Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump at Janadriyah

When opinion makers meet and discuss world events, certain parameters are understood at the outset. But the ideologue who seeks to stand out defies convention, and Trump is an example

The “elephant in the room” is an American expression referring to an issue of pressing concern to everyone present at a meeting but that no one wants to bring up because it is too awkward or because no one has a definitive view or because it is so controversial that tempers might flare and bring the meeting to an end.

The Janadriyah festival, organised annually by the Saudi National Guard, consists of two general realms of activities: Exhibitions and activities that display the cultural heritage and traditions of participant countries and cultural seminars and similar gatherings of intellectuals, specialists and opinion-makers. The latter are not merely sessions in which participants read out papers and field questions from the audience. They are extended dialogues that are held inside the King Faisal Conference Hall and that continue between sessions at dining tables or in late night conversations that last till dawn. The “elephant in the room” during all these sessions was Donald Trump who had been sworn into office just over two weeks earlier.

It would not be odd for participants at Janadriyah to speak about a newly elected US president. What would be odd would be for them not to speak about him. And, indeed, the seminar agenda featured a full session on “American Policy Towards the Middle East.” Nor was that session the only venue for dialogue. But this time there was something new and unfamiliar about the substance. In the past, any conversation about a newly invested US president would at least commence from the general consensus that the US is ultimately governed by effective institutions, established political and diplomatic conventions, and certain geopolitical and strategic determinants that could not easily be circumvented. On this occasion, Donald Trump was not the subject of such a consensus. In a way, he stands out as a prime example of what historians call “the role of the individual in history”, the exception to the rule that objective circumstances have a greater influence on the movement of events and the interplay within and between nations. The individual, as a historical determinant, tries to defy the conventional, the axiomatic, the established norms. Trump could not have been clearer that this was his intent when he pledged to “disrupt” the status quo. “Disruption” is a powerful word. It means more than creating a disturbance or ruffling a few feathers. It implies upending what exists and steering things in a new direction.

The role of the individual in history increases when the “vision” he advocates is different and unfamiliar and when he is armed by sufficient resolve to put that vision into effect. Trump has such a vision in three respects. Firstly, he believes that America as it is currently constituted is not as great as it is destined to be and that what is holding it back are its liberal traditions that made it weak and its borders porous. The US is being duped every day in the international sphere, he claims. While its adversaries set snares, its friends and allies take advantage of it and scheme to obtain services free-of-charge.

Secondly, he sees an international order in which there is no need to take others into account, apart from Russia, which has the deterrent power and ability to offset the US. All other countries are mere details. The Trump world is not multipolar. It has two poles and if these two can work out an agreement, then all the various issues in the world will be manageable. The logical result of this is a US-Russian “condominium”, that would set a ceiling to Russia’s ambitions, on the one hand, and enable the US to dispense with all its other allies, on the other.

Thirdly, US liberalism, whether in its Republican or Democratic modes, created an “establishment” that exposed the US and the American people to grave dangers due to “globalisation”. The only solution, in Trump’s view, is to overturn that process through anti-globalisation policies that promote isolationism, protectionist economic regulations and disengagement from collective international organisations such as the UN.

The individual who makes history generally has “charisma”. Trump has this quality in abundance. But more important in this case are his outrageous ideas, ideas of the sort that might occur to others but they would never utter them for fear of embarrassment. Hitler, at one point, set down all his Nazi thoughts in Mein Kampf, although at first no one took that book with the seriousness it merited. Yet when he began his march to power, he was surprised to find millions supported his ideas. Something of this sort occurred with Trump with regard to his many outrageous ideas, from the expulsion of illegal immigrants and his slurs against Latinos as criminals and rapists and his slurs against Muslims as terrorists, to his attacks against NATO, Chinese trade practices and the US’s “dishonest” Japanese and European competitors.

The individual in history needs to be an ideologue of the first order. He has to have a complete philosophy of existence and its interrelationships. More importantly, he has to have the rhetorical power to attract supporters and drive them towards the fulfillment of a holy mission. During the seminar on US policies towards the Middle East, people voiced the opinion that “in the end” Trump was a realist or, to use the common term, he advocated “realpolitik”, which is a school of strategic thought that is based on an awareness and calculations of balances of powers between rival or antagonistic forces. Champions of this school of thought in the US included presidents such as Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton. If the traits of political liberalism prevailed among other presidents, such as Kennedy, Carter and Obama, these leaders too were influenced by the realist school.

Trump is of a different order, ideologically. He hails from the school of “white ultranationalists”. This ideology, with its racist overtones, is common among American extremist trends from which Trump could not easily disassociate himself. In fact, Trump’s close adviser Steve Bannon is a card-carrying member of one of those extremist groups. Trump is different from the Republican Party school of neoconservatives because these have an international or “global” dimension to their ideology. He is also different from the “neocons” that surrounded George Bush Jr, because in addition to their global outlook their concern for pursuit of the direct interests of the US and its people was overshadowed by their interest in serving the welfare of other international parties. As for Trump, “globalisation” is an illness and the only remedy is total immersion into “Americanism”.

The individual as maker of history is constantly put to the test. This is all the more the case with a new US president. There are circumstances, balances of power and political realities that force him to face consequences he had not anticipated. Whether Trump will eventually change during his time in power is open to speculation. But until now, he has demonstrated that he does what he says he will do. In his first days as president, this has led him to clash with the US judiciary, to trigger tension with the US legislature and to enter into confrontations with the press and hordes of American protesters. How Trump will handle all of this is a question that the Janadriyah dialogues did not attempt to answer.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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