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November 12, 2017

One year of Trump


November 12, 2017

Donald Trump’s entry into the White House was an event of monumental proportions that caught the world unawares. Political pundits in Washington and around the world dismissed him as a “maverick” who lacked in the “aura” and “intellectual depth” that has been a shared feature of the contenders for the top office in the US.

After he won the primaries and was nominated as GOP’s top-runner for the most coveted position – which in itself was described as an achievement for a man who has been alien to the US politics and the system – his clear electoral victory against Hillary Clinton, who enjoyed the support of the Washington establishment, was an earth-shattering event.

The possibility of Trump’s campaign rhetoric becoming a part of state policy was too scary to be pondered. His appointment – which heralded the beginning of an uncertain era, not just for America but also for the world – led foreign policy establishments across the world to put their heads together to prepare for the possible scenarios playing out in the Trump era.

Donald Trump built his electoral campaign on the broad rubric of ‘America First’ and, by extension, worked out the broad contours of his possible foreign policy by playing on the ‘fears’ of the average white Americans. Saying radical things and threatening to bring down the established norms of political conduct was more of a political necessity to keep the American voters happy.

One year on, it is important to analyse the foreign policy pursued by the Trump administration to judge how far he has been able to walk the talk in a position where realities have often moderated the hawks by turning them into doves.

To begin with, candidate Trump was a harsh critic of China because it had skewed the trade balance tilted heavily in favour of Beijing, taken away the jobs of the Americans and extended patronage to “rogue North Korea”. He lashed out at China for trade practices that he compared to “rape and theft”. The intensity of Trump’s anti-China tirade, which was a recurring theme in his election campaign, can be gauged from the remarks he made at one of his rallies in May 2016: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world”.

However, contrary to his previous criticism of China, President Trump’s first visit to China represented the dawn of pragmatism when he made an offer of reconciliation to Beijing and heaped praise on China and its leader President Xi Jinping for taking advantage of the US in trade deals. He later tweeted that: “I don’t blame China, I blame the incompetence of past administrations for allowing China to take advantage of the US on trade leading up to a point where the US is losing $100’s of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would’ve done same!”

It appears that the US president has replaced his hard line against some of the world leaders with strong praise for them. The signing of business deals worth $250 billion between Chinese companies and the US during the visit, coupled with policy pronouncements by the North Korean president, has pitched China as a part of a solution instead of a problem.

Nowhere is the Trump administration’s policy contradiction more pronounced than on Afghanistan, which has evaded a military solution for 16 long years and cost the US heavily in man and material. While on a campaign trail, candidate Trump promised to extricate the US from all conflicts around the world. However, when in office, he only ended up deepening US engagement even further.

The long-awaited review on Afghanistan and South Asia – which was the result of long-drawn-out deliberations of Trump’s war cabinet – rehashed the ‘failed policies’ of the previous administrations that the US president singled out for aggravating the Afghan problem.

Without spelling out any benchmarks for success, Trump’s Afghanistan policy assigns a greater role to India and calls for an open-ended troop commitment in the war-torn country. It has further muddied the waters and rendered any possibility of seeking a politically negotiated deal redundant. This policy has also put paid to the efforts made at the quadrilateral forum that sought a regional solution to the Afghan problem.

If anything, what Trump has accomplished over the past year has been a gradual subordination of US foreign policy to the Pentagon. The militarisation of the American foreign policy has made the State Department irrelevant in the decision-making processes. With many experienced and seasoned officials and ambassadors having called it quits, Trump has used his Twitter account as the chief instrument to make important announcements.

While the Trump administration has certainly withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, it has yet to walk the tough talk of ditching allies like Nato and scrapping trade deals such as Nafta.

On Iran, President Trump has employed the policy of brinkmanship to pressurise Iran in an attempt to appease his friends in the Middle East, including Israel, and his hawkish domestic lobbies. Though he has threatened to bring down the Iran nuclear deal, he has somehow stayed away from taking this drastic step and has thereby allowed sanity to prevail.

President Trump’s views on trade are shaped by a uni-focal pattern of thought. His preference for bilateral trade deals and disdain for multilateral trade bargains are informed by his belief that exports are good and imports are bad and America’s interest can only be served best if it can ‘goad’ its partners into signing trade deals that benefit the US.

The greatest havoc that the Trump administration has wrought relates to America’s soft power. The universal values of democracy, human rights and globalisation stand heavily eroded under his watch. The US, which used to be a great champion of globalisation in all respects, has withdrawn itself, with China filling in the vacuum. President Xi Jinping’s robust defence of economic globalisation in his keynote address at the World Economic Forum earlier this year offers an interesting contrast to the US, revealing more about the changing realities of the global political and economic order.

The withdrawal of the US from its responsibilities as the world power – a process which has been hastened under President Trump – bodes ill for a world that continues to face uncertain times with equally uncertain consequences. While the peaceful rise of China inspires hope, the US decision to limit itself to a shell under the banner of ‘America First’ has reflected a form of bad news.

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