When somebody admits — or rather, boasts, as Trump did — that he has never had the time to read a book, you wonder how much he knows about the world outside the art of the deal.
So when a number of media reports accused the freshly minted American president of insulting the Australian prime minister recently, the world was ready to believe the telephone conversation took place as described. Even though Trump later denied that he had abruptly terminated the call, we ascribed his version as a belated effort at diplomacy. Had Trump read recent history, he might have learned that Australia is one of his country’s oldest allies, having sent troops to fight in Europe alongside the allies in both world wars, as well as in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The truth is that in the frenetic early days of the Trump presidency, with so many bizarre stories emanating from the White House, it is hard not to believe the worst about its latest resident. Apart from snubbing the Australian prime minister, Trump has suggested to the Mexican president that he might send American troops into Mexico to sort out the drug gangs that infest large parts of the country. This is normally called an invasion, but the legality of such a move is not something that Trump seems very concerned about.
Iran, too, finds itself in the new American administration’s cross-hairs after conducting a missile test. Even though no UN resolution bars it from doing so, Trump has immediately slapped fresh sanctions on Iran. This provocative action only strengthens the country’s hard-line elements ahead of presidential elections due later this year. But such nuances escape Trump and his new team. Also, the effectiveness of the new sanctions is dubious, given the fact that neither the EU nor the UN has backed them.
But perhaps the greatest damage Trump has done in his early days as president is his gratuitous denigration of the EU, calling it “a vehicle for Germany”, and suggesting that other European countries will soon bail out of the union. During Theresa May’s recent visit to Washington, Trump hailed Brexit, and hoped the British vote to leave the EU would serve as a model for others. This uninformed meddling in European affairs has caused consternation and anger among the leaders of the EU who met in Malta last Friday. A member of Trump’s economic team has even accused Germany of deliberately manipulating its currency to boost its exports to the US. And Trump asked how many Chevrolet cars are seen in Berlin compared to the number of Mercedes on the streets of Manhattan.
May’s offer to act as a bridge between the EU and the US was rejected, with the Lithuanian president saying sarcastically: “I don’t think there’s a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.” Noting Trump’s constant criticism of Germany for admitting hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees, Christian Kern, Austria’s chancellor, urged Trump to accept his country’s share of asylum seekers instead of blocking the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority states. He made this very valid point: “America’s responsibility for the refugees flows through the way it intervened militarily” in the Middle East.
Given the short time span in which Trump has upset so many allies, and put the whole world’s teeth on edge, how long before these offensive words and acts of brinksmanship take the US to actual armed conflict? Both Iran and China are potential flashpoints, and the renewed fighting in Ukraine might derail the new cosy relationship emerging between Trump and Putin.
Where Obama tried to extricate the US from entanglements in Afghanistan and the Middle East, team Trump is flexing American muscles in a macho display of bombast and bluster. This is especially problematic as Trump has a tendency to send offensive tweets before he can process and analyse information — if, indeed, he has ever done so. Despite the confusion and consternation Trump is causing around the world, he has strong support from his domestic supporters who, sadly, seem to be just as poorly informed about the world as their president. This is a dangerous combination as it might tempt Trump to launch ill-considered foreign interventions to divert attention from internal economic and social problems. It would be tempting to silence the liberal opposition that is building by launching a small war against a weak adversary.
While this is speculation, it seems that we are entering a period of major global realignment. If Trump and Putin manage to convert their high regard for each other into a partnership, the pressure on the EU states to fall into line will be immense. Although they constitute the world’s largest economic bloc, they are individually weak militarily. The EU, despite years of talk and promises, has never managed to put together a European defence force. The reason, of course, is that thus far, Nato was supposed to protect all member states from external aggression. But the alliance is dominated by the US, and thus the Europeans are dependent on a transatlantic ally that might not wish to enter into a war with an aggressive Russia. European defence ministers will now have to factor this uncertainty into their forecasts of future threats.
The Marxist view of history is that it is shaped largely by economic forces, but as we have learned in the last century by towering figures like Gandhi, Mao, Stalin and Churchill, individuals can and do exert enormous influence on human destiny, for good or ill. We are now about to learn if Trump will destabilise the world to such an extent that he will undermine the liberal, democratic consensus that currently prevails across much of the globe. Will we move away from the cooperation and internationalism underpinning the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, and become a collection of states engaged in a series of zero-sum games? Only time will tell.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2017