There is more to Donald Trump than simply a series of foreign policy surprises and muddles. For all the Twitter comments, deliberate insults and displays of sheer ignorance, a pattern is emerging which is even more of a danger than any of the specific decisions, policies or quotes. At the roots of Trumpism is a love of breaking things, not such the revolutionary who wants to break current power holders, introduce new and shocking ideas, but more the child who thinks it funny to break his toys.
In this case the principal “toy” is US national commitment to a world in which peace and prosperity for most was to be achieved by the alliance of the US with like-minded nations. The US was the leader but acknowledged that allies and partnerships were essential, that they multiplied rather than diluted US influence. Hence the progress of multinational institutions, and particularly the quite-extraordinary success and global economic impact of lower barriers to trade and capital flow.
No region in the world benefited more from this than east Asia, with China the most recent example in dramatic fashion, filling the vacuum left by the US departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Beijing taking over the lead in attempting to defuse climate change with the US departure from the Paris Accord, and a long list of other issues. Yet clearly the Trump view is very different, deeming the US to have been a loser from all that it helped accomplish. Hence he sees the US engaged in multiple individual contests with different nations, making scant distinction between traditional friends such as Germany and Canada, traditional foes such as Russia, and a China which is both partner and direct rival for power.
Nor is this just the chance consequence of Trump’s personality and history of business bullying and bankruptcy. It appears in slightly more sophisticated form in the writing of two of his leading advisers who had been assumed to be relatively well-informed about the world and about the policy fundamentals which had survived through various administrations, through many successes and some disasters such as the second Iraq war.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, writing in that tribune of American brutalism, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, advocate a dog-eats-dog world. Instead of aiming for a reasonably stable global system through cooperation and some compromises, they argue for deal-making “in an arena where nations, non-governmental organization and businesses compete for advantage.”
In this world, every relationship is an individual deal, rather like Trump’s history of using endless court actions to avoid paying bills and otherwise besting more honest businessmen.
Only such a bizarre belief for an America which has thrived on being the leader of alliances can explain such bizarre and destructive Trumpisms as insulting Germany in particular and NATO members in general. Or Insulting South Korea at a time when the US needs backing for its stance on North Korea, China and missile defense. Or attacking the Muslim mayor of London following the recent terror attack in that city, words which appalled Brits generally. Or cancelling TPP and now the Paris climate deal.
Now we have another dangerous divide being promoted by the Trump agenda. Although other, more complicated issues may have actually caused the rupture, the president on May 6 took credit for the move by five Gulf nations against Qatar – which hosts some of the US’s most important military bases in the Middle East, with two command posts including a center from which the US and its allies prosecute the air war against Islamic State Jihadis. His utter ignorance of the situation, however, caused him to tweet that “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
Thus the split in the Arab world could be the direct result of Trump’s encouragement of the feudal Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi doctrines it spreads globally. The Saudis make the Muslim Brotherhood, enemy of Egypt’s military dictator and backed by Qatar, appear traditional moderate Muslims by comparison. It is Qatar that hosts Al Jazeera, the most responsible and moderate news voice in the Middle East. The Saudi-led clique is despised in Iraq, ignored in the Maghreb and even Pakistan is keeping its distance. It is Wahhabism spread by Saudi money that is the main and originating source of Sunni extremism around the world – the madrassas in Pakistan, for instance, and growing Islamic extremism in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is the Saudi-backed war in Yemen that is daily killing thousands as a result of disease, starvation and bombing.
That may suit Israel and US oil interests but not wider US policy. All this can merely prolong turmoil in the Middle East while giving space to the Chinese, Russians and others to expand their influence in the serious nations of the region – Iran and Turkey. As a sign of the times, even India is now set to join the China-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
No wonder then that at the recent regional security conference in Singapore, US defense secretary Mathis was treated with a high degree of skepticism even though he remains about the most rationale of all in the Trump team. Instead of being a bulwark against Chinese designs to dominate southeast Asia and its seas, the US appears as having no consistent policy or goals, no interest in the views of its allies, but simply liable to get into a fight with China for all the wrong reasons.
That is not just confusion in policy making. It goes back to the fundamentals of Trumpism. Everything is deal-focused on narrow and immediate national advantage. In some cases, there is not even the shortest term national interest at stake. The rejection of the Paris climate accord was simply a “f… you” gesture to the world which cannot help US business interests, meanwhile doing horrendous damage to US prestige.
But it is the summation of Trumpism for which collective America must take responsibility.