Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Can the US play a leading role in our new reality?

So what does Donald Trump mean for America’s allies in the Gulf and for its standing in the world?, asks Mohammed Fairouz
Donald Trump speaks at an election event. Evan Vucci / AP Photo
Donald Trump speaks at an election event. Evan Vucci / AP Photo

So what does Donald Trump mean for America’s allies in the Gulf and for its standing in the world? To conduct a proper analysis of the situation and what it means for America’s global alliances, we must look at the reality of Mr Trump and the world he is about to lead.

It is easy to sell slogans such as “America First” to many American voters because the United States has historically been a great power with the good fortune of friendly neighbours to the north and south, as well as two oceans of separation from the rest of the world. Those oceans have, of course, shrunk into irrelevance. A global outlook is indispensable to dealing with an array of critical issues ranging from the containment of contagion to the threat of international terrorism, the spectre of climate change and countless other issues. Globalism is the cold, hard reality of the world in 2016.

For all his talk of “America First”, Mr Trump – who maintains business interests in over 20 countries – is a globalist. What distinguishes him from previous US presidents is something that, in my view, is a handicap that he will need to overcome: a transactional approach to policy. He’ll need to build trust and nurture vital alliances over time. You have to defend the interests of your nation and your allies and that is an art and science that is different from cutting a business deal.

The post-Second World War global order was defined by ambitious integration. Transcontinental and transnational organisations took form. But in 2008-2009, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression accelerated the movements of millions of people across the world acting out of frustration with numerous failed systems. These movements are as diverse as they are varying in the level of moral authority they command. But Trumpism, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the Bernie Sanders revolution and many other agitating political currents all share a deep lack of trust in our systems. The further away the government, the greater the distrust.

All the while, our major cities are evolving into city states with local officials commanding a greater degree of trust than the “far government”. If “far government” (federalism) is to survive in the West, it must employ the rhetoric of trust to convince people that, in a world of increasing complexity and countless considerations of interest, officials will have to study the art of real, authentic power.

The response to this from many in the foreign policy establishment has been to send good wishes to Angela Merkel as the last guardian of globalism. Wishing Mrs Merkel well isn’t a bad idea, but the tone of these arguments is telling and overlooks an important reality: there is an entire world of power beyond North America and western Europe. If the West ceases to engage with the world that doesn’t mean that everyone else will follow suit. The most immediate result of American withdrawal would be an acceleration of China’s dominant role. As Xi Jinping, China’s president, said at a summit in Peru earlier this month: “China will not shut its door to the outside world but open more.”

So what does this all mean for the Gulf? It’s hard to know how much of Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric was just that. He has suggested, for instance, that “Saudi Arabia should pay” the US for their alliance.

Some commentators have argued that Mr Trump could be a “breath of fresh air” in the Arab world after the Obama years. They have also said that if Mr Trump dropped the racist rhetoric of the campaign and was serious about fighting ISIL he would find “no better partner – militarily, financially and ideologically – than the GCC states”.

Writing from the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius observes that “Trump’s rhetorical volleys against trade drew surprisingly little comment, given that the UAE is a symbol of globalisation ... Perhaps in these mercantile city-states, people doubt that Trump could reverse the momentum of diverse, multicultural global commerce even if he wanted to.”

Ignatius continues: “There were no answers here about life in the new world of Donald Trump, but so many intriguing questions”.

Ironically, for a president who advocates “America First”, the American people may have the most to fear. For the first time in human history, everyone on the planet can theoretically connect with anyone else on the planet instantly. The reality of a single interlinked ecosystem is upon us. There’s really nothing anyone can do about it. It’s how the world works now. Try to build walls in the digital realm or draw borders in the internet and we’ll get around them in less than 20 seconds.

In 2016, protectionism and isolationism don’t so much put America, or any nation, “first” as much as they put the retreating nation in a precarious position.

Now the question is how we deal with this reality. My own sense is that the question really is: Will America join the rest of the world in the 21st century? Will the US be a leader in a world that is naturally evolving into an interconnected environment? Where the very concept of a unipolar globe flies in the face of mutually assured prosperity. Can the US play a leading role in this new reality? My sense is also that, among friends and allies of the US across the globe, the hope is that America will make the right choice for itself and for the American people.

Mohammed Fairouz is an Emirati-American composer