Trump’s attitude at G20 symbolises US disengagement
Never have the influence of nationalist White House advisers, such as chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and the effects of US President Donald Trump’s gut instincts been on clearer display than it was during the G20 summit in Germany.
The inability of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to hold the president to America’s traditional alliances was there for all to see.
The Wall Street Journal noted that Trump had “shocked Washington,” suggesting that he had “finally offered the core of what could become a governing philosophy,” one that celebrated tight border controls and strong national and cultural identity and a “determined and affirmative defence of the Western tradition.”
Beyond pointing out Trump’s erratic behaviour, many observers failed to acknowledge that the United States has been pulling in its horns for some time now.
Only time will tell whether Trump’s belief that the United States should go it alone will make the country stronger or render it weaker, more isolated and less capable of dealing with international challenges.
In the meantime, Russian President Vladimir Putin can only delight at a US president who openly scorns traditional US allies in Europe, diminishes the power of the country that has been the anchor of the international system since 1945 and flip-flops on key issues. He can only delight at the friction between Trump and America’s European allies on trade, the European Union, NATO and climate change.
Many in the US Congress had been nervous that Trump would adopt a softer stance on Russia because of his reluctance during last year’s presidential campaign to criticise Putin. Although he called upon Russia to halt its “destabilising activities” in Ukraine and sent Tillerson to Kiev to reassure the Ukrainians that they could count on continued US support the day after the G20 meetings, that was one of the rare occasions that he has said anything negative about Russia.
Standing next to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Tillerson made a series of very tough statements, blaming Russia for stonewalling efforts to bring peace to east Ukraine, where more than 10,000 people have died as government forces continue three years on to battle Russia-backed separatists. The question is whether his words carry any weight.
Putin was happy to have “established a personal rapport” with Trump, who said he had agreed to work with Russia to create a cyber-security unit. This announcement provoked a fierce backlash on Capitol Hill.
Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina, described the Putin meeting as “disastrous” and said Trump was hurting his presidency by not “embracing the fact that Putin is a bad guy.” Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, called the mooted agreement “akin to partnering with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad on a chemical weapons unit,” a reference to the gas attack that the Syrian regime conducted in March. Influential US Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Putin could be of enormous assistance “since he is doing the hacking.”
Trump, just hours before meeting with Putin, cast doubts on the US intelligence community’s judgment on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US elections. As a former KGB officer, Putin was trained to make people feel good and coerce them into his way of thinking. Trump, helped by his narcissism, was a walkover.
This was the second summit Trump has attended and it is clear that his actions will match his words. The United States is isolated on climate change and how to deal with its long-term threat. He has forced the G20 to back away from its long-standing commitment to reject protectionism and to remain mute on international migration when refugee issues are more intractable than at any time since the years immediately after the second world war.
The president’s pre-summit speech in Poland played well to his domestic conservative audience. It delighted the conservative Polish government but, by encouraging division in Europe, it hardly played well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was forced to acknowledge that the G20 summit had achieved nothing. Trump’s emphasis in Warsaw that the primary question of our time is the will of the West to survive hardly plays well in China, India or the Arab world but this Manichean rhetoric suits Putin well.
The “axis of evil” conjured by former US President George W. Bush after 9/11 played straight into the hands of al-Qaeda and Iran. More and more European leaders wonder what is left of half a century of American leadership as they come to realise that Trump’s behaviour, as erratic as it may be, mirrors what many Americans believe.
Disengagement started after 9/11. Trump’s belittling of the G20 symbolises this disengagement, albeit with flip-flops his two immediate predecessors would have considered ill-judged. The world has a bumpy ride ahead.