Donald Trump in power casts a threatening unpredictability upon the world. His vision doesn’t go beyond “transactional diplomacy,” where U.S. interests are placed above all others.
“The president embarked on his first foreign trip [to the Middle East and Europe] with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community,” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” according to a column by Gen. H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, respectively national security advisor and the head of Donald Trump’s National Economic Council, in which they tried to define what might seem like a “doctrine” – or at least an ideological line – followed by the 45th president of the United States on the world stage. “This “doctrine” is almost “Hobbesian,” violent, contrary to Western diplomacy since Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921),” says Laurence Nardon, head of the North America program at the French Institute of International Relations, referring to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who in his major book “Leviathan,” described the unrestrained and selfish competition between nations.
Six months after his arrival in the White House, President Trump subscribes to a worldview totally different from that of his predecessors. He has mostly put forward a sort of “transactional diplomacy” to meet his goal of putting America first, and to obtain maximum benefits from his partners with the “best deals possible.” But Trump has mostly given the impression of following a zigzag policy, made up of about-faces from his 2016 campaign promises, and sometimes from his tweets the day before. On China, he has reversed himself. After having threatened to impose high tariffs on imports, he returned to a path of “high-level dialogue” that his predecessors used. In Syria, the bombing of an air base on April 6 in retaliation for the Khan Cheikhoun attack on civilians with chemical weapons attributed to Bashar Assad’s regime, then the destruction by an American fighter jet of a Syrian drone, changed relations not only with respect to Damascus, but also with respect to the initial goal of easing tensions with Moscow and Trump’s initial desire not to commit himself in the name of humanitarian principles.
Many Blind Spots
Similarly, with regard to NATO, which he described initially as an “obsolete” organization, Trump has changed tack. Certainly, at the Brussels summit, the U.S. president stopped short of explicitly reaffirming the U.S.’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. (“An armed attack against one [NATO country] shall be considered an attack against them all.”) . But, he nevertheless recalled “the commitments that bind us together as one” against terrorism. . However, we must not be misled. There remain many unknowns. “Does Donald Trump have coherent thoughts? This question arises every morning,” stresses Nardon. Although his message is fundamentally one of “selfish exceptionalism,” it is difficult to predict what his relationship with Vladimir Putin will be tomorrow, when the investigation into possible links between Trump’s associates and Russia has only just begun.
Moreover, Trump is likely to have little involvement in defining his foreign policy, as he is more concerned about the whiff of the “Russiagate” scandal and about America itself. Since the beginning of his term, no one has been able to determine what is driving his foreign policy: the “responsible adults,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley or his adviser Stephen Bannon, the great admirer of Charles Maurras?* Trump also has many blind spots with respect to Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and Afghanistan.
In six months, Trump has nevertheless established two grand policy lines: the fight against terrorism and Iran. He has done so to the point of taking the side of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in their desire to isolate Qatar, but doing so in a confusing and unreadable way. Not only does Qatar have an American military base, but the United States has rushed to sell weapons to the small emirate, which is accused of supporting terrorism. The other constant is his determination to undo Barack Obama’s legacy. He thus denounced the Paris climate agreement. He wants to renegotiate the 2015 treaty limiting Iran’s nuclear program. He moved backward on the policy of openness toward Cuba.
But the biggest unknown remains Donald Trump himself, and his total unpredictability. “The risk of an accident – and unintended escalation to war – is higher today than in decades … not only in Europe, but in [the] Mideast and Asia,” said Ivo Daadler, former U.S. NATO ambassador. For Nardon, tense relations with North Korea could degenerate if Trump ever tried to create distractions from “Russiagate.”
Of course, it was not possible to predict before 9/11 that former President George W. Bush would launch America into two wars, in Afghanistan then in Iraq, with catastrophic consequences. But Trump seems to be forcing the world to play a sort of Russian roulette where the only predictable thing is his unpredictability. Yet, as David Frum, former adviser to George W. Bush, recently stated in Paris, “A nuclear superpower must be very predictable.”**
*Editor’s note: Charles Maurras (1868-1952) was a French author, poet and critic, and an organizer and principal philosopher of Action Francaise, a political movement that was monarchist, anti-parliamentarian, and counter-revolutionary, according to Wikipedia.
**Editor’s note: This quoted remark, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.