World

US: Donald Trump takes on The World

In the midst of all his domestic problems, US President Donald Trump has had a week jam-packed with meetings with foreign leaders and discussions over some serious issues. And he may just have found a bit of moral indignation over a real (as opposed to a feigned) outrage. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

The past several weeks of Donald Trump’s new presidency have been about American domestic politics. These challenges have included the awkward, embarrassing, and definitely-not-going-away afterlife of candidate Trump and his camp’s interactions with the Russians, even as Vladimir Putin’s guys were trying to disrupt the 2016 election; the failure of his often-promised healthcare do-over; and the president’s inability to let go of his obsession to re-litigate the recent election (and in particular to exorcise the ghosts of Hillary Clinton and the former president). By contrast, this week has been all about foreign affairs, save for the battle over his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

First up was a White House visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Ever since el-Sisi had formally taken power three years earlier, after the coup that had unseated the Muslim Brotherhood-supported and fairly elected (but rather ineffectual) president, Mohamed Morsi, el-Sisi had been shut out of the embrace of a White House visit. This was by virtue of how he came to office, his record of extrajudicial arrests of numerous opponents, and the reported deaths of yet others.

The Obama administration kept the aid flowing, in recognition of Egypt’s strategic importance (and the need for the country not to collapse into chaos), but it held el-Sisi at arm’s length, lest it seem Obama was giving aid and comfort to el-Sisi’s electoral tactics and methods of governance. To be fair, Obama never really gave Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu much love and affection in the White House either, although the aid continued to flow there as well.

But not Donald Trump. In this administration, the aid will continue (even as foreign aid, generally, seems destined to fall dramatically under the Trump administration), of course. Egypt is a crucial link in the current administration’s grand strategy vis-a-vis the terrorism of non-state, Islamist actors, just as it eventually became under Obama. But the desire by el-Sisi for a very public act of White House love finally came true with some highly photographed moments in the White House and comments from the US president that el-Sisi was doing a great job (at what, exactly, one might have been poised to ask?) and that he should keep it up. “You’re a great guy” and all that. Pretty much what he had said about the long-deceased abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, too, a couple of months back at a Black History Month event. (Maybe this is what Trump has written on a general, all-purpose index card, for him to say about everyone?)

Anyway, the diplomatic encounters continued without let-up. Next was Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Jordan, of course, is the very definition of life between a rock and a hard place – or two or three of them. A majority of its population is not even Jordanian. A significant chunk of it is Palestinian (in or out of refugee camps), and now a major new element has entered the landscape, what with hundreds of thousands of desperate people fleeing the fighting in Syria, living in tent cities across the northern rim of the kingdom. Meanwhile, the king and his government must continue to keep a very watchful eye over the Iraqi and Syrian borders for any signs of IS infiltration into Jordan – or even for the fighting in both nations to spill over into Jordanian territory. And all these issues don’t even include the possibility that the less-than-friendly peace with Israel could somehow degenerate, if regional fighting were to break out.

But then came the real thunderbolt. On Tuesday, the news channels, the newspapers, social media and other internet news feeds worldwide carried video footage of horrific deaths and injuries from a chemical gas attack on Syrians – many of whom were children or other obvious non-combatants – and the most likely active agent was something like Sarin gas. The video footage was truly grim. Small, near-lifeless children struggled to breathe through severely damaged lungs as they lay on gurneys in chaotic scenes in makeshift hospitals and first aid stations.

And given Trump’s voracious television news consumption, he clearly had seen the footage and heard the reporting repeatedly. Thus it should really not have been a surprise when in the midst of the visit of King Abdullah II, Trump chose to angrily chastise the Syrian regime repeatedly, even as the confirmation of who had used this internationally outlawed weapon still remained slightly uncertain. Trump insisted that this murder of the innocents had crossed not just a red line (still with those swipes at former President Obama and his ill-fated denunciation of al-Assad’s government’s earlier use of chemical warfare). For Trump it was the crossing of many lines.

The way he voiced his anger, it was almost as if Donald Trump, for the very first time in his life, had actually come face-to-face with real state-sponsored evil – and he was now in full high dudgeon to do something about it. And perhaps he was also coming to the realisation that a responsibility to deal with international immorality writ large was part of the job description of an American president. And perhaps this was true even if said president had built his entire presidential campaign on carrying out a largely amoral foreign policy, solely predicated on achieving transactional trade deals for America, first, and forgetting about pretty much everything else.

Of course, earlier, President Trump, his Secretary of State, and other senior officials had all been almost eager to explain that dealing with al-Assad’s government wasn’t their problem. That was a job for the Syrians, almost as if they were shortly to gather in their community halls and mosques for a Middle East version of the Iowa primary. Instead, America’s job was to deal with IS, and anything else was just so much secondary tidying up. Now, however, with the president’s lachrymose moment over the Syrian children’s agonies, the Trump administration seemed poised to change course and, now, America would do something decisive about this horror, although the Trump administration didn’t explain what that might be. Perhaps this was because they had not yet figured out that “what”, just as the Obama administration had been unable to do, ever since the Syrian Arab Spring revolt had degenerated into a highly destructive, deadly war of attrition throughout that sad land.

However, Thursday evening news reports had begun to carry the story that Defence Department officials were now figuring out the options for a possible military strike in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack. This came as the reports said that American intelligence agencies had determined with high confidence that a Syrian government aircraft had done the deed.

As the week wore on, the evidence had all begun to point to Bashar al-Assad’s embattled Syrian government, now increasingly desperate to finally put away its even more embattled opposition. Yes, this war is confusing, because everybody there, supposedly, is also fighting IS forces, and various other armed parties are in the mix as well. And there is also the Russian military that is backing al-Assad’s regime and using its air power to fight the anti-al Assad forces in the guise of fighting IS. The problem for the Trump administration is that any effort to confront the al-Assad regime militarily will probably run into a Russian buzz saw, quite likely putting paid to another tenet of the Trump campaign rhetoric – that of building a great relationship with Russia in order to confront and then kill off IS, regardless of who or what one has to align with in the process. If there is still no specific description of what the US might be planning towards al-Assad’s regime, perhaps this is because the US officials were about to be even busier with yet another foreign visitor this week.

On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Florida at Trump’s luxury hotel-golf club-winter retreat, Mar-a-Lago for a two-day visit. Xi is no stranger to the US. He first visited back when he was a young rural development official and he famously made nice-nice with the good folks of Iowa (known as a state that raises more soya beans for China than for the US, so they are acutely aware, even in that seemingly idyllic, bucolic landscape, of the importance of China and international trade) in the years following the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.

Since then he returned to the US for a tête à tête with Barack Obama, shortly after Xi had taken command of the Chinese government. By that time, Obama was the old experienced hand at international summit diplomacy. Now, of course, the shoe is on the other foot, as Trump is meeting an experienced international leader whose authority in and sway over China is virtually unquestioned – something Trump cannot say about his own footing in America these days, given his false steps over immigration, healthcare and that Russia connections story.

As the two men prepare to sit down to talk, however, a key part of their agenda will surely be the situation in North Korea. As Kim Jong-un’s government continues its development of weaponised nuclear devices and its ongoing regimen of testing the missiles such weapons would be linked with to reach further and further, Kim’s threats directed at the US, and also at South Korea and Japan (two key East Asian US allies), have taken on a decidedly serious hue.

Donald Trump has publicly chastised the Chinese for not taking strong enough steps to squelch their North Korean satrapy via tightening the economic noose around its neck. The Chinese, of course, are determined not to have North Korea disintegrate in the face of outside pressures, thereby bringing a unified Korea right up to the Chinese border, along with the consequent flood of refugees across the Yalu River until things sorted themselves out somehow. (The Chinese, of course, can easily worry about the fact that a new, united Korea, just by the way, would still be nuclear-capable.) Along the way until this meeting, Donald Trump had also been engaged in his usual un-nuanced bluster, saying that if the Chinese didn’t do something about their badly behaved child, America would. Again, however, there was no explication of what the “or else” moment would include. Nuance definitely isn’t part of the Trump lexicon. Still, no one is expecting a definitive solution to a problem like Kim Jong-un to evolve from the Mar-a-Lago talks.

But there are many other topics the two men can play with during their time together as well. In Trump’s presidential campaign, he was fond of saying the Chinese were manipulating their currency to artificially cheapen it so as to make hay with the pricing of their exports. In Trumpian hyperbole, he kept saying the Chinese were “raping America” and that he would figure out how to put a stop to this. There would be listing China as a currency manipulator, thereby triggering automatic retaliatory measures, and/or prohibitive tariffs on Chinese exports, and a general “no more mister nice guy” in trade negotiations.

Left out of this were several inconvenient facts. These included the point that most economists now agree the Chinese are trying hard to increase the value of their currency to cheapen imports of raw materials and thus help fuel domestic consumption of finished products; that prohibitive tariffs would simply make Chinese exports in America that much more expensive to consumers, thereby driving up inflation without restricting the flow of desired items; and that, oops, er, the US isn’t really in a treaty-bound trade relationship with China.

Or, as the New York Times reported on the upcoming meeting,

“ ‘I think currency is still an issue, but it doesn’t make sense to discuss it under the rubric of manipulation,’ said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘China is managing its currency; it’s just that it’s managing it right now in a way that is relatively advantageous to the United States. That understanding of how China intends to manage its currency in the future remains a top-order issue.’ In other words, Mr. Trump could use this moment not to beat China over the head about what happened in the past, or where things stand today, but to develop an agreement on what it will do in the future, if a day comes when market forces start pushing the yuan upward.”

Accordingly, a key element of the two leaders’ talks may end up including a discussion about finding ways of re-investing the Chinese build-up of its US currency earnings into Trump’s highly ambitious infrastructure plan for America. Of course, severing America’s involvement with the US-sponsored TransPacific Partnership has actually left the way open for the Chinese to have more Asian influence via their Asian Infrastructure Investment Plan, rather than less, and so the US leverage is limited.

Another key area for discussion is that Chinese beachfront building programme on islets in the South China Sea. The US and numerous other nations argue that the status of those islands is still undetermined and that the Chinese claim to all of them on the basis of an old fishing map from the 18th century cannot realistically be the basis for the current claim – something an international maritime court agreed with. As a result, the US continues to send its naval vessels through those waters in order to affirm the right of innocent passage through what is stipulated as international waters.

The Chinese, however, continue to insist that this is territorial sea and above water pinpricks on maps and that their runways, naval stations and the like are simple expressions of sovereignty. Since this dispute is equally unlikely to be solved over taco bowls at Mar-a-Lago, perhaps the best that can be hoped for will be an agreement to engage in further discussions to resolve disputes peacefully.

Summing up the complexities and challenges of the economic sides of the discussion, Neil Irwin from the New York Times concluded his report,

“Mr. Trump ought to pick the right fights rather than focus on issues that resonate with his political base but which are unlikely to help U.S. economic interest in either the short term or long run,’ said Eswar Prasad, an economist at Cornell and author of ‘Gaining Currency’ a book about China’s role in global finance. It’s unlikely that the first meeting between the new president and the Chinese leader will resolve issues that have been building for years or even decades. Rather, those who have worked in diplomacy advise looking beyond the current headlines to make progress on lowering Chinese trade barriers, increasing its domestic savings and committing not to return to the days of manipulating its currency lower. When you’re talking about commerce between two superpowers, things don’t change overnight.”

Once the Trump-Xi talks conclude, watch for agreement to have further discussions on resolving issues and concerns, agreement that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is of concern and that the two nations pledge to find ways out of the potential dangers. But don’t expect the grand bargain coming inevitably from Trump’s self-praise as a great dealmaker. Given the problems in Syria and with North Korea, and the sometimes discordant voices being heard from American officials (including by Trump himself), it is becoming clear the Trump administration is still trying to figure out just what kind of foreign policy the country is going to pursue – and how it will do so.

And so, we are now in that difficult space between the bellowing about how the new president will fix things, just like that, and the more sombre realisation that some international issues are just plain difficult – and that the solutions, if they exist, are not easy to achieve. Now that he has found, at least for a moment, a moral voice over the use of nerve gas in Syria, Trump has to sort out whether he will follow Theodore Roosevelt’s axiom that America and its president should speak softly and carry a big stick, or if the country and its leader will holler and fulminate, but only carry a teensy tiny limp noodle instead of that metaphorical baseball bat. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump participates in a television interview in the East Room shortly before attending an event hosting participants of the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride, at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 06 April 2017.  EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

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