Donald Trump has left the world agape, to the degree that no one knows whether to treat anything he says with the seriousness one would normally accord to the remarks of a head of state or whether one should shrug it off as mood swings between one opinion and the other, praise and damnation, friendship and animosity. The US is still a member of NATO. But there are times you wouldn’t know it when he lashes out at the international institution and tells allies not just to dig deeper into their pockets, but to pay the US directly for protection.
There is a similar conflict towards the EU, the offspring of the US Marshall Plan that aimed to revive Europe after World War II and that European dynamism and ingenuity built on in the process of advancing the greatest international relations engineering project in history that sought not only to prevent another war between its members but also to prepare them for a global role that would bolster the West’s hegemony over the entire planet.
Yet, Trump seizes every opportunity to undermine the EU. He was a staunch supporter of the British far right which kept pressing for Brexit until it won it in the referendum. More recently, the British right produced another version of Trump in the form of the new occupant of 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
None of the US’s other long and stable alliances have been spared. Japan, South Korea and even Australia have come in for Trump’s rebukes, which are generally rude, blunt and hurtful. Yet, according to a veteran diplomat, these insults have lost their sting because these types of remarks and situations have grown so frequent. They have become the “new normal” that the world has to deal with.
Trump behaves this way with US adversaries as well. One minute he spouts streams of abuse and threats against Pyongyang, the next he passes through the demilitarised zone and crosses the border into North Korea to shake hands. In like manner, after months of escalating against Iran, the latest step in which was the sanctions imposed on Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has no bank accounts or property in the US, Trump then spared Iran the consequences of the economic sanctions for the fifth time over the objections of his national security adviser and defence secretary.
It is doubtful that history has ever encountered a US president that had everyone so confused.
Governments around the world have thrown up their hands and either persist in the belief that, when all is said and done, the US is governed by institutions and that its foreign policy is ultimately designed by the departments of state and defence, congressional foreign affairs committees and conservative or pro-Trump think tanks, or they have resigned themselves to the fact that if Trump doesn’t fail to get re-elected for another term then they’ll just have summon extra reserves of patience for the next four years. Unfortunately, such beliefs help little when it comes to dealing with pressing daily demands related to regional or international interests, especially those in which governments need to know how Washington stands with respect to this issue or that.
Trump, for his part, seems pleased with this state of general confusion and uncertainty he’s caused. Evidently, he subscribes to that school in international relations that is based on the tenet: “keep them guessing”. After all, uncertainty puts others at a disadvantage which gives oneself a form of leverage when offering a “deal” that promises to relieve the muddle.
Trump was probably influenced by two of his predecessors to the Oval Office. One was Richard Nixon who served as 37th president from January 1969 to August 1974. When Nixon came to power, the US with in the midst of the Vietnam War and during his electoral campaign he expressed a willingness to use the nuclear bomb against North Vietnam.
He’d adopted an equally hardline stance against China and the USSR. Yet, not long after he entered the White House, he made a historic trip to China, initiated rapprochement with Moscow and opened an opportunity to end the Vietnam War. The second president was Ronald Reagan, the 40th US president who turned the media and the press into a powerful weapon of the state. It was Reagan who coined the term “Empire of Evil” to refer to the USSR until its collapse and the end of the Cold War.
Nixon and Reagan shaped Trump’s mentality, but he contributed elements of his own for which he will be remembered. The best known is his personal experience in big business, and in real estate development in particular. He applies the concepts of that world to his job as president, literally. Politics, to him, is a field for making “win-win” deals even it turns out that he is the only winner.
President Roosevelt may have coined the term “New Deal” for the programme that lifted the US, and the rest of the world, too, for that matter, out of the disastrous Great Depression that struck in 1929 and ended with the onset of World War II. But to Trump, “deal” is something else. It is a core feature of his conduct of international relations in which he makes little distinction between enemies and friends (apart from his clones, such as Johnson in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil for whom the occupant of the White House an ideal).
Trump has used this feature extensively, in its strict economic sense, in foreign policy. Prospects of “wealth”, “ending poverty” and “overcoming hardship” are commodities he offers in exchange for strategic and geopolitical concessions that he considers less important. Promises of a paradise of prosperity were his means to get North Korea to deal. He has been applying the same approach with the Iranians and with the Palestinians, of course.
In addition to the “deal” that he brought with him from his business culture, Trump greatly expanded on Reagan’s use of “media and communications”. For Reagan, the media was an instrument to strengthen alliances and draw lines with the adversary. In the international order that arose following World War II, the friend was NATO and the enemy was the Warsaw Pact and the battle was between the West and the East or, sometimes, between the West and rest of the world.
To Trump, the media is, firstly, an instrument to sling mud at his political adversaries. He used it as a kind of weapon of mass destruction against his rivals in the Republican primaries and then against Hillary Clinton and her allies in the Democratic Party, and especially against Barack Obama.
Secondly, he uses media as a kind of heavy artillery in order to keep the press focused on him 24/7. This way, voters in the US, domestic allies and adversaries, and friends and foes the world around will feel as though the whole world revolves around Trump and whatever he says and does, and as though US policy is not drawn up in the chambers of the State Department, the Department of Defence, the intelligence agencies and the National Security Agency, but exclusively in the president’s brain.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Trump enigma