Monday,17 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Monday,17 December, 2018
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s America 2017

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Lieutenant General H R McMaster, in the last two weeks has had a few public appearances talking about the new “National Security Strategy” which was released on 18 December. “We have to work together harder than ever to ensure that nations uphold the rule of law, respect the sovereignty of their neighbours and support the post-World War II, post-Cold War order of peace, stability and collective security,” McMaster said in one of his talks in Washington describing the new strategy as a more confident and more determined one.

He also said, “In many ways, we vacated a lot of competitive space in recent years and created opportunities for these revisionist powers” — referring to Moscow and Beijing. McMaster noted as well: “You’ll see a big emphasis on competitive engagement — competitive engagement across what we’re calling arenas of competition.” According to the national security adviser’s words, priority will be given to four “vital national interests”. Those areas of interest are: protecting the homeland and the American people, advancing American prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence.

Trump’s new strategy or “doctrine” — in the context and concept of “America First” — is expected to be an issue of discussion and argument in the coming days and weeks. As his first year in office (with all its ups and downs) is going to be completed and a new calendar year (2018) is starting soon, no doubt many political observers as well as diplomats have their concerns about what was said and done in the past year. They have indeed their doubts about what may be changed, revised, corrected, and made more “coherent” and more “reliable” in the new year. The “Trump administration can expect another tumultuous year,” predicted The Economist, and many in Washington agree with this assessment.

Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under president Bill Clinton, recently expressed her concern about America’s credibility and role in the world.  “I’m scared,” she said at an Aspen Strategy Group conference. “I often called the United States the indispensable nation. We are becoming the dispensable nation. Others are deciding they can do without us.” The shrinkage of the US’ active role and its increasingly hesitant presence around the world have their consequences and risks in the near and far future. Stephen Hadley, a Republican who served as national security advisor under George W Bush, warned, “There is a risk,” adding: “The risk is that China, Russia and others will form an alternative international order based on international principles.”

“Mr Trump’s foreign policies serve his political purposes, not the nation’s interests.” Robert B Zoellick — a former World Bank president, US trade representative, and deputy secretary of state — wrote in The Wall Street Journal at the end of November. In an article under the title “The Peril of Trump’s Populist Foreign Policy”, Zoellick critiqued the president: “He [Trump] says the US needs to build a wall to keep Mexicans at bay — and Mexico will pay for it. He asserted he would block Muslims from coming to America to harm us. His protectionist trade policies are supposed to stop foreigners from creating deficits, stealing jobs, and enriching the corporate elite. Mr Trump also asserts that US allies have been sponging off America. The US military is supposed to hammer enemies and not bother with the cleanup — even if the result, for example in Syria, is an empowered axis of Iran, Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s regime.” Zoellick also said: “The 70-year-old US foreign policy architecture has been grounded in institutions. But Mr Trump disdains America’s intelligence agencies and is dismantling the State Department.”

Two veteran diplomats — Nicholas Burns, a former under-secretary of state and ambassador to NATO, and Ryan C Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan — sounded the alarm, warning of a “dismantling [of] the foreign service.” In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times in late November, they wrote: “we are concerned the Trump administration is weakening the Foreign Service by a series of misguided decisions since taking office. It has proposed a 31 percent budget reduction for the State Department that would cripple its global reach. It has failed to fill the majority of the most senior ambassadorial positions in Washington and overseas. It is on track to take the lowest number of new officers into the service in years.” They continued: “As a result, many of our most experienced diplomats are leaving the department. Along with the senior diplomats who were summarily fired by the Trump team early this year, we are witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations. The drop in morale among those who remain behind is obvious to both of us. The number of young Americans who applied to take the Foreign Service officer entry test declined by 33 percent in the past year.” It is known in the corridors of Washington, and reported and raised as a concern, that there is no confirmed assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, nor a confirmed assistant secretary for African affairs, nor even ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and South Africa — among other nations.

By January 2018 or perhaps a bit later, it is expected that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, may leave the administration. This speculation has been mentioned many times during the first year of Trump’s presidency, and Ambassador Nikki Haley’s name was frequently suggested as his replacement, especially after she demonstrated skillfully in many situations — such as during her recent visit to Jerusalem and also in the confrontation with Iran — that she is a strong defender of Trump’s positions and policies. But in recent months another name has been publicised and discussed as the most probable candidate to be the “first diplomat” — CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

In all cases, no one can ignore that it is Trump’s time, and he has his words and tweets as usual. In November, President Trump sat down with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, and many issues were discussed. At one point Ingraham asked: “Are you worried that the State Department doesn’t have enough Donald Trump nominees in there to push your vision through?” President Trump answered: “So, we don’t need all the people that they want. You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson. I tell my people, ‘Where you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with their thinking process.” Ingraham followed up by saying: “But assistant secretary of state, you’re not getting rid of that position.” And President Trump said: “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”

“The only one that matters is me” is definitely an alarming foreign policy doctrine, and it adds a lot to the “unpredictability” and “surprising shocks” that keep coming. Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, wrote on 28 November in The Wall Street Journal: “Forget the tweets, the gaffes and the undiplomatic asides. The most trenchant criticism of President Trump’s foreign policy is that it risks forfeiting America’s hard-won position of global leadership.” Mead added, “It’s a compelling indictment: Mr Trump is withdrawing from the Paris Accord, ‘restructuring’ the State Department with a chain saw, dumping the Pacific trade deal, and abdicating on human rights while cozying up to authoritarians. The whole of the damage being done to America’s standing is greater than the sum of his tweets.” Mead also noted, citing author Bret Stephens’ work: “Foreign policy is going to be less about making dreams come true and more about keeping nightmares at bay.”

There is no doubt that “The United States acting unilaterally and separating itself from many of its traditional allies will become part of the narrative of Donald Trump’s foreign policy,” as Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, said in a recent interview with Der Speigel, the German news magazine. He was commenting on Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Haass said, “It all adds up to the perception that the United States acts unilaterally and does not place much emphasis on the preferences and views of its allies. Although, to be fair, this decision was something desired by one ally, which is Israel. But in Europe, it reinforces the perception that the United States of Donald Trump is a very different United States.” Haass also noted: “Additionally, this decision could make it more difficult for the United States to cooperate with other Arab governments.”

How do all these actors and factors together fit in the “me Trump” era? How will they handle the present and coming issues and challenges whether in America or abroad, all over the world? The world is watching Trump’s America with worries and concerns... and some hopes and wishes.

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