Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Different ideology, different results?

Incoming US President Donald Trump has a reputation for unpredictability, but in international relations this can be a double-edged sword, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

The United States has a new president who is a newcomer to international politics and therefore an unknown. Moreover, he is someone who has an unknown bent for saying some distasteful things. What is certain is the irreconcilable difference between former US president Barack Obama’s ideology and new President Donald Trump’s world view.

The former claimed to be a “realist,” meaning someone who understood that the US had a strategic interest in developing and sustaining international institutions and a liberal world system ruled by international laws and regulations. US military might was insufficient to solve complex problems, Obama thought, leading to deliberate self-restraint verging on passivity.

Verbal eloquence and a tendency to lecture did not hide this attitude on Obama’s part, but only highlighted it. It also did not solve problems, and it is not even sure that it led to a proper understanding of the issues. For instance, Obama’s remarks on the Sunni/Shiite divide were not smart, to say the least.

He mocked the notion of credibility, saying in substance that it entailed endless embroilment in small crises, unnecessarily weakening preparations for larger ones and an unproductive promptness to use military force.

It could lead to the missing of golden opportunities, he thought, giving as an example the decision to refrain from bombing Syria that enabled the US to impose the destruction of that country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.  

However, such arguments are not as smart as they may look. This is not the place for a thorough discussion, but it could be said that small crises can evolve and become large ones. As a result, a quick intervention before a foreseeable worsening is sometimes needed.

The Obama administration was slow to understand the threat from the Islamic State (IS) group. A “legalistic” approach can sometimes be misleading, and Obama decided to focus on the Afghanistan war, as this had a sound legal basis, and to quickly retreat from Iraq, which did not have one. Yet, it should have been clear that the Afghanistan war was unwinnable, and it could be argued, though I am not very sure, that the US retreat from Iraq should have been slower.

Obama rightly understood that the former Bush administration’s military spending was unsustainable. But this does not mean that his own priorities, policies or sense of danger were correct. His Iran policy had a sound rationale behind it, but it antagonised his Gulf allies, and some diplomats say he may have mishandled the negotiations. Of course, such sweeping assessments can turn out to be premature or unsound.

But it remains the case that Obama’s major decisions and indecisions had a negative impact on Washington’s credibility. Leading from behind does not work; smart power is often stupid; and hoping to have alliances without commitments is unrealistic. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were not the only ones who took notice. Many Arab leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan no longer trust the US, and even ignore its wishes. The East European countries are also frightened, and the new German defence policy is partly tailored to reassure them.  

Of course Obama was right to say that the US could not solve all problems everywhere, and certainly it cannot solve them through the use of military force alone. But this sound statement was often an excuse for backpedalling. It seems to me that Obama was reluctant to intervene if he was not sure he could control or foresee the endgame and the relevant parameters, including the financial ones. But in our complex world this is increasingly impossible. And yet you sometimes have to intervene.

Obama was one of the very few US presidents who did not have friends on the international scene. He impressed his partners and his foes by his brilliant mind and his mastery of the intricacies of the issues. He was an impressive professional. But he was reserved, even cool or aloof. This was sometimes a plus, but I have the feeling that he was not capable of empathy, and this prevented him from gaining a proper understanding of human affairs. Or at least he behaved as if empathy was not necessary.

President Trump is a huge unknown. He is an old-fashioned nationalist, and he seems to have a deep dislike for liberal values, for a liberal world order, for free trade and for long-term commitments with no clear returns. Many commentators say he has a “transactional approach,” meaning that he wants to know what he will get in return for an investment. He wants the maximum, and he also emphasises the virtues of being unpredictable. Surprising your opponents and your partners is a good thing, he seems to feel.

This approach contains something that is sound – that you should get something in return – though this may turn out to be an excuse for doing nothing.

Trump has given the impression that he is oblivious to the fact that many returns may be “unseen” and difficult to quantify. Sometimes convenient expedients and immediate returns compromise the future, and sometimes returns are very slow to emerge.

Of course many countries, notably on security and defence issues, try or tend to be “free-riders,” enjoying benefits without sharing costs, but the US sometimes does the same thing and Trump’s disdain for environmental issues is arguably itself a kind of free-riding. You can advocate free-riding when it suits you, and condemn it when it serves others’ interests, but then everybody will tend to do the same thing, and it is known from experience that this is not a sustainable situation. On many issues egoism is a luxury that is no longer affordable. Last but not least, a free-rider may enjoy the benefits of a given situation, but he does not have a say in decision-making.

Unpredictability, too, can be double-edged. It complicates everybody else’s calculations, and it can induce them to be more cautious. However, if Washington needs to intimidate its opponents, it also needs to see its allies throwing caution to the winds from time to time. It is on these occasions that unpredictability is not a possible recipe. Sometimes you find yourself in situations where you do not have choices. Moreover, policies rely on bureaucracies, and even the most flexible of these need some stability and some ability to plan for the future.

Linked to this unpredictability is the Putin question, or Trump’s possible cooperation with Russia. But this needs to be treated in a separate article.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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