For more than a year, many pundits and politicians have portrayed U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has been portrayed as a maverick who could mess things up across the globe or, as the quip making the rounds in the European Union has it, even end civilization as we know it.
Much of the anti-Trump rhetoric came in the heat of the election campaign and used as a prop to help the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. In that sense it was part of the “electoral war”, and thus acceptable.
But now that the dust has settled, it is possible to speculate about Trump’s foreign policy with cooler heads.
Trump offered us a key in his first speech after he was declared the winner late Tuesday night.
“We will get along with all other nations, willing to get along with us,” he said.
This is of crucial importance if only because it signals the reversal of eight years of Barack Obama’s foreign policy which was based on the very opposite: trying to get along with other nations that were not willing to go along with the United States.
Obama is the product of a 1960s political culture on the margins of the left which regarded the US as an “Imperialist” power that had thrown its weight around for far too long. Obama thought it his mission to rein-in the American 800-tonne gorilla and help repair the damage it has done to its victims.
Consider Obama’s “reset” with Russia. It came in 2009 at a time that President Vladimir Putin had made it clear he didn’t want to “get along with the US” by dissolving the “joint effort” Moscow and Washington had launched to find a solution to the Russo-Georgian dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
According to Clinton’s memoirs, Obama ordered that Russia be “given something as a sign of goodwill.”
That “something” was determined by Putin himself who just seized the opportunity to annex the two Georgian enclaves. Even then, Moscow’s hunger wasn’t quenched as it went on to annex Crimea, set up an enclave in eastern Ukraine, bully the Baltic republics, form an anti-US axis with the mullahs of Tehran and launch a war of conquest in Syria.
What Trump now offers is “getting along” on terms acceptable to both sides, not one-way concessions that became the hallmark of Obama’s anti-American foreign policy.
Obama’s one-way concessions came in different shapes and sizes. It came as a friendly hug with the then Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez at a time his “Socialist” regime was falling apart under the pressure of popular discontent and economic failure. It also came in the form of a trip to Havana to pay tribute to the Castro brothers who gave nothing in return.
The most glaring of those one-way concessions came with the so-called Iran nuclear deal, the biggest diplomatic swindle in recent history, which helped the mullahs out of a tight corner without forcing them to give anything tangible in return.
Obama also sent Clinton, then his Secretary of State, to Burma to conjure a trompe l’oeil of democratization that consolidated the rule of the military with a thin civilian façade.
The way the Obama administration dealt with the so-called “Arab Spring” and its consequences, his on-again-off-again alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the tragic situation in Syria, reeks of failure at every turn. And Clinton was either an active participant or a silent partner through it all.
What does Trump offer instead?
To start with, Trump makes it clear that he wishes to de-Obamaize US foreign policy.
He says he won’t go around the world apologizing to all and sundry for America’s alleged sins. Nor will he insist on flattering America’s Islamist enemies, as Obama did in his dishonest speeches in Istanbul and Cairo.
Maybe because of his diplomatic inexperience, Trump states his objectives clearly where Obama conjures opacity.
Obama says his aim is to “contain and degrade” ISIS. Trump says he wants “to utterly destroy ISIS.”
Obama says he is trying to persuade, in fact meaning bribe, Iran to “moderate its behavior.” Trump regards that as a mirage and says “we will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.”
For seven years Obama has said he was working with our “Chinese partners” to persuade North Korea to tone down its nuclear ambitions.
In Syria, Obama has spent vast sums training and arming various rebel groups that, like the Afghan Mujahedeen of the 1980s, may end up as enemies of the United States. At the same time, Obama has called for regime change in Syria while rejecting the idea of creating safe havens to protect Syrian civilians from genocide. He shares much of the responsibility for the tragic sufferings of the Syrian people.
Trump says he will begin by finding out “what is really going on.”
“We have no idea who our allies and enemies are,” he admits. Also, he won’t “train and arm rebels we don’t know and control.” He favors the creation of “safe havens” to allow displaced Syrians to stay inside their own land rather than defy death to reach Europe.
Obama prefers to pay lip service to NATO while in fact hampering its development. Trump, however, calls for a critical review of the role and place of the alliance in the new international context.
Trump also insists on equitable burden-sharing in the alliance, especially the commitment by all member-states to devote 2 percent of their annual GDP to defense. At present, however, only two of the 28 members, the United States and Great Britain, do so, although some members are richer, per head, than both. The US pays 75 per cent of NATO’s cost; all other members together pay the remaining 25 per cent.
Trump also proposes a thorough review of commitments that the US has made to the defense of 66 nations across the globe. The issue merits closer attention.
In many cases there’s no need for US involvement. In other cases, such involvement may produce more tension. Also, it makes little sense that the United States should pay rent for bases it has set up to protect allies richer than itself.
To be sure, America isn’t a mercenary power. But a system of burden-sharing would make it easier to garner popular American support for such a leadership role.
Few would disagree that Obama has done great damage to relations with many close allies, especially in the Middle East. “President Obama has treated Israel horribly,” Trump says. The same is true of Egypt and Turkey — not to mention the Gulf States, and Great Britain and France, whose leaders Obama has publicly insulted.
Although portrayed as a jingoist, Trump says he supports normalization with Cuba provided the Cuban people get a better deal from their regime. He’s also on record that decisions by allies, notably Japan and South Korea, on their defense doctrines are primarily theirs and not Washington’s. Further, Trump insists that in crises affecting Europe, notably Ukraine, he would favor European allies, like Germany, taking the lead with full US support.
In the heat of the campaign, the Obama camp accused Trump of being in cahoots with the Kremlin. However, the key phrase “get along with us” means that US relations with Russia can and must be repaired provided an understanding is reached on what is acceptable. And that is what proper diplomacy should be about.
In the very least, under Trump, the US is unlikely to stab its allies in the back in order to please its enemies.
The return of the US as a leading power capable and willing to defend its legitimate interests could be good news for the world.