Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trumpian triumphalism

The populist upheaval in the US has dramatically altered Washington’s foreign policy in line with the priorities of the Trump administration

Trumpian triumphalism
Trumpian triumphalism

It is tempting to draw comparisons between US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump apparently refused to shake Merkel’s hand during a joint appearance at the White House last week. Merkel kept a polite, Teutonic distance from Trump. The body language was telling. The characteristically confident Merkel sat awkwardly besides Trump as if she were committing some crime.

Trump seemed to bore Merkel stiff. She fidgeted about the White House. Though Trump greeted the German leader with a handshake upon her arrival, he appeared to ignore requests to do so as the pair sat together later in front of the TV cameras. He knows that it would not do any good to try to browbeat Merkel into submission to his whims.

Merkel subtly but firmly conveyed the message that Trump’s strong-arm tactics will get him nowhere. Coercion does not work with Merkel, and she is not intimidated by Trump’s posturing. The meeting between the leader of Europe’s largest economy and the US president was cordial enough considering their differences. Merkel understands that many in America find the presidency of Trump heartening.

Merkel also tacitly reaches goals. Trump is the third US president she has encountered, and she earlier developed an especially close affinity to former US president Barack Obama. Trump’s high-handed and overbearing style cannot be used against Merkel, who is a firm believer in magnanimity and modesty. Trump, who as a presidential candidate criticised Merkel for allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, will also be seeking her support for his demand that NATO nations pay more for their defence needs.

Merkel knows that it is time to re-evaluate the trust placed in the US, and German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday rejected accusations by Trump that Germany owes NATO “vast sums” for its defence. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also hit back at Trump’s allegations. During the White House meeting, Merkel pledged to continue to increase Germany’s defence budget and reaffirmed her country’s commitment to a two per cent of GDP goal by 2024, however.

Many Germans dislike Trump. Nearly 70 per cent of them are unhappy that he became US president, according to polls, perhaps putting the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance at stake. “We had a conversation in which we tried to address areas where we disagree, but we also tried to bring people together and find a compromise that is good for both sides,” Merkel said.

Merkel is both calculating and flexible. She knows where Germany’s interests lie. She had brought along CEOs from some of Germany’s biggest companies, including BMW and Siemens. Courting the US, even under Trump’s presidency, is in Germany’s best interests.

While Washington’s foreign policy has changed radically under Trump, and he has cut US aid assistance to Africa and the developing countries, he is the first US president to cast doubt on the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Nevertheless, on this occasion “I reiterated to chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defence,” Trump trumpeted.

Washington’s allies are coming to terms with this seismic change in US foreign policy. From China to Germany, policy-makers are adjusting to Trump’s new terms. Trump’s cosying up to Russia will be a particularly tough nut to crack, and Washington’s new viewpoint as far as the Kremlin is concerned is a conundrum, the biggest surprise to the world.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia,” Trump chaffed. His Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at a White House briefing that the US intelligence agencies had found no evidence of “collusion” between the Trump election campaign and Russia. The puzzle for world leaders now is whether Trump is talking seriously or whether he is being facetious.

Does the Kremlin have the clout to determine politics in the US? Merkel’s cell phone was once tapped by the US National Security Agency, and in typically poor taste Trump quipped that he and the German leader had something in common. “As far as wiretapping I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump bantered at their meeting.

Last Friday Trump also refused to disown claims, highlighted by the White House, that British intelligence had tapped his phones following a request by Obama last year, risking a rift with an American ally. This is a clue as to the direction of the Trump administration’s new foreign policy, possibly hinting at new beginnings.

The irony is that there is now no urgent need to build an overreaching foreign policy framework under the Trump administration. The White House earlier sought to explain Spicer’s use of a Fox News report on the British government. Again, Trump’s “America First” policy prevails. As long as the world is in thrall to Trump’s radical foreign policy, the international scene is bound to be an arena for back-stabbing. Top US Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence panels have said there is no evidence that Trump or his aides were ever under surveillance.

Trump may be courting the Kremlin, but he has nevertheless picked former Utah Republican governor Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to Russia. This is Huntsman’s third ambassadorship in a long career of service. He previously served as US ambassador to Singapore under former US president George H W Bush and as ambassador to China under Obama. Huntsman speaks Mandarin and has lived in Taiwan.

US ambassadors to Russia have usually been experts on Russian affairs. There is no indication that Huntsman shares the pro-Russia views of many Trump associates like former national security adviser Michael Flynn. On the contrary, he argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “upstaging” Obama in the Middle East and “double-downing basically on a bad policy”.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of policy-makers from the Group of 20 (G20) major economies on Friday and Saturday, those present were forced to drop their long-standing commitment “to resist all kinds of protectionism,” given the views of President Trump.

Trump has promised to put “America First,” and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin parroted Trump at the finance ministers meeting in Baden-Baden.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin yielded to the European Commission’s representative to speak on behalf of the EU. “It is totally undisputed that we are against protectionism, but it is not clear what we all mean by that,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told reporters.

In Asia, too, the Trumpian earthquake in foreign policy is puzzling China. Is it Beijing’s “golden opportunity” to be the prime mover and shaker in the Asia-Pacific region? Trump has already scrapped the Obama administration’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the G20 nations, including China, are keen to maintain the current system of multilateral trade agreements governed by the rules of the World Trade Organisation. Trump, however, isn’t.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday also issued the Trump administration’s starkest warning yet to North Korea. “We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said, speaking in the South Korean capital Seoul after visiting the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean Peninsula.

There are some 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea. “Certainly, we do not want for things to get to a military conflict,” Tillerson said. But he spoke about a “new approach” to North Korea, a radical departure from Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

China is reluctant to permit the demise of Pyongyang, however. Trump said on Friday that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and accused China of doing little to resolve the crisis over the North’s weapons programme.

Tillerson met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the weekend and urged him to do more on North Korea. China insists that the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system currently being installed in South Korea is a threat to its security. Is there any common ground between Washington and Beijing? Only time will tell.

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