President Donald Trump’s ability to lose friends and influence for America seems endless. The once US-led Trans Pacific Partnership involving countries on both sides of that ocean may effectively be dead following the US withdrawal in January from the group it had struggled so hard to build. But in a gesture of what amounts to derision towards Trump, the remaining 11 members made it clear at a meeting in Hanoi on May 20 that they would continue to work towards a deal, albeit one needing substantial revision.
In practice this is unlikely to go far. TPP was always flawed as being too ambitious, and without the US to strong-arm others, cohesion on tricky issues will be impossible. Meanwhile the Canadians and Mexicans have to fend off Trump’s wrecking ball to tear up the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Trump’s dump on America’s Transpacific friends has naturally brought even more sparkle to Beijing’s eyes. It can more easily plough on with its own initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership arrangement which includes some of the western Pacific members of TPP, including Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Though less ambitious in its scope than the TPP, with smaller tariff cuts and a narrower focus, this group also includes India and Indonesia, the former in particular seldom pushing for free trade. Yet even minimal progress of the China-led group will provide an embarrassing contrast to the US.
Meanwhile China has masterfully drawn attention to its own importance and largesse by hosting the Belt and Road summit in Beijing. The US had long ignored the Belt and Road, but was awakened by the prospect, however illusory it may prove, of big business for its firms supplying heavy equipment and advanced services. There may even be scope for the Trump organization to build casinos and palaces of pleasure along the road. So Trump despatched an adviser, Matt Pottinger, a former journalist who reported from Beijing for the Wall Street Journal. That was a smart move and confirmed that so far Trump has preferred to let off a lot of steam over North Korea rather than get into a trade fight with China. Nonetheless Trump leaves traditional US allies in the region baffled and irritated by his anti-trade rhetoric and preference for bombast over firm and credible policies.
The Trump flying circus has anyway now moved on to the Middle East, where he has again succeeded in confounding US allies, stirring Sunni-Shia rivalries and underwriting yet more illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. His attempt to present Shia Iran as the enemy of all Sunnis and Arabs is obviously a crude attempt to massage Saudi and Israeli egos. Yet that it could happen at all is a reminder just how far Saudi oil money and Jewish expansionist influence (including the family of his close adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner) have led the US into so many policy disasters in this region.
Wild allegations against Iran anger US allies in Europe, who fully support the nuclear deal and are set on helping the recently re-elected Rouhani’s efforts at reform through trade deals and investment. They are reminder of how the US shoots itself in the foot by refusing to let go of humiliations. It lost ground in Asia by taking 20 years to start relations with Vietnam. Now it is 37 years since the humiliation of the failed Iran hostage rescue attempt, yet still the US remains obsessed with the Iranian “enemy.”
The verbal attacks on Iran – which has with Rouhani’s re-election proved it is one of the few places in the entire Middle East to be able to hold polls – cause chuckles in Moscow and Beijing, which are more than happy to cultivate Tehran. They add to the difficulties – 14 years after the US invasion – of bringing stability to Iraq, where about two thirds of the population is Shia and whose government has cordial relations with Teheran and whose main enemy, Daesh (Islamic State) is also the enemy of Iran and the US. In search of business deals the US more than ever glosses over the primary Saudi role in 9/11, its continued spending of huge sums promoting extremist Wahabi interpretations of Islam, and its war in Yemen, a country with a bigger national population than Saudi Arabia where hundreds are dying daily either from the war or accompanying disease and starvation.
That by Saudi standards Iran is a liberal country with semi-democratic elections, equal educational opportunities for women, etc., matters nothing to a Trump looking for business deals at the expense of the wider interests of the US and its allies, and the values which it usually promotes. The US needs an accommodation with Iran more than anyone – for help in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, not least at a time when its relations with Erdogan’s Turkey are unstable. By contrast Saudi Arabia is backward in almost every way, a probably impermanent construct of the Saud family and its Wahabi clerics. Its only strength is the oil income which is likely set to diminish as renewable energy gains ground worldwide.
As America’s friends and allies look around the world, they see nothing but trouble every time Trump opens his mouth or sending a tweet. The rhetoric unnerves them while the actual or potential enemies and rivals remain unafraid. It’s just a show, they believe.