Loose-cannon Trump enters the tinderbox of US-Russia-China relations


Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Donald Trump’s inauguration speech had one simple message: “America first”. His was an inward-looking vision of the future in which America would set about regaining all that has been stolen from it.

His one promise was to restore America to its former wealth, power and security – to recreate a past that has long since gone.

But ours is an increasingly interdependent world, in which America’s relations with its arch-rivals, Russia and China, now less than cordial, are precariously poised. It is a world in which the wider economic, security and political environment is in a state of radical flux.

Neither Trump nor his cabinet nominees appear to grasp how far-reaching these changes are, how severely they limit America’s room for manoeuvre, and how serious are the dangers of miscalculation and overreach.

For all three countries, bilateral ties weigh heavily. Trade looms large in Sino-American relations, and US sanctions against Russia are a major bone of contention. But in reviewing relations between these three centres of power, we need to ask larger questions that go to the heart of regional and global security.

A key question is whether the US and Russia can find ways of accommodating each other’s legitimate interests without provoking European divisions and anxieties. Another is whether they can avoid the proliferation of proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Importantly, they face the task of averting a renewed nuclear arms race.

It also remains to be seen if China and the US are of a mind to contain, if not resolve, conflicts in East Asia. As the world’s two largest economies, they have to decide whether they will actively promote an orderly system of trade, institutions that can better guard against periodic financial crises, and a climate-change regime that is equal to the task.

We also wait to see whether the three most powerful members of the UN Security Council will allow the UN to play the constructive security and peace-building role assigned to it. Importantly, will they give UN reform the attention it so desperately needs?

Sadly, nothing on the public record suggests these challenges are uppermost in the minds of the new president or his advisers. Tellingly, on all these questions Trump’s inauguration speech maintained a deafening silence.

How will a Trump administration deal with Russia?

Trump is personally inclined to cultivate a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to be tougher with China’s Xi Jinping.

But what is it that helps explain his approach? In each case, it seems his main preoccupation is to maximise business opportunities for the US corporate sector, and by extension for the US economy.

In decoding Trump’s chaotic use of language, we should not underestimate his ability to surprise and confound his critics. The greater risk would be to overestimate his capacity to control events, or the coherence of his anti-establishment rhetoric.

When it comes to Russia, we should not assume the Trump administration will speak with one voice. Nor should we assume that it will always command the support of the Republican majority in Congress, or that it will be able to disregard entrenched bureaucratic ways of thinking about Russia or the preferences of the immensely powerful US security and intelligence apparatus.

Several prominent Republicans are known for their hostility to Putin’s policies and advocacy of even stronger sanctions against Russia. Already the Senate Intelligence Committee has announced it will conduct a review of Russian hacking in the 2016 election and examine any intelligence “regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns”.

Even among his cabinet nominees, anti-Russian sentiment is strong. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defence secretary, cited Russia as a major threat to US interests:

I think right now the most important thing is that we recognise the reality of what we deal with [in] Mr Putin and we recognise that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.

With Mattis as Trump’s defence secretary, what chance a reset in Russian-American relations?

Even if Trump is given to periodic denunciations of NATO allies – for doing too little rather than too much – how likely is it that his administration will review NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe, or withdraw the thousands of troops that have just arrived in Poland as part of an ongoing rotational deployment?

In any case, Trump will sooner or later have to address the animosity he has aroused in the US intelligence community, and by extension in the American conservative establishment.

Recent allegations that Russian spies have gathered compromising material on Trump’s links with Moscow will make for added caution. Accurate or not, the leaked dossier will have the effect of subjecting his relationship with Putin to the closest scrutiny.

In the end, Trump may be happy to settle for improved economic relations and the easing of sanctions, but little more than that. Pleasant surprises are possible, but reversing the dangerous path on which Russian-American relations are currently set remains a distant prospect.

Donald Trump is personally inclined to cultivate a better relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Reuters

Troubling stance on China

Trump’s announced intention to play tough on China is even more troubling.

Having accused China of being a currency manipulator, of engaging in unfair trade practices, and of stealing American jobs and intellectual property, he could use his presidential powers to impose tariffs and other sanctions.

Given the large US balance of payments deficit with China, he could impose import surcharges of up to 15% for up to 150 days. He could also lodge a complaint against China at the World Trade Organisation.

But such measures are unlikely to produce the desired result, and each is open to costly retaliation. This may help to explain why Trump has, with characteristic clumsiness, made a point of raising two highly sensitive issues: relations with Taiwan, and the South China Sea dispute.

Acceptance of the One China policy has been the cornerstone of Sino-American relations for close to four decades. By threatening to review it, a Trump administration may hope to extract trade and other economic concessions from China. In return, it would agree to retain the status quo on Taiwan.

The same thinking may have inspired Trump’s brief post-election comment on the South China Sea, considerably amplified by Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state. Having likened China’s building of a militarised island in the Spratlys to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he issued a rather extraordinary warning:

We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.

Is this a real threat or mere bluff? Either way, the signs are ominous. And although the official Chinese response has been measured, the Chinese media’s reaction was predictably swift and furious.

Donald Trump could use his presidential powers to impose tariffs and other sanctions on Xi Jinping’s China.
Reuters/Ruben Sprich

What do the next four years hold?

Trump and his team have yet to think through the implications of their statements. Far from “making America great again”, their sloganeering will deepen mistrust of US motives and irreparably damage any prospect of co-existence, let alone a more co-operative world order.

Perhaps the greatest casualty will be the loss of anything approaching a moral compass.

Support for torture, disregard for the rule of law, almost complete indifference to the human rights agenda, and erection of physical and legal walls to keep the victims of war, persecution and economic hardship at bay will merely serve to encourage authoritarianism the world over, not least in Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.

Assuming Trump lasts the journey, the next four years offer an unprecedented opportunity for America’s friends and allies, both the people and their governments, to exercise a newly found independence of thought and action. Collaboratively and with humility, they may need to assume the moral leadership that has become the great imperative of our time.

The Conversation

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘America first’ – Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States


Tom Clark, Victoria University

Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States of America, duly sworn in before a crowd of well-wishers, rivals, and desperately curious others. Now, while he is installing himself in the White House, the words of his inaugural address are filtering through the world.

His remarks made significant, but not huge, departures from the “stump speech” we have heard from him many times already. As with his victory speech, Trump was conspicuously magnanimous towards the individuals he was elected to oppose:

We are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

This time, perhaps disappointing many, it was not the bling – the “You’re gonna love our speeches … we’ve got some of the best words, and some of the best people writing our words”, as Alec Baldwin might satirise it.

Still, for the first five minutes or so, it was sounding more like a speech of opposition than of government:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left. And the factories closed.

Many have noted it was a speech that addressed Trump’s support base most directly, as the transcript’s next paragraph revealed. These are the people whose opposition to the way things are has brought Trump to power. Shifting from oppositional behaviour to constructive government without estranging that base may just prove too hard to achieve in public:

The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now. Because this is your moment. It belongs to you.

A sense of agenda for Trump the president only seemed to click into gear after he caricatured the lives of those “forgotten men and women” (echoes of a phrase we have heard before?) he claims to champion:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

And what is that agenda? What is this “new decree, to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” that Trump proclaims?

The clear word from his speech was protection, meaning protection from the rest of the world. It is a note against multilateral free trade, but it goes further. Not many of the political leaders who are fighting to maintain post-1945 institutions of global co-operation, including those in the US, are going to enjoy these sentiments:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first — America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and great strength.

In the terrific NPR annotated transcript of Trump’s speech (other news services, take note), Ron Elving draws attention to the difficult connotations of that phrase “America First”.

It was particularly associated with Charles Lindbergh, a right-wing figure who in the 1930s had expressed sympathy and fascination for the German government of Adolf Hitler, especially his air force (Lindbergh made his fame as an aviator). Lindbergh’s doctrine of “America First” meant an isolationist refusal to join the second world war, accompanied by a protectionist economic stance.

Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, published in 2004, explores the hypothetical scenario in which Lindbergh becomes the president in 1940 and New Jersey’s Jewish population shifts to a climate of high fear. There have been many echoes of that fiction in all the fevered speculation about Trump’s motives lately, especially for his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is not the place to fuel or debunk such speculation, but its prevalence in public discussion is a very clear pointer to the prevalence of fear and distrust. It seems that more Americans fear and distrust this president on his inauguration day than any other in the history of such opinion polls.

Countering that negativity is the big challenge for Trump, which is why his speech was hard-pressed to avoid talking about it:

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is unites, America is totally unstoppable.

There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

As his own opposing and condemning of the previous government makes clear, it will be very hard for Trump to bring his country together in biblical pleasantry. This speech offers no reason to believe he will try.

Meanwhile, a significant problem with focusing on transcripts and their annotations is that we tend to notice the logic of the words more than their delivery. Victor Klemperer wrote in 1947:

What a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.

Trump’s tone and body language offered a rather subdued version of the personality we have grown used to: less rude, less ribald, even less bombastic than the campaign-trail Donald. There is clearly some measure of self-discipline involved here – and that at least suggests a seriousness of intent.

If you are interested, that same NPR page links to a video recording of the speech. It is well worth watching.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address.

The Conversation

Tom Clark, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.