America today seems poised to go down a road that no one really seems to know but there are some signs of the possible course in the next year.
BY SAROJ KUMAR RATH
Son of a New York business mogul of German ancestry, 70-year-old Donald Trump’s entry into the White House is accompanied by unpredictable foreign policy initiatives, bizarre presidential behaviour, a global security scare and high voltage American loathing against a host of collateral targets. Ever since Trump announced his intention to fight the US presidential poll, domestic and foreign experts liberally focused their analysis on his toxic campaign and impulsive conduct. Few tried to decode the American psyche that made Donald Trump and still fewer attempted to understand Americans, the majority of whom are liberal and democratic at the surface but ethno-nationalist self-centrics at heart.
The US for long cherished programmes like the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan which it conceived to deal with the aftermath of the Second World War, and Cold-War-era “Containment”, which promoted Trump-like leaders outside the US, planting dictators and helping corrupt politicians usurp power in mostly Third World countries. George F. Kennan-inspired containment was the bedrock of US foreign policy in the period 1947-1989, with leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Francois Duvalier of Haiti in office. Trump’s election in 2016 was no accident.
The post-Cold War world is a story of total American dominance. Until the election of Trump, American interest determined whether a thing was good or not for the rest of the world. US public opinion refused to accept the existence of other viewpoints if they were perceived to be against American interests. President George W. Bush’s announcement after 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us” was part of that message. Russian resurgence, India’s emergence as an economic power, China’s strategic domination and the moral concerns of European countries were among the things the US refused to acknowledge.
As a result, its role as the global leader came under question. By the time Washington intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2014, it was clear that it did not have the last word in world affairs. There were voices it could not ignore. America’s failure to influence the course of the war in Syria was its first reverse if not defeat in post-Cold War history.
Trump’s rise and victory is directly linked to American frustration at home and abroad. Some US scholars, as well as its drum beaters outside, interpret it as a reaction to worsening economic conditions and a disapproval of American profligacy abroad in the name of peace and security. Americans were never comfortable with a role where investment exceeded profit. The interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and other Arab Spring countries brought far less profit than expected. Rather, the outcome weakened America’s economic and diplomatic clout.
US opinion makers of all hues have still to find a suitable mantra like the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, which offered “relief, recovery and reform” to Americans reeling from the Great Depression. Now, accustomed to decades of exploiting developing economies and with a penchant for riches, it is almost impossible to get the American public to live with an unprofitable engagement with the world. For Trump, who has seen the exploitative nature of the state, judging the pulse of Americans was never a tough task.
His elevation marks a clear divide between the scholarly assertions of America as a land of opportunity, liberal ideas, democratic values and free market and its duplicitous, racist and protectionist face.
Ever since the accidental discovery of America in 1492, the new world became an opportune land for immigrants fleeing religious persecution, a suffocating political environment and lack of opportunity. In the 17th century Asia was the richest continent by far, but that changed with the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America.
By the last two decades of the 20th century Asia was a subjugated and dependent economy. But globalisation played spoiler and Asia paid America and Europe in the same currency. They not only competed successfully with western counterparts but wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing by multinational corporations, mostly western, turned the Third World into the world’s factory. This new economic order has overturned the hopes and expectations of average Americans who feel further threatened by the influx of highly educated immigrants into their country. To add insult to injury, this coup was planned and executed by iconic American companies like Apple, IBM, Carrier, General Motors and others.
But it enabled a kind of credit-fuelled affluence that ended with the nasty shock of recession in 2008, brought on by the sub-prime crisis. That was an existential shake-up from which Americans have still not recovered, economically or psychologically. The other defining event was the election of Barack Obama, the first black American, as President on a promise to stop foreign adventures with their huge costs, both financial and human. But given America’s global leadership position and strategic considerations Obama ended up with more international intervention and still more expenditure.
The US public had a decade of economic tumult so Trump’s candidacy, with his verbal assaults on immigrants, Muslims, outsourcing, H-1B visas, and American expenditure abroad caught the imagination of the highly stressed middle-class. He also offered new hope with his promise of a manufacturing revival and mass deportation of illegal immigrants rather than a path to citizenship. It’s no secret that Trump has eyed the presidency from time to time since 1980. In 1992, he was even considered as running mate for President George H.W. Bush. When he finally took the plunge this most unlikely of America’s saviours beat every other candidate to emerge winner in November 2016.
While the think tanks and liberal media reacted with horror and disgust Trump, before and after the election, has kept up an assault on Congress, US intelligence agencies, US corporations, the judiciary, America’s traditional supporters, the European Union and NATO, America’s role abroad, and alleged media duplicity. Trump picked on uncomfortable subjects that his predecessors and critics never bothered to address in public.
From time to time, the role of various US institutions has been attacked by various quarters all over the world but its economic strength and military might have helped to steamroll everything in its path. The killing of innocents due to US intervention abroad; atrocities in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison; supporting change of government abroad in the name of democracy; excessive financial contributions to NATO; the dubious role of the CIA and the caprices of the US media are subjects few disagree on in their hearts. Trump in his characteristic toxic style has attacked some of these things. Despite his bombast and narcissism he has spoken the truth in a world where deceit and conceit are judged as courtly conduct.
Rather than criticise Russian violence at home and abroad, Trump sought to focus on dubious American behaviour, to the disbelief of seasoned foreign policy observers and other profiteers from the US and outside. They could not produce a single reason why Trump was wrong, but resorted to questions like how come a commander-in-chief was going against his own army and intelligence briefings. Trump’s critics forget he was actually commenting on the conduct of his predecessors.
Trump’s self-proclaimed expertise on a plethora of topics during and after the election campaign has made him a lightning rod for criticism. He has decided to overturn Obama’s environmental policy and in a series of tweets in September 2014 he said global warming was a media-created fiction. In April 2016, he said “I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth” and after the election he made Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, boss of the Environmental Protection Agency. However, during confirmation Pruitt acknowledged that “the climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner”.
His attempt to alter the contours of US institutions is unprecedented. The appointment of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state has aroused deep unease. The former CEO of ExxonMobil is known for his long association with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil’s numerous deals in Russia. For traditional foreign policy observers the appointment is a nightmare. But Trump is using the economic woes of his countrymen to gamble and hold the hands of historical adversaries in the hope of a deal.
He has also raised a vexatious question about the efficacy of NATO, the alliance that binds the US with the most affluent parts of the world. He questioned NATO’s existence with the argument that since it was “designed many, many years ago” it was obsolete. He wondered why the US paid more than 70 per cent of the bill when other countries “weren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying”. Although NATO is a vehicle of many, it is the US that drives it and the only time NATO invoked ArticleV, the collective defence clause, was after 9/11. Therefore, maintaining such alliances is in the US interest though Trump thinks the world has travelled too far and the US can produce better defence on its own.
Within three days of inauguration, Trump ordered a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama considered vital to job creation and other economic benefits. Trump says TPP is against American industry, workers, and wages.
Foreign policy experts are at a loss on how the US will behave in coming days. They consider America’s leading role in the world to be indispensable. When Trump questions some of those exploitative norms, they are outraged. Trump seems to relish rarely spoken self-criticism over diplomacy and official lies. The years ahead will be full of surprises.
For instance, his taunting of China annoyed precisely those who for years campaigned against its trade practices. Figures on “Trade in Goods with China” released by the US Census Bureau shows a consistent annual trade deficit since 1985. The deficit in 2015 was a record $365.7 billion. Trump harped on this and in May 2016 during the campaign announced that “China was responsible for the greatest theft in the history of the world”. He promised he would not allow China “to rape our country”.
US-China relations since 1945, four years before the communist takeover, have been a mixture of competition, rivalry and diplomacy. In 1945, it stood with Chiang Kai-shek rather than Mao Zedong. During the 1953 Korean war the US supported South Korea while China backed North Korea. During the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1953-55, it threatened a nuclear attack on China. Then, in 1971, Henry Kissinger’s famous secret trip helped China gain Security Council membership and President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 paved the way for Jimmy Carter to grant US recognition in 1979.
Trump during his campaign and as president-elect has denounced China for its trade practices, devaluation of the yuan and military build-up in disputed areas of the South China Sea. He even sought to renegotiate the “One-China” policy. He has set up the White House National Trade Council with China critic and author of Death By China Peter Navarro as director. During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to the US he reiterated that the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covered the Senkaku Islands claimed by China. Earlier, defence secretary James Mattis signalled US support for the Japanese claim on the Senkakus—a disputed East China Sea chain.
Not only have Mattis and Trump annoyed China but on January 11 Rex Tillerson, during his Senate confirmation hearing listed a number of areas for China to fix. Tillerson said China’s promise to reform North Korea was empty; in the South China Sea it was building an illegal island; it steals intellectual property from the US and has a proven willingness to risk confrontation with the US to advance its own goals. Tillerson clarified that the Trump administration will “deal with what we see, not with what we hope”.
When Tillerson was testifying before the Senate, China sent its aircraft carrier Liaoning and combat jets to the Taiwan Straits. It also deputed fighters and bombers over South Korean airspace. The belligerent stance taken by the two economic and military giants could lead to further tensions if not war.
The general impression is that under Trump the US is in retreat from its global role while China with a whopping US$3 trillion in reserves is flexing its muscle. However, there is no history of open conflict between any two great powers since World War II. Continuing the trend, Trump personally defused the smouldering US-Sino crisis. In a call to President Xi Xinping, he agreed to respect the 44-year-old One China policy. There is a sense of relief for now but rift and friction will dominate Sino-US relations in the Trump presidency.
There is a far bigger challenge looming in relations with the European Union, with whom the US is tied through trade treaties and political-military alliances. Trump’s tirade against the EU, praise for Brexit and terming the European Union history while instigating individual members to seek personal identity separate from the EU has led to a low point in relations. Speaking to The Times and the German tabloid Bild on January 16, a few days prior to his inauguration, Trump hinted at a marked shift in transatlantic relations. Indeed, Anthony Gardner, the outgoing US ambassador to the Union revealed that Trump’s associate had called many EU leaders to find out which member would be leaving after Britain’s exit.
Trump’s team is jeopardising decades-old institutional relations and trade partnerships. The European Union, since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 by six nations, has increased its membership to 28 (after Britain’s exit 27) with 500 million citizens. It is the biggest free trade zone and strongest economy in the world. Curiously, it was created to serve US interests across the globe through multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization and NATO in the post-World War II period. In exchange for EU support, the US guaranteed nuclear cover and the alliance was a firewall against the Soviet Union. It isn’t clear why Trump is hell-bent on unbuckling the European alliance and striking a deal with Russia.
Even without the headache of an unfriendly White House the EU is facing a serious crisis. Britain’s exit is the latest example of growing isolationist sentiment in this most multinational of bodies. In 2005, through a referendum French and Dutch citizens comprehensively rejected an “all-EU constitution”. When financial crises hit Helsinki and Athens, they held EU responsible for their woes. Similarly, the EU is not always comfortable with NATO, guided and controlled by the US. On February 15, 2003, protests erupted across the Union and millions shouted slogans against President George W. Bush and the US invasion of Iraq.
Trump’s tirade has united EU leaders and they have agreed to stick together in dealing with the unpredictable billionaire. German Chancellor Angela Markel, immediately after his criticism, pressed her point that Europe’s fate is in the hands of Europeans, not Trump. While justifying her humanitarian decision to accept refugees from the Middle East, Markel reiterated that Europeans knew how to manage their economies, future challenges and terrorism. Nevertheless, it is easier said than done. At the European Union’s Leaders Summit on February 3 in Malta, participants were contradicting each other on how to deal with the new US president.
Since it is the voters who guide national policies, there is every possibility more nations will fall into the Brexit trap. The US and EU heralded the era of consumerism after World War II and people have go used to the luxury and ease made possible by exploiting third world countries.
That era has ended and third world competitors are knocking on their doors. Unable to cope EU and American citizens want protection. Trump and Brexit are signals of this trend and his advent will complicate the job of keeping the Union intact. Convincing EU citizens about the goodness of togetherness, the benefits of allowing refugees, unequal trade intervention by third world countries and immigrants taking some local jobs was never easy in the first place.
A fortnight before the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Central Intelligence Agency published a damning 25-page report stating that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. The report was the culmination of months of wrangling among various arms of government involving leaders of political parties as well. In a bitter twist to the run up to the election, the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted in October 2016 that Russia took action intended to interfere with the US election process.
Foreign interference in a presidential election is not new. Similar accusations were made against President Bill Clinton, who in May 1996 sent fund-raiser John Huang to Taiwan in search of contributions for the campaign. It was reported that Democrats got $15 million from Taiwan’s ruling Kuomingtang party.
The CIA alleged that in March 2016, Russian cyber experts hacked the email of John Podesta, campaign chair of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and supplied thousands of damaging emails to WikiLeaks with the explicit intention of tilting the contest in favour of Trump. Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or trolls.
Ironically, when Trump won a big majority in the Electoral College it left the CIA high and dry. Had he lost, the hacking would have been a footnote in US electoral history. But Trump won in the face of intelligence leaks about Russian hacking and an unexpected softness towards Russia. On December 29, 2016 President Obama ordered the eviction of 35 Russian intelligence operatives—GRU and FSB—from the US and shut down two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, used for intelligence-related purposes. After a few days, the CIA released its report in January.
The declassified report emphasised that “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” and “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump”. The report placed the President-elect between a rock and a hard place. Trump had to discredit either the intelligence agencies he was about to head or Russia.
He turned on his own, referring to “selective leaks by intelligence agencies”, blaming the Democrats who “are putting it out because they suffered defeat” and dismissing the agencies as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”. Trump even rejected their daily intelligence briefings.
On October 9, 2016, responding to a question during the second presidential debate, Trump clarified that “I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I have no businesses, I have no loans from Russia.”
But there is history. Trump’s relations with Russia date back to 1986, when Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin and Trump, sitting at a New York restaurant, discussed Trump Tower. In his book Trump: The Art of the Deal he revealed that he was talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the government. The hotel never materialised but Trump visited Moscow where he was assured by his contact that Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa would visit Trump Tower during their New York visit in 1988. Gorbachev did not visit Trump Tower.
In 1997, Trump made a failed attempt to install a giant bronze statue of Christopher Columbus donated by the Russian government on the Hudson River. The statue finally found a home in Puerto Rico. In 2000, he collaborated with the Soviet-born New York property developer Tevfik Arif to build Trump SoHo, a 46-storey hotel-condominium in New York. During the 2000s, the Russians invested millions of dollars in Trump-branded property on the Florida coast.
The Russian vodka “24K Super Premium Vodka” displayed at the Millionaire Fair in Moscow in 2007 was sponsored and promoted by Trump. In 2008, he sold his Palm Beach mansion, which he brought at £41 million, to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for US$95 million. He clarified that he never met the buyer who “just happened to be from Russia”.
For Vladimir Putin, Trump has lavish praise, which he has returned in kind. Paul Manafort, one of his campaign chairmen, quit in August 2016 over his links with the pro-Russia former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. There was a record showing Yanukovych’s party donated $12.7 million to Manafort, later denied by Manafort. The resignation of his National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, after just 24 days in office is too recent to require repetition.
Trump’s reckless courting of Russia has alarmed many in Washington who think their leader may concede too much to their historical adversary and may confuse personal and business interests with national security.
His initiatives, like those of his predecessors, are intended to improve relations. But his business interests with shady Russian tycoons arouse instant suspicion. Trump’s fascination with Russia and Putin will be tested when he deals with the Ukraine issue as Moscow has already threatened to revoke the sovereignty of post-Soviet states if they do not remain committed to neutrality or non-alignment.
In an elaborate press briefing, Trump raised the spectre of a nuclear holocaust should relations between the two countries deteriorate beyond a point. Doubtless, there are gains to be had from a friendly posture, but only time will tell what he brings home for US citizens and angry supporters in exchange for his unusual generosity towards Russia.
Since 9/11, Muslims have been suspect, subject to scorn, extreme vetting, eviction, arbitrary arrest, and refused entry to America. The occasional outbursts of humanitarian support for Muslims in America by intellectuals and public alike in the face of invasion and intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other Arab Spring countries seems like a caricature of American values—where killing and compassion go hand in hand. Despite their proclaimed liberal values and professed humanitarian concerns, at the core US law enforcement agencies and politicians are chary of Islam and have supported extreme vigilantism against Muslims. Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s numerous detentions at US airports and President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s strip search at US entry ports are examples of this suspicion.
On the street, too, Americans are not charitable on Muslims or on immigration policy. Trump seized on this sentiment to invoke the bogey of Muslims in the US during the initial phase of his campaign. In November 2015, a year before the election, he declared that he would initiate a “Muslim database” if elected. The immediate endorsement of this election stunt by ethno-nationalist Americans emboldened him to stretch his tirade against Muslims. In December 2015, Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
Taking his cue from history, Trump invoked Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 Presidential Proclamation No. 2537, requiring aliens from World War II enemy countries—Italy, Germany and Japan—to register with the United States Department of Justice. It allowed the US to enforce total internment of Japanese Americans. After the mass murders at San Bernardino, California and Orlando, Florida, by Muslim assailants allegedly inspired by ISIS, Trump reiterated his demand to a cheering crowd.
In the second week of inauguration Trump, through an executive order, “suspended the entire US refugee admissions system for 120 days”, “suspended the Syrian refugee program indefinitely”, banned entry from seven majority-Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen–for 90 days following the signing of the order on January 27, and “temporarily banned entry of dual-nationals who are from those seven countries but have an additional passport for 90 days following the signing of the order”. The order could not sustain judicial scrutiny and a federal judge in Seattle James Robart ordered a national halt of the travel ban.
While the debate on the ban is fading, both the judiciary and Trump’s executive branch are sharpening their knives to attack each other on the principle of human rights and national security. Trump has promised to return with a more suitable constitutional mechanism to enforce the travel ban and to legally short circuit the judiciary.
Momentous change is also in the offing in America’s two decades old Arab-Israeli policy after Trump said Washington was no longer committed to a two-state solution on Israel-Palestine and ready to accept what the two parties agreed upon among themselves. He has already extended sanctions against Iranian individuals and companies involved in recent ballistic missile tests. He also clarified that his administration’s priority in Syria would be to end the ISIS menace rather than think from the viewpoint of humanitarian crisis.
Although it is too early to grasp the full implication of Trump’s Arab policy, the President has been truthful to his election promise—a dead-set-against approach towards the Muslim world.
From his campaign days, Trump has made good noises about India, except on outsourcing and taking away American industry like Lockheed Martin to India. Trump assured his Indian supporters in the US that Hindus must understand that if he wins they may find a friend in the White House on whom they can rely. The three stalwarts who control Indian foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval and foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar were probably the only three world players happy with the new president. Modi described his telephonic talk on January 25 with Trump as warm, invited him to India and during his second conversation within a fortnight evinced interest to visit the US in May 2017 before meeting the US president on the sidelines of G-20 in Hamburg in July 2017. The White House considers India a “true friend and partner” in addressing challenges around the world. Modi deputed Doval to meet Trump’s transition team in December 2016 to warm up India’s contacts.
In a first endorsement of his ethno-nationalist policies by a foreign bureaucrat, Jaishankar asked his audience at a Mumbai seminar to “analyse Trump” rather than “demonise” him. The foreign secretary philosophically noted that Trump’s policies so far comprised “a thought processes and not a caprice or a momentary expression of feelings”. Other than that, defence minister Manohar Parrikar and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj have also spoken to their US counterparts James Mattis and Rex Tillerson.
Considering Trump’s “America First” commitment, there is a distinct possibility that in his State of the Union address next year he will reduce the US’ global commitment. The State of the Union is an annual presidential ritual dating from President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 address, to give “the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”. The address may also see the replacement of the carrot and stick policy pursued by every president after Roosevelt, with a stringent, accountable foreign policy.
President Trump may sink in a new centre of global conflict under the US Pacific Command, which covers China, Japan, the Korean peninsula, India and other potentially dangerous flashpoints. As the US President gratuitously blames leaders in his neighbourhood for various ills, relations with many friendly countries, especially in Latin America, will be redefined by 2018. Africa, with its numerous zones of no government run by terror groups like Boko Haram, ISIS and al-Qaeda, will be a real headache. But the umbilical cord with Europe is unlikely to be severed despite all the vitriolc. Indeed he will probably end up strengthening the alliance.
As Trump settles in, the world is getting accustomed to his unusual style of functioning, which makes the contours of global order both alarming and exciting. Numerous surveys in the last few days confirm that Americans want their leaders to deal with domestic problems first and let other countries deal with theirs as best they can. More Americans are exasperated with the idea that the US is doing too much to help solve world problems. Inward momentum and protectionism are the mantras the US is pursuing, as with Great Britain. This year promises to be one of the most alarming and intriguing, if not frightening.
Saroj Kumar Rath is a security expert. He teaches at the University of Delhi.
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