January 20, 2017

There Are No Simple Solutions

TOPSHOT - US President-elect Donald Trump gestures during a welcome celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017.
TOPSHOT - US President-elect Donald Trump gestures during a welcome celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017.

The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, on the 20th of January 2017 will certainly mark the beginning of a new and unpredictable period in world affairs.

Eight years ago, Barack Obama – at his own inauguration ceremony – spoke almost exclusively about America’s own economic and social difficulties and challenges, and about its moral values, beliefs and legacy. He uttered not a single word about Russia or China, NATO or the EU, confining his remarks on foreign policy to confirming the pull out of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Against this background, it is extremely difficult to predict what kind of inaugural address is being prepared for Trump by his speechwriter, Stephen Miller, with input from the president-elect himself, his trustworthy son-in-law Jared Kushner, the eccentric Mr. Stephen Bannon, the scandalous retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, and other soon-to-be inhabitants of the White House. Why? Because Trump implies – using every opportunity – that President Barack Obama’s administration did virtually everything in the wrong way, at home and abroad, and therefore any issues must be approached from a totally different angle – from which all solutions are quite “simple”.

Ancient Roman emperors already knew the great power of strategic ambiguity, and Russian president Vladimir Putin likes – and uses – this approach very eagerly as well. In an attempt to make a huge step forward, revolutionize the course of history, and make America great again, Trump seems to be guided instead by a strong belief in strategic chaos. So far, it is not possible to identify or clarify any coherent views of the president-elect on international matters, besides his apparent intention to turn everything upside down and to solve key issues with major foreign partners – and opponents – with a quick flick of his magic Twitter wand.

Trump’s recent interview to The Times and Bild only exacerbated the worldwide anxiety – especially in Europe – over his real intentions. NATO is “obsolete,” because it is “old,” even if it is “very important” to him. It is fair to ask all Allies to spend – effectively – at least 2% of their GDP on defence. So did presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton. However, his reference to NATO’s “obsoleteness” – a phrase so dear to president Putin and his Kremlin fellows – is thus clearly not just a slip of the tongue by Trump. It instead reflects his fundamental ignorance about NATO’s meaning, role and relevance – beyond the 2% target – and the reluctance to accept and support what seems not to be immediately comprehensible and profitable (he is, after all, a businessman).

Brexit “is going to end up being a great thing”, and should therefore lead to other countries leaving the EU, to start with Ireland, because the EU is “basically a vehicle for Germany” – with all his appreciation for the “very fine gentleman” Jean-Claude Juncker and his “great respect” for Angela Merkel. In a nutshell, Trump blames Germany, and particularly Chancellor Merkel, for provoking that “great thing” (probably language suggested by Nigel Farage) by taking the European Union as its/her private BMW. In addition, Trump stated that Merkel made a “catastrophic mistake” by welcoming Syrian war refugees. This all has been said by the grandson of a German immigrant (or rather evader from Prussian military service) to America.

Thus, even before his inauguration, Trump has openly and seriously undermined, the two fundamental Western organizations, NATO and the EU. No one, even the United States, can act alone, without allies. However, Trump’s choices seem to be very limited and highly questionable. Until now, only the UK’s Brexit-government and Putin’s regime have been praised. China is bad and should be fiercely opposed – and by China he means just the big one, because now there seems to be officially once again two of them. The Mexican people are “wonderful” and its government is “terrific”, but they will – somehow – pay the bill for the Great Mexican Wall. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA must go, whatever Canada, Australia, and other brotherly nations may think.

Nevertheless, perhaps one sensible initiative may soon emerge. While meeting Trump for the first time, Putin would certainly wish primarily to address issues related to Ukraine, knowing all too well Trump’s superficial eagerness to make big deals quickly. However, Trump has hinted that his first priority may be the fight against terrorism, which should also concern – and probably somehow involve – the “obsolete” NATO alliance. Therefore, the first Trump-Putin deal might likely concern the common fight against and liquidation of ISIS (although Putin would certainly resist NATO’s participation as a new raison d’être for the Alliance), with Russia keeping Syria and the US retaining its influence and presence in Iraq. The Kremlin leaders seem to be already sure that Trump will also terminate the US sanctions against Russia, and that the EU will have no other choice than to follow suit.

Last but not least, Donald Trump’s only post-election press conference and particularly the interview discussed above stand in stark contrast with the mainstream testimonies – under oath – of Rex Tillerson and retired general James Mattis in front of the Senate Committees on Foreign Affairs and Armed Services, respectively. It remains to be seen whether Trump will gradually focus more on domestic issues, leaving foreign and defence policy matters – especially related to NATO and the EU – to Tillerson and Mattis. Regardless, Trump’s simpleminded rhetoric will hardly change.