War Stories

Alone Against the World

Pompeo’s regime change obsession has left America more isolated than ever.

Pompeo wearing a stars-and-stripes mask against a black background.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference on Aug. 12 in Prague, Czech Republic. Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

Two events last week underscore just how isolated Donald Trump’s America is in the world. The first was an Aug. 12 speech in Prague by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who managed to sidestep every pressing issue on European security and democracy. The second, two days later, was a U.N. Security Council vote, on extending an arms embargo against Iran, that the United States lost by the most thumping margin in the council’s history.

Pompeo’s speech was very odd. Delivered in the senate chamber of the Czech Republic, one of the few remaining bastions of democracy in post-communist central Europe, it contained just one sentence about Russia, nothing about threats to Ukraine or the rigged election in Belarus or the rise of illiberalism in Hungary and Poland or the dangers of a splintered European Union.

Instead, he focused almost entirely on China—or, rather, the Chinese Communist Party, which he claimed is “totally separate from the Chinese people,” a “regime” with “a Marxist-Leninist core.” He went further and declared, “What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0. The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult”—this, to an audience that viscerally remembers the 1968 Soviet coup that left their country occupied by five Red Army tank divisions and a harsh dictatorship for the next 22 years.

Pompeo’s theme wasn’t entirely out of place. China is a highly contentious issue in Czech politics. Czech President Milos Zeman, who is closely tied to businessmen with major interests in China, has said he wants his country to be an “unsinkable aircraft carrier of Chinese investment expansion” in Europe. By contrast, Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib has roused Beijing’s ire by touting Tibetan independence (even flying the Tibetan flag over city hall) and scheduling an official visit, with a large delegation, to Taiwan—a move that compelled Beijing to cancel a Chinese tour of the Czech Philharmonic.

Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in an email that many Czechs see China’s domination of Tibet and Taiwan “from their own national experience, and Pompeo was playing to that.” However, Daalder went on, his speech came during “the very week when Belarus exploded and when Turkey and Greece (with French help) threatened to come to blows”—yet he spent none of his time “dealing with the crises on Europe’s doorsteps. Remarkable!”

Just last month, Pompeo delivered a similar, though more impassioned speech at the Richard Nixon Library, essentially calling for regime change in China, even suggesting that Russia—which he didn’t criticize in the slightest—might be a worthy ally in this crusade, a notion that Russian specialists on Moscow-Beijing relations dismiss as fantasy.

Pompeo’s obsession with China might even be deemed single-minded, except that he does harbor another obsession—regime change against Iran. And it was this obsession that led to the most embarrassing defeat that Washington has ever experienced at the United Nations.

The humbling came when the U.S., at Pompeo’s initiative, put forth a resolution to extend an embargo on buying and selling conventional weapons to and from Iran. Of the 15 members on the Security Council, just two voted in favor of the motion—the United States and the Dominican Republic. Two others—Russia and China—opposed. The other 11, most of them longtime U.S. allies, abstained.

Under the Iran nuclear deal, as part of a broader lifting of economic sanctions, the embargo—which has been in effect for 10 years—was to be canceled on Oct. 18, 2020, five years after the U.N. adopted the deal. Pompeo argued that the Security Council should extend the embargo because Iran has recently exceeded the deal’s limits on enriching uranium and on stockpiling nuclear fuel.

However, other members of the council argued that Iran took this step only after the United States withdrew from the deal, reimposed its own sanctions against Iran, then demanded that other signatories do the same, threatening to impose sanctions against them if they didn’t. In fact, Iran was well within Paragraph 36 of the nuclear deal, which states that if one signatory believes that the others “were not meeting their commitments,” then, after several meetings and consultations, it would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments.” (Iranian diplomats tried to dissuade the European signatories from restoring sanctions for a full year before resuming its nuclear program.)

European members also argued that, because the United States withdrew from the deal, it no longer has standing to comment or impose penalties on Iran’s actions. Finally, these members still hope to bring Iran back to the table—to restore compliance on all sides—perhaps after Trump leaves office.

Trump officials have made the novel argument that the United States remains a “participant” in the accord, even though Trump withdrew from it. This has prompted sighs and giggles all-round. As many have noted, a country can’t cherry-pick compliance with international agreements: It can’t declare itself a participant in some clauses but not in others.

In short, Trump and Pompeo are turning the United States into a feckless world power—so narrow in its obsessions, so transparent in its hypocrisies, that it is neither credible as an ally nor effective at expressing or pursuing its own national interests. More than ever, Trump’s slogan of America First is coming to mean America Alone.