A strange new world
Has the world turned upside down? A Republican US president promises trade protection and wants to scrap free-trade agreements. Nearly 28 years after Ronald Reagan, then out of office, applauded the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Donald Trump is cosying up to a Russian president who was a KGB intelligence officer when the wall came down.
In Europe, some of NATO’s strongest defenders are on the left, which was once sceptical of the military alliance whose value is being questioned by Trump. A British prime minister professing admiration of Margaret Thatcher has committed her government to a greater state role in the economy while disavowing past military interventions designed to “remake the world in our own image”.
A Communist government in Beijing is standing up for international trade, while China, whose rapid economic growth once seemed the biggest looming threat to the global environment, champions the 194-country 2016 Paris agreement on curbing greenhouse gases.
Change seems most attractive to those let down by the so-called new world order that followed the demise of Communism in 1989. The “end of history” proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic for much of the world: Even within rich countries, swathes of voters began to feel left behind by global forces they no longer understood.
Hence the temptation to welcome Trump. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sensed a “new spirit” in US-Egyptian relations and sees the new US president as an ally against Islamic extremism, which for Sisi includes the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, rebels wary of Trump’s regard for Russian President Vladimir Putin have welcomed his recent call for “safe zones” within the country to stem the flow of refugees.
Many throughout the Arab world are encouraged by Trump’s criticism of Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and by his appointment of officials — including James Mattis as Defense secretary — known for antipathy towards Tehran. However, it has dawned on the more thoughtful that scrapping a deal under which Iran has slashed its stocks of enriched uranium and accepted intrusive UN inspections may not be a preferable alternative.
Among the noisiest in the queue lauding Trump is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who no doubt recognises someone else who came to power through an alliance of the religious right and a disgruntled working class.
Trump has also expressed sympathy for extending Jewish settlements in the West Bank — although Mattis has been a critic and Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of State, has as an oil executive developed awareness of Arab sensitivities. But moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while scoring points for Trump with his domestic Israeli lobby, could sound the death knell of the peace process and the two-state solution.
Expanding settlements, effectively to absorb all of mandate Palestine, will, as former Mossad operative Yossi Alpher demonstrated last year in his book No End of Conflict, means Israel cannot remain both a democracy and a Jewish state. The quashing of Palestinian aspirations to statehood or even civil rights will have lasting, and dangerous, consequences not just for Israel but for anyone standing in the way of militants exploiting the Palestinian cause.
Trump is something new but his swashbuckling, impulsive approach has its clearest precedent in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the US administration proclaimed a Gordian knot whose slicing would transform the Middle East and give, as vice-president Dick Cheney put it: “The freedom-loving peoples of the region… a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace”.
As the late American publisher Malcolm Forbes once said: “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” More than ever the Arab region has a deep interest in multilateralism, whether it is trade with the European Union, international security or achieving a just settlement in Syria. International law, diplomacy and shared values still offer a better path than each national leadership, or faction, following Trump’s lead in trying to grab what it can in its own short-term interests.
Simple solutions can be exciting but they rarely work. Change is not always for the better. Turning the world upside down may not produce a world the right way up.