Trump goes international. The world holds its breath.
Looking past the complications and complicities of the Trump administration’s wrestling with its Russian connections, pre- and post-election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at President Trump’s upcoming first international trip, 22-27 May. It may not be a pretty picture.
Let us move on from the past week in Washington where the Trump and his staff issued a whole mouthful of misleading explanations, including some possibly illegal actions like obstruction of justice, connected with that unceremonious “terminating” of James Comey, the FBI director. And in the process, they brought the nation’s government to a new, still-lower level of international ridicule, along with the clear sense that he has thrown a number of his staff as well as his vice president under that metaphorical bus as a result of that shifting tide of “truth”.
As part of this process, they have brought into yet clearer focus the unhealthy (and perhaps unconstitutional and illegal) connections between Trump and his friends and allies on the one hand, and the Russian government on the other in Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 – that will only intensify as the FBI and congressional investigations continue. True, there will not, yet, be an independent special prosecutor, at least until Trump loses the support of a big dollop of GOP-voting true believers. But a declining lack of support for his administration or its specific policies overall continues to pose the possibility that some Republican congressmen – eyeing the 2018 mid-term election – may break with their largely-so-far-lockstep, yet increasingly awkward support of him.
Meanwhile, put aside his so far shambolic healthcare engagement, his budget efforts, his continuing reversals on international monetary policy issues, and his “Cliff’s Notes”-version of a tax reform plan. Reading the editors’ interview with the president in the current issue of The Economist – including the astounding claim that he, Trump, had just thought up that hoary old 1933 phrase and economic idea, “priming the pump” – should dispel most remaining illusions about whether or not Trump had gained the White House after some seriously false advertising that set him up as that hard-charging, deeply-knowledgeable-about-the-ways-of-the-world populist, working 110% for the benefit of the little man.
Instead, this week, let us focus on still other international affairs, and by this we don’t mean Trump’s son-in-law’s sister’s sleazy, smarmy efforts to sell US investor visas in China in order to finance a new luxury apartment building in New Jersey for the Kushner family business. No, instead, let us look forward to the president’s first trip overseas next week. On this maiden voyage as chief executive, he jets off to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy – and the Vatican City.
Normally, presidents buffeted by domestic pressures and issues look forward to international meetings and visits. Such things are a way of demonstrating “presidentialness” on the big stage, as they shuck off their nasty, partisan domestic circumstances, and, instead, don their glittering, resplendent “leader of the free world” superhero garb as they bestride across that global stage. The various stops generate nice pictures with their international counterparts, or they give speeches to large, intent, respectful crowds. Usually, that is.
But this trip has American foreign policy professionals and observers tense for any signs of an international presidential meltdown or global snit fight in the offing. Even as this trip is in the advanced stages of preparation, there are various other global issues that will require close attention by somebody – even if the US State Department is barely staffed up to skeleton strength at its upper levels, and with no sign of those slots being filled any time soon.
Among other issues, this includes the global malware storm that may have affected websites and computers in a hundred or so nations; the fast-evolving North Korean situation following Pyongyang’s latest missile test; a possible meltdown in Venezuela; and the ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – just to name a few issues that only sporadically gain the attention of the Oval Office, save for a tweet or two in the middle of the night. And there is even yet one sign of China’s resurgence internationally with its “One Belt, One Road” conference designed to highlight its growing trade and investment linkages across East-South-Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 29 national leaders in attendance at this launch. (Trump had, in the meantime, vanished the TransPacific Partnership from US planning.)
So, taking this fast-approaching Trump trip under closer scrutiny, the initial stop is to be Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to meet with that country’s king and other leaders from the various Gulf Co-operation Council governments. Right now, the president’s obsession seems to be with defeating IS to the exclusion of any other geopolitical consideration in the region. The New York Times reported prep on this trip, noting,
“Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Trump’s visit would send a clear message that the U.S. harbors no ill will toward Muslim countries, which he said was a misconception spread by Iran and extremists like the Islamic State group. ‘This historic summit is going to change the narrative in the Islamic world and in the world,’ he told reporters in Washington.”
Or, as the president, himself, said, “Our task is not to dictate to others how to live but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East.”
Oh, well okay then. Mission accomplished. All taken care of, right?
Still, among other questions, under any other circumstances, such a meeting would include substantive discussions on the future of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its relationship with Russia, its armourer and chief sponsor; the equally unsettling role of Hezbollah in Syria; the complicated engagement of Turkey with the Kurds on the various sides of the Turkish/Syrian/Iraqi borders; the increasingly ugly relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia as rivals for regional influence, and that devastating proxy war in Yemen with the Saudis as a key element in this. Given Trump’s evident – in public, at least – lack of interest in (or even knowledge of) the problematic, dangerous complexities of these issues, how Donald Trump will escape from those upcoming discussions in Saudi Arabia with anything much more than a bland statement of support for vague mechanisms to encourage peace in the region and bring IS’s ground presence to an end seems a mystery. His key apparent ultimate goal, choking off non-state actor terrorism, probably will not find concrete salvation in his Saudi meetings.
Then it is off to Israel – and presumably the West Bank territories as well, given his recent meeting in Washington with Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Given Trump’s warm public embrace of the Israeli leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the sharp distinction Trump has drawn between his and Barack Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu, anything less than the reaffirmation of their love-fest – still more military aid?; still less American barracking about West Bank settlements? – would seem something of a letdown. Concurrently, how, where, and with whom he actually meets from the Palestinian Authority, and what sort of offers Trump’s team can make that don’t at the same time anger the Israelis or rev up Hamas in Gaza are similarly hard to parse.
In addition, the resulting disappointments and reputational damage that will probably come from the president’s rash appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the chief person responsible for delivering a real Israeli-Palestinian accord, may also be the result of such meetings. Kushner has no real experience in the region, no deep, extensive connections with the groups or individuals there who matter, and no body of experience in achieving – or even working on – diplomatic breakthroughs. As someone once said of the region, the Middle East is littered with the bones of long-forgotten, failed peace accords. Still, maybe it is worth a try, but only as long as Kushner has some chips he can bring to play with at this game.
Trump’s next country – actually, two countries if you count the Vatican City as a sovereign nation – will be Italy for his participation in the annual G7 meeting, this time in Taormina, Sicily. This G7 (formerly the G8) no longer includes Russia, following the sanctions and other knuckle raps that have come into play as a result of that Ukraine fighting and the annexation of Crimea. Interestingly, this G7 summit will be the first one for British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, in addition to Trump. Only Shinzo Abe, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau will be attending as holdover, returning veterans of the event.
May, of course, will be in the final throes of her campaign to gain a big majority in upcoming elections designed to give her some breathing room in the Brexit negotiations. Macron, meanwhile, will still be waiting to see if his new party and presidency can score a big bunch of deputies in the French parliamentary election, and the Italian prime minister is the latest of what often seems to be an unending round of short-time leaders there.
As a result, there are some questions as to what, exactly, can be achieved in this upcoming meeting – especially as the parties seem divided ideologically between those who want to nurture further globalisation somehow, and those who have gained their seats at the table by virtue of opposition to any such trends. Expect some nice protestations about inclusive, balanced international growth that can lift all boats. Then there will be encouragement for greater efforts to confront issues like the many waves of immigration facing the world, as well as global threats such as cyberterrorism, terrorism on the ground, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea’s “Young Leader”.
Maybe the real fireworks of the trip will come when Trump meets Pope Francis II in Rome. The Pope has been a vocal critic of Trump’s words and deeds on immigration and refugees, and the two men have traded some less than politic words about that. Trump, however, may find it necessary to tone down his rhetorical excesses in the presence of the Pope, given the latter’s better popularity ratings, globally, than the president’s. And the pope may well be around for a good chunk of Trump’s time in the public eye, as a critic of small-minded, crabbed policies like those of Trump on treating refugees. The pope, to answer Stalin’s old snarky question, still has no tanks or divisions, but he has captured the affection of much of the world, well beyond that of his Catholic flock, something Donald Trump clearly cannot say about his own reputation.
In most circumstances, a first-time presidential international safari like this one would be fun to watch, of interest to interpret, and – potentially, at least – bear the possibility of some important, new international initiatives. But, given the lack of coherence, nuance or subtlety, so far, in Trump’s international views – beyond that jejune, incessant chant of “America first, America first” – and the lack of any administrative team depth to make things move forward, either in advance of these presidential meetings or during them, the whole thing will end up probably being just an intermission in the cut-throat game playing in Washington over what we shall eventually call Trump’s Russia-gate. DM
Photo: A handout photo made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak during their meeting in the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 May 2017. EPA/RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY HANDOUT