Donald Trump is getting quite carried away with starting fights; he is becoming the Shame of the Nation, and World for that matter. After recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to detract attention from the defeat of ISIS and the failure of the Kurdistan project he is now trying to provoke everyone else in sight, with the enthusiasm of the teenager who’s just discovered an idea others have known about for centuries.
Trump is so far unique amongst US presidents in using his Twitter account to conduct a parallel policy without using the proper channels. He chose to make his first tweet of the New Year an attack on Pakistan, declaring that the US should not have given it so much aid because it was harbouring terrorists. He then threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority on the grounds that it is not negotiating for peace in the Middle East, after he himself had done the one thing he knew would harm such negotiations by recognising Jerusalem.
It didn’t stop there. After Kim Jong-Un delivered a predictable New Year message which suggested he would talk to South Korea but not to the US because it was threatening him, Trump responded by characteristically tweeting: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
This is the same Donald Trump who promised to end US involvement in costly foreign wars. He also promised to make other NATO countries pay a bigger share of the costs of existing operations. He has discovered that both of these things are more difficult than he first thought. So now the policy has subtly changed.
Trump is still trying to save money by getting NATO states to foot more of the bill. But he is doing this by provoking new conflicts with countries he has threatened to cut off aid to. The US won’t pay for those conflicts, because it has already announced it will not be spending more money on those countries. Therefore Trump will balance his own budget, and make America financially superior, by making everyone else pay for wars he has started.
If his allies don’t like that, they can try and prevent these wars through diplomacy. But again, such diplomacy would not involve the US because it is ceasing to act as an honest broker. Trump will create a mess and everyone else will have to clean it up, or break their alliance with the US, which no one is going to do because it remains the least BAD alternative for most states.
Such actions will doubtless reconfigure the global order, as Trump wants. According to his logic, it is other countries that will have to bear the cost of doing this while the US does what it wants without having to agree anything with anyone. Finally we know what he always meant by Let’s Make America Great Again.
But can such a policy ever work, in a world which is growing increasingly tired of the antics of the first president to make Nixon look reasonable and George W. Bush intelligent?
One law for the elect
Trump’s attitude towards other countries is typical of someone brought up to believe in American Exceptionalism. This is the same World outlook that Trump used in defeating Hillary. In his view, the US rules the world both politically and economically through some inherent superiority in its nature. Other countries are just exotic irritations, one who suck off US aid and never contribute anything of their own, as they have nothing to teach the automatically superior US of A.
Consequently, Trump does not see any need to have a financial arrangement with countries which take away American jobs and siphon off US cash without being able to give anything in return. Even if they house bases and missiles, these countries start attaching conditions to their presence the US might not like, which is seen as ingratitude. Therefore the way to bring them to heel, under the heel, as Trump deems fit; it is to cut off the aid so they come running back to the US and renounce things like sovereignty and markets of their own.
The US has had a succession of presidents who seem incapable of understanding that the rest of the world doesn’t see the US that way. Each country believes it has its own value, and can form its own partnerships based on recognition of that value. No matter how poor and economically dependent any country is, it will at least make a show of making its own decisions, particularly when threatened by its alleged friends.
Furthermore, in most of the developing world rulers are beholden in practice to foreign political and economic interests rather than their people. Every tin pot dictator loves to strengthen their own position by getting the people on their side, as they often do if their countries’ friends attack them. Even if they derive no long term benefit from this, they can be martyred in a blaze of glory and thus achieve a lasting fame which transcends the problems of actually running their countries.
This latest stunt will not simply create conflict between the US bloc and countries Trump doesn’t want to spend money on. It will divide his allies, just as the Jerusalem decision will, into “moderates” and “intransigents”. The moderates will back the US regardless, and get aid, the intransigents won’t and will have to fend for themselves. The geopolitical consequences of this shift are presently incalculable, but Trump will not be concerned, as any alteration of the world order simply proves him right, in his own eyes, if it is the consequence of his own logic.
Wrong fights with the wrong opponents
If Trump wants to accuse Pakistan of being a bad country there are several things he can pick on. For example, it has a nuclear programme, just like Iran and North Korea. Trump won’t pay any attention to the fact that the country was sponsored to be the Muslim bad guy in its region to control other countries, and the West gave it the very things it is always complaining about, so this accusation would stick. But instead he accuses Pakistan of harbouring terrorists, as if this is a breach of the aid conditions.
If there is one thing you never accuse Pakistan of, it is involvement with terrorism. There are indeed many links between the Pakistani government and groups regarded as terrorist in Afghanistan, India and elsewhere, because the West has wanted such connections to exist as a fall back position, preventing any country in the region from getting ideas above its station.
But this is why you don’t accuse it of harbouring terrorists. At a time when the country is increasingly less useful to Western ambitions, its main geopolitical purpose is to do just this, but it would cease to have any influence if it said so. This is the one allegation Pakistanis will not accept, and the one which will drive them into the arms of other sponsors, thus putting other Western countries, and particularly the ones with visible Pakistani communities, in a corner they will try and avoid being in.
Similarly, the Palestinians are not going to be lectured on “lack of respect” by the country which played a large part in dispossessing them and leaving them to the mercy of the State of Israel and its Zionist backers, whose Palestinian population have been treated a second class citizens ever since its establishment. Respect is a very important factor in Arab communities in general, which are very ancient and cultured and expect recognition of these facts. This is why Palestinians once regarded US support as proper respect for themselves and their claims, not the other way round.
Trump recognising Jerusalem negates one of those claims, and therefore frees Palestinians from any obligation they might have felt to support the US, aid recipient or not, particularly when the US is the greatest friend of their greatest enemy, Israel. Once again this will change the configuration of relations in the Arab world, and have a knock-on effect on other countries individual states and groups are allied with, whilst washing US hands of the problem, or so Trump thinks.
Nor is Kim Jong-Un going to care how big Trump’s nuclear button is, and if he even has one. It is even debatable if US military leaders would let Trump near such a button. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-Un knows that the survival of his repressive, dysfunctional and outdated regime depends on firm control, and that this can only be exercised by convincing his own citizens of how powerful he and their country are. This is why he needs nuclear weapons far more than Trump, and Trump is doing more to support Kim’s reputation as a leader than could have ever been hoped for.
Without them, he may be a dead duck anyway, so Kim has nothing to lose by either threatening to use or by actually using them. This is a bigger threat to other regional countries, which will have to deal with the fallout, than it is to the US, which could intercept any missiles Kim might be capable of launching. As always, these countries look to the US, the self-appointed global policeman, to lead them out of this mess, but the Trump White House is increasingly abandoning them to the fates it has happily created for them by its own actions.
All roads lead to Beijing
Perhaps Trump is being inspired by a historical figure he might actually have heard of, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Having lived through times of great political turmoil, which put the loyalties of many of her subjects in question, she decided to crush internal opposition by going on what she called Royal Progresses. These involved going round the country to meet great landowners and their tenants, with the landlords being obliged to accommodate her.
The people loved seeing their queen, and the landowners were almost bankrupted by the expense of entertaining her. This took away the means they would need to rise in revolt against her. Consequently Elizabeth killed two birds with one stone, and stayed in the job till her death, which not many would have predicted given the temper of the times.
If Trump’s allies are bankrupted by wars he has started over countries he is not going to give any more aid to this makes the US even more dominant. The rest of the West will have no choice but to accept America’s lead but pay for the privilege on-their-own. The only way out would be to find new partners, new markets, which would pit current allies against each other and create more problems than it would solve, at least in the short term.
In effect, this is how the US operated in World War Two, by joining in late and then indebting its allies with the Marshall Plan Aid in its wake; there were alternative mechanisms available. Those debts were eventually repaid, and the EU has replaced the US as the world’s largest trading bloc. It makes a lot of sense for the US to adapt this historic model to new circumstances, and try and achieve another reconfiguration of the world on US terms, which is what the Cold War was all about—debt slavery, beggar-thy-neighbour, etc.
America without Exceptionalism
However Trump is the last person to understand that this creates a vacuum into which a new nation, or group of nations, can fill the leadership role the US has long been given by most of the planet. He cannot conceive an America without Exceptionalism.
In his view, the US only has to snap its fingers and everyone will fall into line behind it. If he spent more time, or any, meeting the populations of countries which have suffered US dominance for generations he would discover the same level of resentment that Eastern Bloc people once had for the Soviet Union, and we all saw how that turned out.
Which brings us to one of the reasons Trump might be impeached: from the first day of his presidency he has been in breach of the emoluments clause of the US Constitution, as he has not divested himself of his interest in his corporation and derives profit from decisions made by other countries and their governments. One of these is China, which granted Trump a 10-year trademark on construction in that country soon after he took office – meaning that he will be profiting from the actions of a foreign government throughout the maximum legal term of his presidency.
China is the country with the most to gain from any US withdrawal from its once “touted” leadership role. Since the 1970s China has been positioning itself as distinct from both East and West, whilst remaining Communist, and has got away with this. China has increasingly strong business relationships with many other countries, including those of the former Soviet Union, and has managed to develop these and without, it appears, demanding the same sort of strings be attached to these deals which have made USAID and the US State Department bywords for corruption and regime change.
The more the US alienates the rest of the world, the more China appears a benign partner, whatever its real intentions are. If Trump is impeached over his Chinese business links he is unlikely to go to jail even if convicted, as the US regards it as a national shame to have a former president behind bars. But it will be difficult for US law enforcement to get its hands on any profits he has made from China, given the extreme secrecy of Chinese financial regulations, which are now approaching those of Switzerland in this respect.
If Trump causes conflicts and makes others pay to sort them out he really does disentangle the US from costly foreign wars. He also makes the US relatively stronger financially, and can run back to his business empire at any time if his own people want him gone. China will gradually take over the US leadership role, but why should Trump care? He will have paid for that in office, and his supporters want the jobs the Chinese can provide, and the infrastructure the Chinese love building, rather than this airy-fairy liberal nonsense of elite diplomacy and pussyfooting around with foreigners and spineless “doublespeak” in terms of human rights and the rule of law.
Trump may destroy America, and a lot of its allies with it, but he will escape more or less intact. As his business record shows, he will think the suffering of others is worth it. People wondered when he was elected what difference it would make to have a businessman with no political experience in the most powerful job on earth. 2018 will be the year when we all come to terms with what that difference is, if we live long enough to do so.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.