Smart diplomats do not gloat about alienating their most assertive and dangerous foes. Nor do they boast about their influence over uncertain partners who are apt to switch loyalties at short notice. Last week, the Trump administration made both of these mistakes in one sentence. In an upbeat summary of the president’s first 100 days in office, the White House declared that Donald Trump has “further isolated Syria and Russia at the United Nations through successful diplomacy with President Xi Jinping of China.”
This claim is not entirely untrue, but Trump should not imagine that he has changed the rules of Security Council diplomacy. Russia has shown that it can endure intensive isolation at the U.N. without too much bother. China is far more worried about U.S. moves on North Korea in the Security Council than the Syrian situation. The council as a whole is nervous that Trump could blunder into a war with Pyongyang. If he does so, he may find that it is the U.S., not the Russians, that struggles to find supporters in New York.
Let’s give Trump the credit he deserves. A month ago, the U.S. genuinely cornered Russia in the Security Council after Syrian forces launched the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikoun. While Washington responded with a one-off round of missile strikes, most council members remain angry with Moscow over its continuing support for Assad. This seems to include the Chinese, who unusually refused to follow Russia’s lead when Moscow vetoed a U.S. resolution calling for an intrusive U.N. investigation of the Khan Seikoun incident.