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Trump vs the world

He has antagonised the EU and insulted Theresa May – while cosying up to Putin and Kim. But the US president’s threats can’t simply be ignored.

Following the G7 summit in Canada and Donald Trump’s trip to Europe, we are now in a position to assess the president’s impact on America’s foreign policy. His capacity for disruption (the word invariably used in connection with Trump) was fully in evidence during the 2016 presidential election campaign, and has been more than realised since his inauguration. As he stirs the international pot, other states look at problems with fresh eyes and consider possibilities they might otherwise have dismissed.

The international consequences of Trump are bound up with his character. His embrace of nationalist impulses, his contempt for his political opponents and the rule of law, his incessant boastful, malevolent and false statements, his lack of empathy and curiosity, have all affected the image of the United States – and not for the better.

Trump has not grown into the presidency, but instead has allowed the presidency to reflect his character. This character was not shaped through public service or elected office, but instead by a playboy lifestyle, real estate deals, a popular TV show and a talent for controversy. This explains his interest in his ratings and dominating the news agenda, however outrageous or incorrect his tweets, and his reliance upon Fox News for information while he avoids official documents of any length. His chaotic style of management, with his supporting staff changing regularly, adds to the unpredictability and disruptive behaviour.

It may well be that behind the showmanship and egotism the wheels of government grind on as before, producing formal policies that display remarkable continuity with the past. But the Authentic Trump keeps bursting through, threatening a complete break with the past orthodoxies of American foreign policy.

The Authentic Trump has a transactional approach, with outcomes often expressed in zero-sum terms: what one gains the other must lose. The framework is always the “deal”, which will be a reflection of negotiating skill and instinctive judgement, as well as the issues at stake and the relevant power balances. Thus if the country has gone wrong in the past it was because of bad deals; things will be better in the future because of good deals, which he, Trump, is uniquely able to deliver. This adds to the dilemmas of those governments trying to engage with Trump. They cannot give him enough to let him claim victory. German proposals to raise defence spending, for example, just led him to double the original demand from 2 per cent to 4 per cent of GDP.

However exasperating the leaders of other states may find Trump and Trumpism, his influence cannot be dismissed or ignored. There are obvious pitfalls in treating him with contempt and dismissing his demands. Because of the US role in international trade and finance, his most vexatious threats and demands must be addressed.

His domestic opponents wish him to fail, and can give reasons why his demands will be rebuffed and prompt damaging counter-measures. Yet his swagger and readiness to speak his mind to foreign leaders may please his base, while those same leaders are obliged to address the realities of American power. Therefore, he may still get results.

The slogan of “America First” is entirely consistent with a belief in zero-sum transactions and the primacy of the deal. It establishes the president’s role as negotiator-in-chief. He claims he is needed because in the past, others have exploited the US’s good will and its readiness to accept responsibilities for their prosperity and security. He presents the US as having been suckered by its supposed friends and partners as well as by its enemies and rivals. The US has put disproportionate resources into collective defence and has suffered from unfair trade.

There are serious conceptual and empirical problems with this world-view, but not all of it is fanciful, and it has substantial support in the United States. This has grown with Trump’s advocacy. A modest version of this approach would argue for a rebalancing of the international trading and alliance systems. An extreme version would potentially threaten both systems.

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The critique from the old foreign policy establishment asserts that because of this approach, a rules-bound international order is now in jeopardy. Sometimes this order is described as being “liberal”, a term that is unlikely to commend it to Trump or his supporters, and is at any rate only partly true – perhaps more so in the economic sense of free markets and open trade than in wider political terms. Nor was this order really that orderly.

Nonetheless, it was more liberal and orderly than anything that had gone before, and was founded on a consensus that multilateral initiatives were necessary when addressing issues that transcend borders, even if that meant accepting restrictions on national freedom of manoeuvre. There was value in looking for collective solutions to global problems. The games could be non-zero-sum, with benefits for all parties.

In the period after 1945 until at least the end of the 20th century, the rules as they developed supported international order more than they undermined it. These rules did not impose disproportionate burdens on the US. In fact, as they were wholly consistent with the interests and values of the US and its allies, others viewed them as expressions of Western hegemony.

For several reasons – the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the dogmatic promotion of a “democratic agenda”, and the 2008 financial crisis – this order and these rules have come under a progressive challenge. Whatever would have been the policies of a President Hillary Clinton, it seems probable that this order, however described, would have been judged to have peaked. It could not be extended because of the polarisation of the US political system.

Trump does not even pretend to support multilateralism as a way of doing business. To a degree this reflects the growing strength and confidence of Russia and China, which makes it much harder for the US to get its way on the UN Security Council. International institutions are now sources of restraint rather than facilitation. The US has begun to leave these institutions or reduce its active role within them.

The issue of alliance cohesion is different, though related. The Trump administration’s policies reassert past commitments, including with US security guarantees, but the Authentic Trump’s statements question not only the inadequate contribution the allies make to their own defence, but also whether alliances really serve American security interests.

One response to this situation is to declare this presidency aberrant. When Trump ceases to be in power, things should return to normal. Another response is to recognise that not only will it be difficult to erase the messages and practices of this period, but also that the sentiments as expressed are not necessarily so aberrant. 

The issue for the US’s Nato allies is that it is not clear why they are unable to cope with Russia on their own. Germany, France and the UK each have much higher GDPs than Russia. The exception to this is the nuclear sphere, where non-nuclear states have no answer to Russian strength without the US, unless it is believed that the UK and France could or would take its place.

For all these reasons, it would be unwise for the US’s allies to assume that Trump is just a phase to be endured. They may need to come to terms with a world in which the US takes a far less active leadership role. Indeed, it is already notable that there have been a series of US initiatives – withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and the Iran deal, the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – that the allies have not followed. They are instead seeking to carry on with established policies (albeit with difficulty).

How these adjustments are to be made and where they will lead will depend on what else is going on – for example, more trouble in the eurozone or new crises over Ukraine or in the Middle East. The idea that Nato countries need to think about security issues without the US has now taken root. It is more difficult to see how multilateral institutions, many of which are largely of American design, can function without the US. The obvious comparison is with the American failure to join the League of Nations after the Treaty of Versailles.

To the extent that the US has an active foreign policy, this will probably largely reflect the specific dynamics of individual regions. This point can be illustrated by comparing two moves taken within weeks of each other: first, abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and preparing to reinstate sanctions on Iran; second, the 12 June summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The curiosity lies in the fact that the JCPOA was far more tightly drawn and verifiable than anything that could be achieved with Korea. Indeed, the Trump-Kim communiqué was remarkably vague on how the grand aspirations of the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular” could be met.

Other than the fact that the first deal was negotiated by Barack Obama and the second by Trump, what else needs to be said?

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President Trump began in office by expressing his distaste for both regimes and their nuclear policies. If anything, the North Korean crisis appeared to be the more severe, as Kim was accelerating both his country’s nuclear and missile testing programmes. Unlike Iran, however, which was always reluctant to talk to the Americans, as being akin to supping with the devil, a summit was a North Korean aspiration.

The South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, saw a chance to revive intra-Korean talks, which he had long supported, and out of this came a North Korean proposal for a summit between Kim and Trump. A small country with a repressive, dynastic regime, a feeble economy and a terrible human rights record wished to meet on equal terms with the US president.

It was an offer that past American presidents had found easy to refuse, but it appealed to Trump’s ego. The other regional powers, especially China and to a degree even Japan, had become anxious over the war of words of 2017, and preferred a diplomatic process. By and large the North Korean arsenal was assumed to be defensive in intent, as well as a means to raise the country’s international standing. A diplomatic process therefore suited the region. The deal, though, is looking fragile. In return for praising Kim fulsomely and suspending US military exercises with the South, Trump insisted that the Korean nuclear threat was about to be removed. It is now painfully apparent that there was no foundation to this claim. Trump must decide if he dares acknowledge that he was taken in by Kim and, if so, how he should respond.

With Iran, the situation was different. Although the JCPOA was doing its job, and the US administration had no better alternative for containing Iran’s nuclear programme, its regional role was contentious. The deal appeared disconnected from the swirl of local political tensions. Key American allies (who also happened to be close to Trump), such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, feared Iranian policies and wanted to ensure that the US resisted Iran’s aggression. The risks here, therefore, are only partly about nuclear weapons development and more about how far the US is prepared to go in supporting those campaigning against Iran – and whether there is a possibility of an all-out regional war.

Yet the internal vulnerabilities of the Iranian regime may be aggravated by the crisis. Perhaps this would create an opportunity for substantive talks with Tehran along North Korean lines, but any new nuclear deal would only be a minor improvement on the one recently abandoned, while demands for a fundamental shift in Tehran’s foreign policy would make little progress. If the regime is pushed to collapse there is no reason to suppose this would lead to something more favourable to US interests, and not just the sort of chaos that tends to accompany state failure.

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The two biggest questions are whether Trump has strategies to deal with Russia and China. There was a time when a key objective of the US was to maintain predominance. Rhetorically that would still seem to be the case, certainly when it comes to military capabilities, but less so with the extensive US network of alliances and partnerships. Of the two countries, Russia is the most overtly hostile, but its economy is small (certainly relative to its population and geography) and its security focus is largely on the former Soviet space, although it has an influence on wider European and Middle Eastern affairs. Russia has become important because of the rapid deterioration of its relations with Nato countries. From Russia’s perspective, this is because it is resisting a hegemonic push, expressed in a combination of “colour revolutions” and Nato/European Union enlargement.

From the West’s perspective, there have been land grabs, most recently in Crimea, and attempts at political subversion through information warfare, cyber-attacks and gifts to far-right parties. This is the area of greatest ambiguity in the Trump administration. The US president is not alone in worrying whether it is wise to freeze out Vladimir Putin and abandon conversations on arms control. Senior US officials maintain a highly critical attitude towards Moscow and enforce sanctions. Meanwhile the Authentic Trump meets with Putin, blaming Obama rather than Russian actions for the poor state of relations, and accepting the Russian president’s assurances of non-interference in US internal affairs, despite the evidence of meddling produced by Trump’s own intelligence community.

China is a different matter. Its economy is commensurate with its size. It represents a serious economic competitor to the US globally, and a geopolitical competitor, at least in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not itching for a fight but is happy to be patient. It has taken the view that Trump is damaging the US and that it is unwise to interfere while he is doing so. Patience is likely to be rewarded as countries begin to lean more towards Beijing, accepting its largesse and favours in return for whatever political demands it may impose without the US being able or willing to act as a counter. One risk here is that China may overestimate its position and push against an erstwhile American ally in a way that even Trump cannot ignore.

For the moment, China finds itself in the firing line over trade. Here the Authentic Trump has taken the lead, with his deeply embedded protectionist beliefs rising to the fore. He has initiated a trade war with China and, as it retaliates, is preparing further escalation. At some point China might decide to target the American economy’s indebtedness (it is a major creditor).

Trump might have been in a position to get considerable support from allies to enforce a change in Chinese trade practices, which in many areas are highly suspect. He has, however, decided to wage trade wars with his allies as well, rubbing salt into the wounds by using specious “national security” rationales. They too are fighting back.

This is why he can describe the EU as America’s foe, based solely on the trade issue, while being so emollient towards Russia. Authentic Trump has claimed that it is easy to win trade wars but it really is not. The Trump administration suspects that the damage to American businesses may not be worth the effort. Trade policy is based on the idea that multilateral deals can benefit all. The consequences of the Authentic Trump’s reluctance to accept this may represent the biggest danger to a successful presidency (if that is to be measured by economic growth).

The Trump administration and Authentic Trump co-exist in an exhausting tension. One day Trump suggests that he might step away from Nato; the next he insists that he would not do so. One day he sides explicitly with Theresa May’s Brexit critics, while her guest; the next he gives her fulsome support. This tension might be manageable so long as the key institutions are not damaged irretrievably, and the situation is not aggravated by some unexpected crisis.

Meanwhile, inflammatory rhetoric and even half-baked policy initiatives still have corrosive effects. They have already changed the way that the country is viewed by those many allies for which the United States was a friend, partner and protector. 

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.

This article is based on one that first appeared on H-Diplo/ISSF:networks.h-net.org/h-diplo

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact