenly, Moscow looks like the voice of reason.
Germany will not take part in a military operation in Syria, and that is the correct decision. But it is also a difficult one. After years in which Angela Merkel’s government has repeatedly spoken of Germany’s growing responsibility in the world, the EU’s largest and most powerful member state once again finds itself in a place it no longer wanted to be: on the sidelines. Germany is completely uninvolved in this global event.
There is, though, a role that Merkel could play. She could become active on the diplomatic front, urging our ally in France, who proudly invokes his solid relationship with Trump, to chart a moderate course. Or she could seek to prevent the U.S. president from pursuing escalation on all fronts: Something like trading French support in Syria for Washington’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran. That, to put it in terms Trump might understand, would be an artful deal.