Sunday October 02, 2022

Trump’s mercantile diplomacy

June 02, 2017

Donald Trump may be the first US president to come under siege in the very first year of his presidency. But considering his life and professional career, it is futile to expect him to behave like a ‘normal’ president.

He enjoys acting like a monarch and receiving other leaders at his own resort and schmoozing them in his corporate style. It took four months to see him operate outside his gilded environs. The visit – which covered Saudi Arabia, Israel and making multilateral contacts with G7 and Nato partners – provides useful indicators of the direction US foreign policy could take under Trump.

The first leg of the tour that took Trump to the Saudi capital was probably the most important in terms of symbolism and the results it achieved. It allowed the US president to play the Islamic extremism card, castigate Iran, reassure the Gulf monarchies, cast himself as a mediator in Israel-Palestine dispute and, more importantly, close deals worth hundreds of billions for the US.

Trump has placed important foreign issues, such as the relations with China and the war in Afghanistan, on the back burner to focus on the Middle East. Obama can keep his ‘Pivot Asia’ and the China containment dossiers. Trump has travelled where big money lies and shown that he intends to get a big pie of that to keep American industries and businesses running. Losing assembly line jobs to China and Mexico and tech jobs to India pales in comparison to the well-filled order book from Riyadh.

The House of Saud may also feel satisfied about its gains from the visit that coincided with the high-profile summit of the US president with Arab and Islamic leaders, including Nawaz Sharif. The main aim of Riyadh is to insulate their country and the Gulf sheikhdoms from the chaos and violence raging in the bordering Arab states of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They perceive Iran’s growing influence in these countries as a long-term threat to the Sunni Arab states.

In their high-stake power game, the Saudis and their Gulf allies wish to rally the support of countries whose economic interests are tied to the existing monarchical order. They also enjoy the sympathy of those who are recipients of Saudi largesse, with Egypt and Pakistan in the lead. Like the US, their interests are linked to the survival of the monarchies that absorb their manpower and provide extra support to the fledgling economies.

Trump portrayed the Islamic republic as a purveyor of terrorism and a threat to its Arab allies as well as Israel. This is in sharp contrast to the Obama team’s policy of engaging Iran to keep checks on its nuclear and missile programmes. Washington is stepping up the pressure on Iran at a time when the hardliners have failed in their bid to win the presidency in Tehran. Though re-elected, Rouhani finds himself in a difficult spot as the opposition will challenge him at every step to continue his policy of opening Iran to the West. 

It is natural for Pakistani commentators to judge things from their own prism. It is, perhaps, time that they review the situation by keeping in mind Pakistan’s economic interests. Let’s not forget which friend transferred $1.5 billion to shore up Pakistan’s reserves when the rupee had become a sudden target of the speculators. Let’s also not forget that the Pakistanis employed in the Gulf region provide livelihood to three to four million families back home. 

Iran has strongly reacted to the high drama enacted in Riyadh. President Rouhani has told Emir Al Thani of Qatar that stability cannot be achieved in the Middle East without Iran’s help. He has also expressed Iran’s readiness to engage with countries in the region for consultations on resolving the ongoing crisis. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei was more scathing in his criticism of the Saudis for allowing themselves to be used as milking cows by the infidel Americans.

Pakistan cannot afford to be seen as being engaged in anti-Iran manoeuvres. Islamabad has apparently started to critically examine its place in the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance after Iran was portrayed as “evil” by the US-Saudi leadership. The Islamic force should not aggravate divisions within the Muslim world by targeting any nation. Its mission should be focused on countering terrorist networks that are threatening the peace and stability of the Muslim world.

Money was foremost in Trump’s mind during the G7 and Nato summits as well. He resisted other G7 leaders in upholding the Paris climate accords. Trump repeated his misgivings about Nato allies as they failed to meet the military spending commitment of two percent of the GDP. 

Trump’s unilateralist approach in the Nato as well as the G7 meetings and Britain’s exit from the EU have led the Europeans – particularly the German and French leaders – to plan their future strategies. Chancellor Merkel, the de facto doyen of EU leaders, has bluntly warned that the always problematic Anglo-American duo is no longer reliable. In the changed circumstances, Europe must take charge of its destiny, she said.

Trump’s entry in the international arena has amply demonstrated that his administration would leave diplomatic grandstanding aside to concentrate on immediate economic interests to fulfil his promise of making America great again.

Pakistan has to perform some tight-rope walking in this highly complex situation and ensure that relations with a vital neighbour are not undermined. Iran can help Pakistan in keeping a balance in its relations by offering more economic opportunities. Iran does not require manpower, but it can start taking action on lifting restrictions on Pakistani exports to give greater substance to our bilateral economic relations.