Why Trump’s America seems increasingly powerless

Even America’s coercive power seems unable to guarantee results — think Russia and Venezuela, as well as Turkey and India’s decision to buy Russian S-400 missile systems despite US objections.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Losing control. President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, June 24. (AP)
Losing control. President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, June 24. (AP)

The week started with the Trump administration’s ill-judged attempt to lure the Palestinians into throwing away their political aspirations in exchange for the promise of $50 billion over a decade. It ended with the US president attending the G20 summit in Japan, where the host advanced a three-point global cooperation agenda that goes against the views of Donald Trump.

In between, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, declared himself unwilling to sign off on the G20 communique unless it mentioned the Paris climate agreement, which Trump withdrew from in 2017.

And then there was Trump’s war of words with Iran and the unwillingness of Britain and France to entertain American requests to join in a military operation.

Add to that the news about Russia’s booming stock market and currency, despite facing US sanctions for years. And the fact that Nicolas Maduro is able to stay in power in Venezuela, in defiance of Trump’s attempt to remove him.

All of the above gives the impression of an ineffectual American foreign policy, which is failing to achieve Trump’s goals. Even America’s coercive power seems unable to guarantee results — think Russia and Venezuela, as well as Turkey and India’s decision to buy Russian S-400 missile systems despite US objections. And America’s ability to effect wholesale change in global trends appears to be limited, going by disparate countries’ determination to pursue climate-friendly policies as well as plurilateral free trade deals.

In all sorts of ways then, Trump’s America is less commanding than before. Two-and-a-half years into the Trump presidency, his country is neither able to reliably secure the administration’s goals nor enforce unquestioning and abject obedience to its will.

In fact, the Trump administration’s single biggest initiative — the 96-page “Peace to Prosperity” economic plan for the Palestinian territories — has drawn excoriating criticism and enormous ridicule. “Instead of self-determination,” read one satirical tweet in reference to Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s background in real estate and hotels, “could I interest you in our Premium Occupation Plus package?” And Hady Amr, who worked on former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s economic initiative for the Palestinian people from 2013 to 2017, slammed the Trump-Kushner plan’s blindness and insensitivity to the reality of Palestinian lives. Investment would be a “smart” thing “for the economy of an ordinary country,” Amr said. “But the Palestinian people don’t live in an ordinary country or situation. For decades, the Palestinian people have languished in quasi-autonomous areas where their lives are sadly subservient to Israeli needs.”

Altogether, there is a growing sense American foreign policy is discordant. Most countries are working to the principle that Trump administration pronouncements and diktats are best dealt with diplomatic niceties and action only when necessary or in one’s self-interest.

The new mood to sidestep America is not because its real power is waning. The United States is still the world’s richest, most powerful country. And the dollar continues to enjoy what former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing once called the “exorbitant privilege” of serving as the main international reserve currency.

If Trump’s America is failing, it is on another count. This was best described earlier this month by 37-year-old Pete Buttigeg, the youngest candidate in a crowded Democratic field of contenders for Trump’s job. In a speech titled “America and the World in 2054,” Buttigeg offered a long-term view of America’s place in the world. Its “greatest strategic advantage,” he said, is that it “has stood for values shared by humanity, touching aspirations felt far beyond our borders.”

Interestingly, Buttigeg said he picked 2054 as the vantage point to view America’s engagement with the world because it is “the year in which I hope to retire, after reaching the current age (73) of the current president.” Buttigeg missed, by one year, falling into the category of millennial — those born between 1981 and 1996. However, it is his generation that will live with the consequences of America’s rise or fall on the world stage. That is the context of his appreciation of American strength — “more than military power — it’s our power of inspiration.”

With all its other strengths intact, it is failure to inspire that is leaving Trump’s America increasingly powerless.

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