Facing Trump Realities

 The world’s leaders today resemble the cast of a long running play which has just learnt during an interval between acts, that the leading role has been unexpectedly handed to a beginner with a reputation for ham acting and for forgetting his lines. There is a huge commotion backstage as the company tries to work out how this will affect them, or whether it might even bring the run to an end. On the other side of the footlights, a restive audience, which is to say people everywhere, wonders, some hopefully most apprehensively, how the play will now turn out.

International life to a great extent rolls along accustomed grooves even in troubled times. Donald Trump’s victory, it is generally agreed, could jolt it out of those grooves, with unpredictable and dangerous results. The most unsettling and dangerous of all, to return to the dramatic metaphor, is that the show will flop because the new man can’t handle the job. The inchoate, contradictory, and incompetent qualities of what will soon be the administration are already evident, with some aides and advisors sacked almost as soon as they have been appointed, wide divergences of opinion and policy notable among those still in place, and youthful family members promised top positions. Is Trump the man to bring order out of this muddle in the time remaining until inauguration, given that as a businessman, he encouraged rivalries and used overlapping assignments as ways of controlling his staff?

He would not be the first president of course, to operate on such a basis. It is easy to forget at this moment how problematic past presidents have seemed, both to Americans and the rest of the world. Nixon, although he had some redeeming features, was a liar and a cynic, who prolonged a lost war in Vietnam. George W.Bush went into Iraq with no real plan for what to do, after military victory. Many initially regarded Reagan as not fit for high office. Carter was dismissed as decent but weak and, worse, unlucky. Yet Trump brings to the most important political job in the world a new order of unpreparedness, as well as a ragbag of ideas ranging from the relatively acceptable to the downright repulsive.

The most basic question of all is whether he believes in American global leadership. Does “making America great again” mean carrying on with the tradition, traceable all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, of sustaining a world order which has been in large part created by the United States? That order has always been less complete, more contested, and less benign than leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt imagined in earlier days. Its security provisions may have prevented nuclear war but they have spawned conflicts and confrontations around the world. Its economic dimension, in the most recent chapter of globalisation, has been seriously counterproductive in terms of the interests of ordinary people everywhere. Its agreements on the environment and human rights have been largely observed in the breach. Yet it is all we have. It embodies many good things, above all the ruling idea that agreement in all its complexity and with all its compromises is the way to deal with problems that are beyond national competence and control. Mr Trump, however, belongs to the school that believes the United States can insist on the parts that are to its obvious and immediate advantage, while ignoring or repudiating others. He does not appear to grasp that NAFTA, for instance, has wiped out as many Mexican jobs as it has American ones. Does the leader of by far the most powerful nation in the Americas not have some responsibility for the lives of all those who live in the Americas, and not just those within the borders of the United States? This is not a question which seems to have occurred to him. While he has been responsive to the troubles of ordinary citizens within those boundaries — and deserves some credit for that — does he have any stomach for the giant task of recasting and revising economic globalism in such a way as to preserve its advantages and limit the suffering it has caused ?

Similar doubts arise over his approach to security. Three major powers, Russia, China, and America, bristle at one another in the world today, while a fourth non-state force, in the shape of jihadism, and challenging them all, has arisen within Muslim lands. Lesser but still significant powers, like Iran, Turkey, and Israel, complicate the chaotic Middle Eastern scene. Managing all this is a nightmare, as one look at John Kerry’s seamed countenance makes clear. The United States is far from being without fault, in particular in taking such a triumphalist approach to Russia after the end of the Cold War. Yet it still sets the agenda for the constant diplomatic work and the maintenance of the military balance, which keeps conflict this side of war. Here again, Mr Trump seems to have only a very partial understanding of what is going on. His praise of President Putin, as much as his complaints about China (and Japan), reveal a man who sees everything through the prism of narrowly conceived American interests. Why not let the Russians have things more their way in Eastern Europe or in Syria? These are not, in his view, primary American interests, just as Chinese expansionism in the Pacific is not that much of a problem. A better American relationship with Russia, and a better one with China, after she ends her cheating on trade and industrial espionage, are, on the other hand, quite desirable.

If only it were that simple, the State Department and the Pentagon will soon be telling him. He may pay heed. The likely final result, however, is that although American policy will not shift a great deal in principle, its credibility will become more fragile. The same may be true of his pledge to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran. He may well in the end not do it — it is after all not just an American agreement — but the threat will anger the Iranians and weaken the more rational political forces there.

Donald Trump has many “friends” around the world. The Soviet media have been praising him for months, leaving aside the suspicion that the Russians covertly intervened in the campaign itself. Even in China, there is quite an internet legion of “Chinese fans of Trump.” In Israel, right wing elements think his victory may mean that the two state solution can be buried once and for all and that restraints on settlement in the West Bank will end. “Trump — make Israel great again,” reads one sign in Tel Aviv. In Turkey, hopes are rising that a Trump administration will extradite Fethullah Gulen, and end criticism of the Erdogan government’s purges of its opponents. In India, Trump is a popular figure, and the Modi government has been welcoming. In Europe, right wing populists have warm words for him. It hardly escapes notice that a certain illiberal tinge links all these countries and politicians. It’s as if a club of men who see themselves as no nonsense, strong bosses ready to break rules and discard customary ways in pursuit of their own and their country’s interests has been strengthened by the arrival of a really impressive new member.

Thus it doesn’t seem likely that when Donald Trump visits Moscow — or when and if he visits Beijing — he will be spending much time raising human rights issues with his hosts. The illiberal bonds that link many of those pleased by the Trump victory, however, do not mean they will stay friends. Putin, for example has based his whole strategy, and much of his nationalist appeal, on the idea that America is the enemy, always trying to curb Russia’s rightful aspirations. It may be too good a line to drop. So while there will be no illiberal ‘bloc’ in the sense of shared purposes, what matters more is the cumulative effect, as such regimes draw confidence from the growth in their numbers, and the precedent set for breaking the rules, imperfect though they are, that to some extent still govern international conduct. America has not been in the past beyond breaking the rules itself, of course, but it has also been the principal enforcer of them, and the state which had the capacity to bring together others in their defence, and routinely has done so. If Mr Trump understands these things, he has so far kept it well hidden, and so, unless we have misread him, or he learns very quickly, this play will not have a happy ending.

Martin Woollacott