Like the fierce Atlantic storms than weaken overtime and end as gentle zephyrs playing harmlessly along the coast, Trump’s blustery and boisterous foreign policy is visibly running out of wind. Strong words and sanctions have led to foreign policy impasses with none of his administration’s main objectives being any closer than in 2017. Another year of braggadocio on twitter and a flaccid follow through is not what the world needs.
As Trump’s term comes to a close it is becoming clearer that the upheaval in the foreign policies and diplomatic practises of the US brought about by Trump’s transactional, impulsive, and unreflective approach have had the effect of entrenching those perceived in Washington as adversaries. They have generated circumstances in which the interests of the US have been weakened.
The international institutions and alliances through which the US managed and directed the course of international relations in the post-war era and which enabled success in the gigantic struggle with the Soviet Union are now wheezing and spluttering.
Trump’s inconsistency and short span of attention, his conceited sense of the power of his personality to resolve complex foreign policy issues, and his refusal to acknowledge ignorance on any subject have led to a more perilous world. His rejection of consultative and cooperative multinational action on big issue like climate change, and taking unilateral actions on the Iran agreement, Jerusalem and Golan Heights, and Syria have undermined US international political leadership. His licensing of toxic views on race and immigration have had more than just a caustic effect on domestic debate in the US; it has eviscerated whatever claim the US had to moral leadership.
The so-called trade war with China could have perverse outcomes for the US and for the world. As the two mega-economies engage in their struggle for primacy the global economy is experiencing the reverberations. Trump’s Pollyanna confidence in the imperviousness and robustness of the US economy means the disturbing underlying issues are swept aside as recognition of them would mean acknowledging his genius was not all-embracing.
Brandishing the apparently magical weapons of sanctions and tariffs, Trump lashes out at ally, adversary, and unfortunate bystander with little positive outcome to show for it. The apparently random and ineffective is US Department of Treasury’s program of economic sanctions and trade restrictions is purported to be a behaviour changing exercise. The evidence isn’t persuasive.
Russia shows no signs of relinquishing Crimea, appears to have the upper hand in Syria, and in the Ukraine negotiations despite sanctions. Maduro still retains control of the key institutions of state in Venezuela. Kim’s North Korea continues to thumb its nose at the US and to reject denuclearisation. Iran stoically resists US sanctions pressure and inches closer to a nuclear weapon capability. In Syria, the Assad regime appears immovable.
Although the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017 seems about as effective as a wet lettuce leaf in a knife fight for forcing moderation/conformance with US objectives in international behaviour, it seems nevertheless to be the reflexive go to solution for everything the Trump Administration doesn’t like. Diplomacy is not even a last resort, not even an afterthought, when the Trump Administration strikes an obstacle.
The renewed optimism and sense of mission the post-Cold War NATO found as it consolidated around ‘out of area operations’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa appears to have been premature. Trump’s hostility towards multinational organisations and the European Union, his failure to consult on important strategic issues with his European allies, and his sometimes ambiguous and sometimes admiring attitude towards Russia have achieved the previously unimaginable. Faith in NATO is crumbling as allies doubt the US’s commitment and the long dormant notion of strategically autonomous European military cooperation is gaining impetus.
Trump now speculates that a comprehensive trade agreement with China might not be reached until after the 2020 US Presidential election. This his greatest blunder. Putting aside the ins and out, the details and twists and turns that plague the bilateral relationship, there are big non-negotiable issues at stake for the Chinese. They will never be willing to do more that fiddle at the edges of their state capitalist model. This is not just because of economic reasons, though they believe that is the most effective model to build their economy and bring prosperity to their vast population.
To change the nature of their polity would be an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party. Their economic institutions are entangled in their governance framework. Central control of the strategic direction of the economy is also part of maintaining confidence in the party, acquiring the tools to supress dissidents, surveillance of the populations, rewarding loyalty, and, crucially, to providing the People’s Liberation Army with advanced weaponry and a strong industrial base.
Trump’s aggressive approach towards China might have gained domestic political kudos, but the Chinese regime has more to lose by compromise and a deal that threatens the regime and its ambitions will not be closed.
Across 2019 Trump has fractured the community of nations assiduously built up and nurtured by his predecessors. He has put the championing of human rights, humanitarian aid, and promoting democracy on the backburner. He has made the size of arms deals the criteria for the US’s relationships with tyrants and authoritarians.
Whether or not these all things will generate political benefits for him remains to be seen. But as the world moves into 2020 it will not only find a more dangerous and divided international environment, it will encounter a meaner, less just, and more self-centred one.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.