Trump’s ‘disruptive’ approach rattles traditional allies

Every time the US spurns its international commitments, it invites allies to step back and look for new friends and adversaries to press their advantage.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Changing moods. French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and US President Donald Trump at the end of their joint news conference in Washington, last April. (Reuters)
Changing moods. French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and US President Donald Trump at the end of their joint news conference in Washington, last April. (Reuters)

“Turning openly against traditional allies such as Canada, Mexico and leading European countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany for the sake of a reality show means sacrificing core values, future interests and the possibility of solving urgent problems for the whole of humanity.” Thus a seasoned American observer sums up the way US President Donald Trump is slowly but surely writing America out of the script of international diplomacy.

This observation applies across a broad range of issues as the United States walls itself off from international commitments made by Trump’s immediate predecessor — such as the Paris Agreement on climate change — or earlier presidents, notably on free trade. The United States has been the pivot of international efforts to free trade between countries since 1945 and is now going into reverse gear.

The recent G7 meeting of finance ministers provoked harsh criticism of US policies from countries such as Canada and Japan, a close US ally in Asia, that would have been unthinkable a year or so ago. Slapping tariffs on steel and aluminium invites tit-for-tat measures from Canada and the European Union. Europeans may give the United States a few weeks to think again before placing their own tariffs but China will be less shy.

What is not in doubt is that the growing prospect of a trade war will force businesses to question their investment plans. Jacob Wallenberg, one of Europe’s leading industrialists, whose family controls Ericsson, Saab and other companies with combined revenues of more than $130 billion, has spoken out against the policies. In March, home appliance company Electrolux, also controlled by the Wallenberg family, demonstrated the potential fallout from Trump’s policies by putting on hold a $250 million investment in a home appliance factory in Tennessee.

Trump’s policies are disrupting the intricate network of value chains across the world and the greater the disruption, the less America’s influence on international economic and financial matters. Powerful Middle Eastern investors should take note: As much as they like Trump’s policies in the Middle East, their international investments could get caught in some very awkward situations.

Every time the United States spurns its international commitments, be it over trade, climate or Iran, it invites allies to step back and look for new friends and adversaries to press their advantage.

The White House likes to boast that the president’s “disruptive” approach has broken a series of historical logjams but are moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement really game changers?

No one expects Trump’s abrupt decisions to be embedded into policy through calculation of how others might respond; no one can accuse him of being a chess player. Time will tell whether moving the embassy to Jerusalem achieved anything other than pleasing the Israeli prime minister and infuriating the Palestinians.

On Iran, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a list of what he expected Tehran to do, which affected every dimension of Iranian foreign, security and international policy.

One senior European diplomat remarked that it was akin to saying to Iran: “We will remove your democratically elected president by force if he does not comply, as we did with the elected PM Dr [Mohammad] Mosaddegh in 1953.” Short of “asking the Iranians to convert to Christianity,” he quipped, what does the United States expect?

US policy in the Middle East infuriates European leaders and diplomats. In private, they show a mixture of rage, disbelief and irony. French President Emmanuel Macron, who invested much political capital in trying to change Trump’s mind on Iran, is well aware of the need to engage Iran on its game in Syria and ambitious ballistic missile programme.

The French admit in private that US policy is akin to a wrecking ball. Last year, Macron boldly intervened to ease Saudi-Lebanese tensions, as he explained on French TV at the end of May. He has sought to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table in Libya.

Such efforts are not helped by the exodus of top-flight diplomats from the US State Department when it was under the stewardship of Rex Tillerson. Pompeo’s bombast offers no substitute to the painstaking work of professional diplomats.

It is too early to say whether a war between Iran and Israel can be avoided and what role Russian President Vladimir Putin might play in avoiding such an escalation.

Macron at least is engaging the Russian leader, which Trump is not. Putin scored another important goal in a country — Turkey — that is still a member of NATO but fast drifting away from its traditional alliance with the United States.

The first concrete has been poured into the foundations at Akkuyu, in the southern Turkish province of Mersin, for Turkey’s first atomic power plant. The plant is being built by Rosatom, the Russia-owned nuclear company, at the cost of $20 billion for four 1,200-megawatt reactors designed to meet 10% of Turkish electricity needs. The groundbreaking ceremony was watched via video from Ankara by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and from Moscow by Putin.

Timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic, this project reinforces the energy link between Russia and Turkey, which is the second biggest market for Russian gas after Germany. A few years ago, a US company would no doubt have built the plant at Akkuyu.

Now the United States is written out of the script. Economics and politics are closely linked and the fall of American diplomacy will carry a heavy price tag.