America’s Absence in Istanbul: A Sign of Decline, Not Surrender

Team Trump missed the summit on Syria. In that, Patrick Lawrence sees another sign of Washington’s failure to accept its loss of diplomatic primacy.

Lost in the Memory Palace:
US Leads, But No One Follows

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

You would hardly know it from reading the U.S. press, but a summit of considerable significance took place late last month. German, French, Russian, and Turkish leaders convened in Istanbul Oct. 27 to create a comprehensive plan to end the seven-year war in Syria. On the agenda: increase humanitarian aid, rebuild ruined towns and cities, assist returning refugees, draft a new constitution and arrange internationally supervised elections. All this will take time, but the Syria story is evolving from one of conflict to one of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Two features of the summit deserve special note.

The four nations are not all fast friends, to put it mildly. But they drew together to find common interests in resolving what may count as the worst crisis since the Cold War’s end. Second, there was a conspicuous absence at the Istanbul gathering: the United States. Despite its prominent role in the Syrian conflict for at least the past six years, if not longer, the United States wanted no part of a many-sided summit dedicated to resolving it via negotiation.

A matter of days later came the Trump administration’s sweeping new sanctions against Iran, planned for many months and put into force at midnight on Nov. 4.

Never mind Washington’s adversaries: Even its traditional allies in Europe are resisting the United States.  This new round of sanctions rank among the stupidest foreign policy moves of Trump’s two years in office. Two others were withdrawing from the climate pact in June 2017 and  unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital six months later.

Trump: No one follows. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Three Things Now Clear 

At this point, three things are clear about the Trump administration’s approach to global affairs.

No. 1: Team Trump’s foreign policies are easily the most incoherent of any administration in recent memory. The United States does or does not want to settle the Korean question. It does or does not have an even-handed plan for peace in the Mideast. It has or has not abandoned its campaign to depose the Assad government in Damascus. What appears so on Monday appears otherwise by midweek.

No 2: Time and again, this administration overplays its hand. In case after case it acts on its own, expecting other nations to follow, only to discover that few or none do. Since Trump took office, misjudging U.S. prerogatives may be among the only consistent feature of his foreign policy.

No. 3: “America First” begins to shape up as “America Last” on the foreign policy side. We are a long way from “the indispensable nation,” the phrase that Madeleine Albright used for the United States during her time as secretary of state in the Clinton administration.  Two years into Trump’s presidency, Albright’s assertion—which was never more than U.S. hubris at its purest—looks like it might be headed to a museum.

This is not solely due to incompetence in the Trump White House, although this is considerable. The United States has been unable to find its place in a swiftly changing world order at least since the George W. Bush administration. It has consistently mishandled relations with China and Russia from one administration to the next, to take two prominent examples: trans–Atlantic ties with longtime allies (who too often behave like vassals) have deteriorated steadily for years due to Washington’s misjudgments.

The Trump administration’s confusion merely makes the gravity of our moment more difficult to deny: Absent last century’s simplicities—chief among them the binary East-West division—the United States is losing its grip on leading.   

Talk of Withdrawal

There is much talk in Washington these days of a U.S. withdrawal from global affairs. Ivo Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, recently co-authored a book, with James Lindsay, called “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.” It is a long lament about what its title suggests: the United States is surrendering—supposedly—its position as No. 1 among nations.

This is a misreading, perfectly upside down from reality. The United States is not surrendering anything. That is precisely the problem. It refuses to give up its long-asserted right to act unilaterally on the assumption other nations will either fall in line or silently acquiesce.

At the same time, Washington declines to participate in multilateral efforts to resolve wars, competing political or territorial claims, and other such problems via diplomatic negotiation, often with adversaries. This helps explain why the Trump administration repudiated the Paris climate pact and then the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs: Both implicitly demonstrate that multipolarity is an inevitable 21st Century reality.

Daalder acknowledged this during a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, even if he seemed not to have grasped his own lesson. “As the U.S. withdraws,” he said, “it’s not involved in building coalitions bringing people together to deal with global challenges, people are going to turn to others.”

The Istanbul summit on Syria is an excellent case in point. The United States should have been there. South Korea is another. While President Moon Jae-in has to manage Seoul’s traditional ties to Washington delicately, he has unmistakably seized the lead in Northeast Asia and repeatedly signals that he remains committed to a settlement with the North—ultimately with or without U.S. cooperation.

Nostalgia is part of the problem. The world turns, and Washington is lost in a kind of memory palace, where it nurses the desire to prolong those decades of unchallenged primacy that it enjoyed after World War IIIt refuses to accept there is no turning back the clock. While it wants to play “follow the leader” other nations drop out of the game.

Vigorous, nearly universal opposition to the new sanctions against Iran, Seoul’s determination to press on toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, the summit on Syria in Istanbul: They all make the same point. Washington must abandon its Wilsonian ambition to shape the world in its own image if it is to remain an effective power—as it can and should—in the new global order. The new Iran sanctions already appear to be a turning point in this respect: Donald Trump’s Washington thought it could lead, but virtually no one is following. 

There is no “abdication” and no new isolationist era in the offing. But until the U.S. accepts the new norms of statecraft in a world of rising powers, we will watch as other nations withdraw from America—a very different thing.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is Support his work

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31 comments for “America’s Absence in Istanbul: A Sign of Decline, Not Surrender

  1. November 15, 2018 at 03:09

    This is not confusion in the Trump administration. They are running the straight neoconservative line with no compromises. The neocons demand that there be no multipolarity; even the appearance of a potential regional rival should be crushed. They believe that by lying to everyone and having the strongest military, they can dominate everything for the US and Israel. Hopefully they will learn otherwise soon, but they don’t seem to be picking up on it now.

  2. November 14, 2018 at 19:37

    Utilitarian-wise, nearly anything that reduced the power and influence of the US is a good thing, at least until as the article says it can learn to get along instead of killing everything. SWIFT not being as dominant; South and North Korea ignoring the US, all good steps towards a more equitable and peaceful world. I might quibble though with this:

    “There is no “abdication” and no new isolationist era in the offing.”

    I hope Patrick isn’t conflating isolationism with non-interventionism. The two are vastly different. Most countries in the world aren’t isolationist, but also aren’t interventionist.

    Countries can decline to invade, bomb, and coup other countries without being “isolationist”.

      November 15, 2018 at 15:43


      Once again! I wrote a comment and received the notice that it was
      being “moderated”.

      Translation: it disappeared. Evidently my reference to historians
      Joyce and Gabriel Kolko 2were not acceptable to Consortiumnews.

      This has become an old story at CN.

      Suggestion when fixing it: the comment should appear after
      the comment or article to which it is relevant. Not 30 comments down.

      Former kCN commenter. Peter Loeb

  3. Don Bacon
    November 14, 2018 at 18:17

    Washington must abandon its Wilsonian ambition to shape the world in its own image if it is to remain an effective power—as it can and should—in the new global order.
    There is no evidence that the US can be an effective power, given the turmoil it has caused on every continent, for decades, and therefore there is no reason why the US should remain an effective power. Russia, adding to its Syria success, is now holding international conferences on Afghanistan, something that Obama promised to do (but didn’t) almost ten years ago. Israel-Palestine might be next (long shot). The US military is fat and ineffective, sort of like the US economy.

    It’s time that the US becomes just another country, like almost every other country, if it can improve. Certainly not on a par with China, or even Russia. In fact if one looks at major civilization indicators — health care, longevity, vacation time, crime, human rights, education, imprisonment, national debt, transportation, infrastructure, etc — the US is at or near the bottom of the list compared to other advanced countries. If prosperity is to come to the US then imperialism must go.

      November 15, 2018 at 08:34


      Historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko in the landmark book THE LIMITS
      OF POWER:The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954″
      (1972) observe (p. 31):

      “The so-called Cold War, in brief, was far less the confrontation the United
      States with Russia than America’s expansion into the entire world—
      a world the SDoviet Union neither controlled nor created”

      Patrick Lawrence and almost all commenters presume as a given
      the US v Russia as a divine given from where all narratives must begin.

      If it is true—and it seems to be so—than this must be placed in context
      against the realities of an earlier er, the US expansionism referred to
      bty the Kolkos.

      In my opinion, this is a crux of the queeze the U (and west) find themselves
      in. In one area after another they no longer dominate.

      For American readers, it is like a fastball pitcher who starts noticeably
      to tire. It is no mean trick to throw a ball 100 miles per hour again and
      again. In other words, an America which was TH superpower is tiring
      and is losing its footing. To continue the baseball analopgy, already
      the US is often relieved of its previous role…taken out of the game.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

      • Tim
        November 16, 2018 at 13:18


        All the missing letters in this message might be a hint as to why it was “moderated”.
        Did you perhaps write it with some other program, and then copy-and-paste it into the Comments section? And if so, are you sure that program generates clean plain-text?

    • cal
      November 15, 2018 at 14:35

      There are too many stakes, too many corporate interests, to make that transition any easy one. The end of the American empire, the end of a neo-liberal dominium, will only come after waves of blood. For every 1 Smedley Butler type, there are 999 militants willing to fight to the death for scraps from their masters.

  4. vinnieoh
    November 14, 2018 at 17:57

    …testing, 1,2,3

    • vinnieoh
      November 14, 2018 at 18:02

      Still experiencing problems I see.

      Some excellent points here. Unwilling to give up anything, absolutely. What comes next – Slim Pickens rodeo? When we had the chance to really lead, after the collapse of the USSR and all of the implications thereof, some folks couldn’t do without their gravy train. And before you knew it, the war economy became an institutional truism, infecting the entire governmental apparatus.

  5. John Wright
    November 14, 2018 at 17:08

    I’m afraid the author is stuck between a few competing false narratives.

    The Anglo-American Empire has run its course. The U.S. military is exhausted and leaning on now suspect technology. The U.S. financial system, long propped up by the Petro-Dollar, is rapidly being undercut and will soon be abandoned entirely leaving the vast majority of the U.S. population with a worthless currency, no useful industry and a failing agricultural system. What will follow will make the Great Depression of the last century look like a walk in the park.

    The Chinese, Russians, Japanese, Koreans and Europeans all see this and are making new alliances to secure their future.

    Trump, the Clown of Chaos, is a bankruptcy specialist and was brought in to oversee the coming bankruptcy of the U.S. He’s doing everything he can to make it as easy as possible for the rest of the world to turn their backs on the U.S. as it falls into decay after decades of overspending and over-consumption.

    When was the U.S. ever a true leader for world peace and a sustainable global prosperity?

    The bill has come due and the American people will be asked to pay it while the elites fly off in their private jets.

    Welcome to the United States of Austerity!

    [Note: this is not a done deal yet AND there are plenty of things WE the People can do to avoid this catastrophe, but we need to get busy NOW! ]

  6. Frederike
    November 14, 2018 at 16:39

    “We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner.”


  7. rosemerry
    November 14, 2018 at 14:52

    “loss of diplomatic primacy.” I would be interested in knowing the time when the USA had any use for diplomacy.
    Another important Trump addition to the global decline is surely the withdrawal from the INF Treaty, leaving his “European allies” unprotected from the “Russian menace” the USA still seems to face.

  8. David Robertson
    November 14, 2018 at 13:51

    This perspective from Patrick Lawrence divines the mind of “Washington” as seeking to lead by acting unilaterally expecting others to follow and finding no followers. He then sees this as a continuation of American assumptions about its place of primacy in the world order.

    This is contrary to how the United States acted diplomatically in the past, after the Second World War, by seeking agreements with other nations and creating multilateral treaties, international agencies and international institutions as a result of this cooperation. This is why we have so many international treaties, agencies and institutions that are the foundation of what we call the international order and international law.

    However, according to four star General Wesley Snipes, the former Supreme Commander of NATO, there was a foreign policy coup in Washington in the 1990’s effected by the Neoconservative Trotskyists. This came after the disintegration of the USSR and the assumption of unilateral world leadership by the United States in order to complete the formation of a New World Order described in a speech by President GHW Bush near the end of his Presidency. This event initiated the present overtly aggressive posture of the rulers of the United States in pursuit of their global ambitions of unipolar world government. The weapons used in this attempt to seize global power have been economic sanctions, monetary manipulation of the $US world reserve currency or, failing those, direct military intervention and invasion of seven countries that defied and resisted this open grab for world power. These countries, according to General Clark, were Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Russia and China. He said that the subjugation or regime change in these countries following the engineered destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on the 11th. September, 2001, was scheduled to take five years.

    This plan, according to other sources, was hatched in the academic corridors of power of the Jewish State, employing strategic game theory, as far back as 1979. They looked forward to its implementation when circumstances had matured sufficiently and the occasion presented itself to initiate the “new Pearl Harbour” event that would kick start the military phase of the operation. This thinking was the underlying assumption of a report that was published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century, a Neoconservative think tank founded by and whose board of directors were primarily Israeli-Americans. The plan is behind schedule by some measure, for the most part due to the intervention of Russia and Iran in Syria, no doubt because they finally saw the writing on the wall. Nevertheless U.S. foreign policy has remained the same in spite of these setbacks.

    The Presidency of Donald J. Trump has now posed a threat to those who have conducted U.S. foreign policy for the past twenty five years. Although his national security advisor is reputed to be a Neoconservative, John Bolton, the words and actions of President Trump himself have departed somewhat from the script written by the Neoconservative think tanks. This has create confusion in Washington which has been characterised as a conflict between President Trump and the globalist Deep State, the shadow or permanent government that has ruled the roost since at least the 1990’s. This conflict is also reflected in the relationships that the U.S. has with its allies who are themselves also dominated for the most part by globalists who are of the same mind as the Deep State in Washington. This is primarily why they have stopped following the U.S. lead in foreign policy that they perceive as now being directed by President Trump who has started a nationalist revolution in the United States in opposition to the globalist ambitions for world government. This is the conflict that will dominate the future of international relations until it is resolved. What this resolution will look like remains to be seen.

  9. November 14, 2018 at 11:26

    My guesstimate is the Korean peace talks go better without the Great Leader tweeting LITTLE ROCKET MAN!!! from his golden toilet seat at 5:00 am in the morning. Given his bouts of verbal diarrhea and the impossibility of him fulfilling the function of a diplomat, Trump’s absence from any and every meeting is of great benefit to the world.

    Just send him to the golf course and let him play 18 holes every day.. Tell him what a good boy he is. That’s what’s best for everyone.

    This Is All Donald Trump Has Left

  10. Eric32
    November 14, 2018 at 11:03

    The US absence is a good thing and not a sign of decline in anything important.

    The US needs to re-industrialize itself. That will be easier to do if our efforts, wealth and attention are focused on that, versus wasting time on crap going on in places we have little knowledge or interest in.

    • November 14, 2018 at 12:12

      While I agree with you no one else in Washington DC does including apparently Trump which is sad since he won the White House largely on a campaign of re-industrializing America and avoiding foreign entanglement.

  11. Joe Tedesky
    November 14, 2018 at 08:48

    An old vaudeville entertainer once told me, ‘your better to quit your performance after a good 20 minutes than to over perform your act by a bad half hour’. I would say the U.S. had that chance to quit while ahead back in 1991.

  12. exiled off mainstreet
    November 14, 2018 at 04:13

    In the end it may be better for everybody else that the Trump government has made it difficult for what heretofore have been vassal lackey states to continue to go along with the dictates of the regime.

    • Sam F
      November 14, 2018 at 08:05

      Yes, it is hard to tell who is on what side, who is foolish or wise, when destruction of the status quo advances the interests of humanity.

      • David Robertson
        November 14, 2018 at 16:21

        I believe that President Trump was raised UP to bring the Empire DOWN. Whether he is personally aware of this appointment is unknown but I do believe he is carrying out a specific agenda that will have the intended result.

    • November 14, 2018 at 13:16

      I second that emotion!

  13. November 14, 2018 at 02:46

    Yes, yes, and yes again.

    Nice summary.

  14. F. G. Sanford
    November 14, 2018 at 02:42

    Gee whiz, all this bad news…we’re probably gonna have to pull out of Afghanistan and let the Chinese and Pakistanis take over…the CFR is losing its cynical grip on a secret plan for world domination…the sanctions on Iran could fall apart…the Russians have practically achieved Middle East peace…the Saudis can’t survive with oil under $100 per barrel…big trading partners are dumping the petrodollar…there’s probably too much gridlock in Congress to pass any more detrimental legislation…62% of our carrier air wing is not flight-worthy…we’re $22 trillion in debt and the economy is crashing…big corporations are going to start layoffs to improve stockholder dividends…8.5% of the population holds 85% of the wealth…winter is here and the homeless rate keeps going up…we probably won’t be economically capable of starting any new wars…what else could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah…I forgot. Hillary is planning to run again in 2020. On second thought, maybe the status quo doesn’t sound quite so bad.

    • Sam F
      November 14, 2018 at 08:15

      We owe those triumphs to DC racketeers, who can still print money for MIC wars of mass distraction, bail out corrupt banks, and dump billions on Israel to make wars and campaign bribes to the racketeer politicians. How far can a broken system go before it is broke?

      • David Robertson
        November 14, 2018 at 16:24

        Not too much farther is my guess.

    • GKJames
      November 15, 2018 at 09:37

      Remarkable. How does one keep an axe so sharpened for perpetual grinding?

  15. KiwiAntz
    November 14, 2018 at 01:22

    America is stuck in a unipolar time warp & will never give up on its agenda to dominate the World? Like the Titanic sailing towards its destiny on a collision course with that iceberg & sinking into oblivion, so the good ship America is going to suffer the same fate! Steaming ahead towards its multipolar iceberg? And really, the Worlds now discovering, who really needs America or its so called Leadership? Why would anyone with a sane mind would want to have anything to do with this murderous Nation? Just go away & hunker behind a isolationist Wall & leave the World & it’s people alone. We are sick of you & the end of your Empire can’t come soon enough for peace loving people around the Globe!

    • Sam F
      November 14, 2018 at 07:57

      No doubt you see that the “empire” of money is despised here in America as well, where economic power destroyed the mass media and all federal branches, the institutions of democracy. Had it not, America would at least be democratic, debt-free, and without enemies.

      • David Robertson
        November 14, 2018 at 16:39

        I believe the final rulers of the Age of Empires were given a specific period of time in which to effect their plan for world domination and their time has run out. This period began in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve. The book mentioned in the article, “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership” almost describes the reality of the present situation but not perfectly. The Throne from which “America” has been Removed is not “Empty” nor did they “Abdicate”. Those who were always destined to take the final place of Dominion over the nations, in union with the Lord Jesus Christ, have already been installed in the Heavens and this is now being worked out on Earth. They are described in the book of Daniel the prophet as “the saints of the Most High” and in the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ as the “Overcomers” or “Conquerors”. Their rule shall never end.

    • ronnie mitchell
      November 14, 2018 at 15:24

      Maybe building a border wall isn’t such a bad idea after all if the rest of the world says it will not only pay for it but also build it, across both the Canadian and Mexico border, plus all along each coast. Sinking any millions of dollars in advertisements and our coin operated members in government at all levels to sell the image of a safe, comfy Country like one big gated community.
      Then all 800+ US bases die on the vine and Countries repatriate parts of their own Country.
      A global version of ‘house arrest’ and the planet could experience peace and collaboration on trying to save us all from extinction from global warming. None of which can happen while the US (and its vassal States) reign of perpetual wars, spreading suffering, death, destruction and chaos, continues unabated around the world.

  16. Tom Kath
    November 14, 2018 at 00:35

    An interesting distinction between “decline” and “surrender”. There are only SOME peoples in the world for whom surrender is unthinkable. Afghans and Yemini spring to mind currently, and Russians historically.
    The fundamental question of how “honourable” or admired this is, probably polarises the entire human population of the world. I maintain that gender perspective is the answer.

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