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President Donald Trump: The World Turned Upside Down?

14/11/2016 13:24

Did American voters just turn the world upside down?

With international affairs pundits saying Donald Trump in the White House means the end of the West as we know it, some certainly believe they did - although many of these obituaries exaggerate US fealty to the rules-based system created after 1945.

It's not just what he said on the stump about economic, diplomatic and military relations with the rest of the world his critics have in mind; it's his character.

Trump has displayed personality flaws beyond the dreams of avarice, which, in a politics-as-normal world, would mean he'd be unfit to occupy any political office, let alone the Oval one.

Then there is his impetuosity and lack of experience that introduce a whole new element of uncertainty into world affairs.

If this weren't bad enough, Trump appears ignorant of the details of key treaties and international law and his track record doesn't suggest he's good at taking advice.

Some who opposed his election are seeking solace in the fact Trump often says things that are untrue - whether he knows they are or not - so there's a hope he didn't mean all the things he said he would do during the campaign.

Others say he will appoint people who do know what they're doing, but with names like John Bolton being floated for Secretary of State that's very much open to question.

Still others are making the point that his policies are largely unformed, or at least unarticulated, and argue he will be constrained by Republicans in Congress who don't agree with him.

For all the caveats, one thing is clear - the Trump wild card means the world is set for even more instability than we've seen in recent years.

Did he really mean what he said on the campaign trail about building walls on the Mexican border or slapping huge tariffs on Chinese imports?

Assuming he did - and on many of his positions he has a track record long predating this election - what are the implications for the rest of the world of his victory?

First and foremost attempts to prevent catastrophic climate change are facing a huge setback.

Trump has been explicit on this. He has played to the deniers and conspiracy theorists saying climate change is a Chinese hoax aimed at undermining the US economy and, whether he really believes this or not, he's committed to renouncing the Paris Climate Agreement.

With the Republicans retaining control of Congress and the certainty he will appoint at least one new Supreme Court justice, he will try to reverse the limited action President Obama has managed to take in the US itself.

There is a chance individual American states and cities will continue to take progressive measures, but if the US abandons international agreements and goes back on action it has already taken, will the other major emitters like China and India stick to their commitments? Maybe the Chinese would, but I doubt India will.

The first major decision Trump will have to make, though, is how to pursue the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The incoming president has been very critical of what he sees as a lack of aggression by the US military and promised to intensify air strikes - which would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties.

He also said he would commit more American ground troops to the fight.

This would likely result in the conflict between the West and violent jihadism dragging on even longer, with all the implications that has for the stability of Muslim countries, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the prospect of ending jihadi terrorism around the world.

During the campaign, Russia was the foreign country that attracted the most attention with the now President-elect expressing his admiration for President Putin and his scepticism about NATO, as well as Clinton supporters, officials and the media accusing the Kremlin of attempting to influence of the election in Trump's favour.

Under Obama, who came into office promising to reset the relationship with Moscow, relations have tanked and confrontation escalated, particularly over US opposition to Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria.

In contrast, Trump clearly doesn't see Russian actions intended to maintain their influence in countries from Ukraine to Syria as a threat to US national security.

So, despite his bombastic rhetoric about making America great again, Trump's presidency could well see the strain in relations with Russia ease. We could even see the two nations cooperating in the campaign against ISIS in Syria

We are yet to see how Trump and Putin will really get on, and it may not all be sweetness and light.

If Trump follows through on what he's said about modernising America's nuclear arsenal, this would antagonise Russia given the importance it attaches to its nuclear arsenal as the guarantee of its security and great power status.

This would also matter because, despite the fact there is less overt concern about the prospect of nuclear war since the end of the Cold War, some strategic commentators and elder statesmen think there is a greater risk of a nuclear conflict now than in the past.

It was this analysis that lay behind Obama's signature policy of trying to reduce the risk of nuclear war - a policy that saw annual global summits, but little concrete action, and is certain to be abandoned by Trump.

For all this, it's relations with China, where Obama's famous pivot, or rebalance, to Asia has already seen a gradual deterioration, that the rest of the world should be most worried.

Some American foreign policy experts say President Xi will have been raising a glass to the Trump victory because the last thing he wanted was a President Clinton who would have taken a hard line on human rights and ramped up Obama's containment strategy of China.

I don't see it this way. While a Clinton presidency would have probably seen a further deterioration in relations, Trump's approach to China poses a much greater risk to global stability.

Unlike Russia, for Donald Trump, China is a direct threat to American national interests.

If he sticks to what he's proposed during the campaign - an even greater military build-up around Chinese waters and retaliation for alleged unfair trade practices - we are headed for a major escalation in tension.

And with the unpredictable and untested Trump as commander-in-chief and a Chinese leadership which has built its political legitimacy on the back of making China stand tall again in the world, the risk that an accidental clash in the South China Sea could blow up into a major conflagration is much greater.

Trump also suggested long term allies like South Korea and Japan have been freeloading on the American security guarantee and should even acquire their own nuclear weapons.

If Seoul and Tokyo conclude the US commitment to their defence is in doubt, they could well build up their own armed forces - which are hardly negligible now - and go nuclear - to face the threat they perceive from North Korea.

China in turn would see this as a threat and it would further increase the risk of conflict in East Asia.

Even if Trump is the most isolationist president to be elected since the 1920s, he is, in his own way, a firm believer in American exceptionalism and there's no reason to doubt he means it when he says: America First.

After all if President Obama, who has been castigated for weakening the US role in the world still believes "the question we face .... is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead" as he told West Point cadets in 2014, it would be naïve to expect a departure from this way of looking at the world from his successor.

What the world really needs now is a true acceptance in Washington of how the global balance of power is changing and the need to engage with other countries on a genuinely equal and respectful basis - this is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to restoring some sort of order to global affairs.

But, Donald Trump, who may prove to be the most unprepared, uninformed president ever to enter office, shows no sign of having applied much thought to such questions and is inclined to shoot from the hip.

Despite some conciliatory language since his victory, the rest of us can only hope he'd only be shooting metaphorically.

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