In Trump era, diplomacy charts a new course
Five months from Donald Trump’s inauguration, the media have got used to a new style of presidency – where the tone is set not by fireside chats but the boss’s early morning tweets. The grindingly slow pace of Washington consensus-building has been replaced by an unpredictable White House that seems to make up policy on the hoof.
At the same time, governments around the world are struggling to come to terms with Mr Trump’s view of the world according to which, in the words of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, the United States “has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership”.
Almost everything that Washington has offered the world since 1945 is now in question: security guarantees to allies; the preference for open trade and leadership based on western values, even if these were often more window-dressing than reality.
In a much noted newspaper article, national security adviser H R McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn distilled Trumpism in these words: “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage”. The US was ready to bring all its sources of power to bear in this struggle for supremacy.
Did they really mean to portray intentional relations as a battle of all against all? The fact that the US budget for diplomacy is being filleted to pay for more military spending is a clue that these words cannot be ignored.
For the Canadians, reliant on the US for defence and depending on the US market for much of its output, all this is worrying. Ms Freeland said it was time for Canada to “set its own clear and sovereign course”.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a typically measured tone, said the era when Europeans could rely fully on others was “somewhat over” and it was time to “take our fate into our own hands”.
These are strong words. The best way to look at this new situation is to consider how bizarre the global set-up has been since 1945. In its support of its allies in Nato, the US has been ready in principle to sacrifice New York and Chicago to defend Paris or Munich. Today, that guarantee extends to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, cities in the Baltic States unknown to most Americans.
Only a power with the arrogance to believe in its unique status as a force for good in the world could think of exposing its homeland to nuclear destruction in the interests of faraway peoples. America could live happily in its own hemisphere and let Europe go hang.
It is this exceptionalism that Mr Trump is turning his back on. The lightbulb moment for US allies came when Mr Trump was visiting Nato headquarters in Brussels and dropped from his speech any reference to Nato’s collective defence principle. Though the president did later make a reference to it, this was the moment when it became clear that Mr Trump did not think Tallinn was worth sacrificing New York for.
And why should Americans die for faraway foreigners? When Nato-member Turkey shot down a Russian warplane after it strayed into its airspace from Syria, this could have been the start of all-out war between the alliance and Russia. This did not happen, but it was a theoretical possibility. The truth is that the world is now more complicated than in Cold War days. The war to control Syria is a struggle of all and against all, and the US and Turkey have utterly divergent goals.
The problem is more easily stated than the solution. For Germany, “taking our fate into our own hands” is a pipe dream after relying on the US defence umbrella for two generations. For Canada, Mr Trump’s demand to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement is already damaging investment confidence, even if the final result is less drastic than once feared.
There are various ways governments have found to respond. The Canadian prime minster, Justin Trudeau, has set in train a huge lobbying effort with US states and cities which share Ottawa’s views on trade, investment and climate change, effectively bypassing the federal government.
In Australia, the issue is one of its defence in what some analysts call the “post-American world”. Should it dial back on its alliance with the US and recognise that the rise of China?
But it is the Chinese who have appeared most adept at responding to Mr Trump’s world view. During the campaign he promised to punish China for “raping” America’s workers, but President Xi Jinping seems to have charmed him.
The elements of the charm offensive are a few minor concessions to Trump businesses, opening up China to imports of US beef, and promises to relax rules on foreign ownership of Chinese companies and to buy $8 billion worth of US goods over five years. Mr Xi also persuaded the US president that he was unable to rein in the nuclear ambitions of his ally, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The facts and figures brought to the table by the Chinese are things that a businessman understands. In this case, Mr Trump was happy to climb down from his high opening bid if he got something in return.
For the moment Mr Trump has not crossed a Rubicon – he is still in mid-stream. The true nature of how the administration wields America’s overwhelming military power will not be seen in Syria, or in Europe, but most likely in North Korea.
Previous US administrations have held back from destroying North Korea’s nuclear reactor out of deference to China and unwillingness to set the whole Korean Peninsula ablaze, and most likely see the levelling of Seoul, the South Korean capital. If we are to take Mr Trump at his word that he will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons which can reach US soil, he will have no such qualms.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps
Updated: June 29, 2017 04:00 AM