It was, by all accounts, a furious row. Donald Trump was talking about relaxing sanctions on Iran and holding a summit with its president, Hassan Rouhani, at this month’s UN general assembly in New York. John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, was dead against it and forcefully rejected Trump’s ideas during a tense meeting in the Oval Office on Monday.
Big mistake. Still angry over the humiliating collapse of his secret Camp David weekend summit with the Afghan Taliban, which Bolton had also opposed, Trump was in no mood to listen to his aide’s notoriously hardline views. “I disagreed strongly with him,” he said later. Trump lost his temper – and Bolton lost his job, summarily dismissed by tweet.
Bolton’s brutal defenestration has raised hopes that Trump, who worries that voters may view him as a warmonger, may begin to moderate some of his more confrontational international policies. As the 2020 election looms, he is desperate for a big foreign policy peace-making success. And, in Trump world, winning matters more than ideology, principles or personnel.
The US president is now saying he is also open to a repeat meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to reboot stalled nuclear disarmament talks. On another front, he has offered an olive branch to China, delaying a planned tariff increase on $250bn of Chinese goods pending renewed trade negotiations next month. Meanwhile, he says, new tariffs on European car imports could be dropped, too.
Is a genuine dove-ish shift under way? It seems improbable. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has not merely broken with diplomatic and geopolitical convention. He has taken a wrecking ball to venerated alliances, multilateral cooperation and the postwar international rules-based order. He has cosied up to autocrats, attacked old friends and blundered into sensitive conflicts he does not fully comprehend.
The resulting new world disorder – to adapt George HW Bush’s famous 1991 phrase – will be hard to put right. Like its creator, Trump world is unstable, unpredictable and threatening. Trump has been called America’s first rogue president. Whether or not he wins a second term, this Trumpian era of epic disruption, the very worst form of American exceptionalism, is already deeply entrenched.
The suggestion that Trump will make nice and back off as election time nears thus elicits considerable scepticism. US analysts and commentators say the president’s erratic, impulsive and egotistic personality means any shift towards conciliation may be short-lived and could quickly be reversed, Bolton or no Bolton.
Trump wanted quick 'n' easy, primetime credit for a dramatic peace deal in Afghanistan with the Taliban, pushed ahead blindly, then changed his mind at the last minute
Trump is notorious for blowing hot and cold, performing policy zigzags and suddenly changing his mind. “Regardless of who has advised Mr Trump on foreign affairs … all have proved powerless before [his] zest for chaos,” the New York Times noted last week.
Lacking experienced diplomatic and military advisers (he has sacked most of the good ones), surrounded by an inner circle of cynical sycophants such as secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and driven by a chronic desire for re-election, Trump’s behaviour could become more, not less, confrontational during his remaining time in office, suggested Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins university.
“The president has proved himself to be what many critics have long accused him of being: belligerent, bullying, impatient, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, short-tempered and self-obsessed,” Cohen wrote in Foreign Affairs journal. “Remarkably, however, those shortcomings have not yet translated into obvious disaster. But [that] … should not distract from a building crisis of US foreign policy.”
This pending crisis stems from Trump’s crudely Manichaean division of the world into two camps: adversaries/competitors and supporters/customers. A man with few close confidants, Trump has real trouble distinguishing between allies and enemies, friends and foes, and often confuses the two. In Trump world, old rules don’t apply. Alliances are optional. Loyalty is weakness. And trust is fungible.
As a result, the US today finds itself at odds with much of the world to an unprecedented and dangerous degree. America, the postwar global saviour, has been widely recast as villain. Nor is this a passing phase. Trump seems to have permanently changed the way the US views the world and vice versa. Whatever follows, it will never be quite the same again.
Clues as to what he does next may be found in what he has done so far. His is a truly calamitous record, as exemplified by Afghanistan. Having vowed in 2016 to end America’s longest war, he began with a troop surge, lost interest and sued for peace. A withdrawal deal proved elusive. Meanwhile, US-led forces inflicted record civilian casualties.
The crunch came last weekend when a bizarre, secret summit with Taliban chiefs at Camp David was cancelled. It was classic Trump. He wanted quick ’n’ easy, primetime credit for a dramatic peace deal, pushed ahead blindly, then changed his mind at the last minute. Furious over a debacle of his own making, he turned his wrath on others, notably Bolton – who, ironically, had opposed the summit all along.
All sides are now vowing to step up the violence, with the insurgents aiming to disrupt this month’s presidential election in Afghanistan. In short, Trump’s self-glorifying Afghan reality show, of which he was the Nobel-winning star, has made matters worse. Much the same is true of his North Korea summitry, where expectations were raised, then dashed when he got cold feet in Hanoi, provoking a backlash from Pyongyang.
The current crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme is almost entirely of Trump’s making, sparked by his decision last year to renege on the 2015 UN-endorsed deal with Tehran. His subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign of punitive sanctions has failed to cow Iranians while alienating European allies. And it has led Iran to resume banned nuclear activities – a seriously counterproductive, entirely predictable outcome.
Trump’s unconditional, unthinking support for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s aggressively rightwing prime minister – including tacit US backing for his proposed annexation of swathes of the occupied territories – is pushing the Palestinians back to the brink, energising Hamas and Hezbollah, and raising tensions across the region.
With Trump’s blessing, Israel is enmeshed in escalating, multi-fronted armed confrontation with Iran and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Add to this recent violence in the Gulf, the disastrous Trump-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen, mayhem in Syria’s Idlib province, border friction with Turkey, and Islamic State resurgence in northern Iraq, and a region-wide explosion looks ever more likely.
The bipartisan consensus forged in the 1990s – in which the US towered over the world and, at low cost, sought to remake it in America's image – has failed and cannot be revivedStephen Wertheim, historian
Yet Trump, oblivious to the point of recklessness, remains determined to unveil his absurdly unbalanced Israel-Palestine “deal of the century” after Tuesday’s Israeli elections. He and his gormless son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may be the only people who don’t realise their plan has a shorter life expectancy than a snowball on a hot day in Gaza.
Another prominent aspect of Trump world is his sinister, personal alliance with Vladimir Putin. There’s no doubt Russia’s president meddled in the 2016 US election to Trump’s benefit, as the Mueller report states. There’s no doubt Trump has gone easy on Putin over Crimea and Ukraine, over war crimes and chemical weapons attacks in Syria, over the Salisbury poisonings, and over his vicious assaults on Russia’s democratic opposition. Trump is even pushing for Russia to be readmitted to the G7. Exactly why he acts this way is much less certain.
Whether Trump is attacking Nato, insulting Europe’s elected leaders, unhelpfully taking sides on Brexit, ignoring India’s repression in Kashmir, plotting regime change in Venezuela, ignoring egregious human rights abuses from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, undermining the UN and international law, wrecking nuclear arms control treaties, plundering the Arctic, or opposing efforts to combat climate crisis and environmental degradation, he is consistently out of line, out on his own – and out of control.
This, broadly, is Trump world as it has come to exist since January 2017. And this, in a nutshell, is the intensifying foreign policy crisis of which Professor Cohen warned. The days when responsible, trustworthy, principled US international leadership could be taken for granted are gone. No vague change of tone on North Korea or Iran will by itself halt the Trump-led slide into expanding global conflict and division.
Historians such as Stephen Wertheim say change had to come. US politicians of left and right mostly agreed that “the bipartisan consensus forged in the 1990s – in which the US towered over the world and, at low cost, sought to remake it in America’s image – has failed and cannot be revived”, Wertheim wrote earlier this year. “But agreement ends there … ” he continued: “One camp holds that the US erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the US has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.”
This debate among grownups over America’s future place in the world will form part of next year’s election contest. But before any fundamental change of direction can occur, the international community – and the US itself – must first survive another 16 months of Trump world and the wayward child-president’s poll-fixated, ego-driven destructive tendencies.
Survival is not guaranteed. The immediate choice facing US friends and foes alike is stark and urgent: ignore, bypass and marginalise Trump – or actively, openly, resist him.
Here are some of the key flashpoints around the globe
Trump is deeply hostile to the UN. It embodies the multilateralist, globalist policy approaches he most abhors – because they supposedly infringe America’s sovereignty and inhibit its freedom of action. Under him, self-interested US behaviour has undermined the authority of the UN security council’s authority. The US has rejected a series of international treaties and agreements, including the Paris climate change accord and the Iran nuclear deal. The UN-backed international criminal court is beyond the pale. Trump’s attitude fits with his “America First” isolationism, which questions traditional ideas about America’s essential global leadership role.
Trump rarely misses a chance to bash Germany, perhaps because it is Europe’s most successful economy and represents the EU, which he detests. He is obsessed by German car imports, on which protectionist US tariffs will be levied this autumn. He accuses Berlin – and Europe– of piggy-backing on America by failing to pay its fair share of Nato defence costs. Special venom is reserved for Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, most likely because she is a woman who stands up to him. Trump recently insulted another female European leader, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, after she refused to sell him Greenland.
Trump has made a great show of unconditional friendship towards Israel and its rightwing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has skilfully maximised his White House influence. But by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, officially condoning Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and withdrawing funding and other support from the Palestinians, the president has abandoned the long-standing US policy of playing honest broker in the peace process. Trump has also tried to exploit antisemitism for political advantage, accusing US Democrat Jews who oppose Netanyahu’s policies of “disloyalty” to Israel.
Trump’s evident liking for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has been the cause of endless puzzlement, given Moscow’s hostility to Nato and the western democratic alliance, its support for Bashar al-Assad and alleged Syrian war crimes, and its illegal intervention in Ukraine. Trump’s attitude may stem from Putin’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, which benefited him. But the affinity between them may be better explained by shared autocratic tendencies. Putin is an authoritarian nationalist, like similar rightwing politicians in China, Turkey, Brazil and India whom Trump admires – and would like to emulate.
During his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump provocatively declared China a bigger problem than jihadi terrorism. He claims that China has enjoyed unfair advantages in two-way trade for decades due to its notional designation as a developing country, supposed currency manipulation, and America’s own failure to protect manufacturing industry. He has levelled similar accusations at the EU, Japan, Canada, India and other trading partnersothers. But his remedy – unilateral punitive tariffs and sanctions – has disrupted international commerce, shaken global economic confidence and strained political relations with Beijing without demonstrably improving US fortunes.
Trump’s clumsy efforts to engineer regime change in Venezuela and impose a Washington-approved version of democracy mark a regression to the bad old days of the cold war when the US regarded Central and Latin America as its “backyard” and exclusive sphere of influence. So far, Trump’s attempt, masterminded by John Bolton, to replace the regime of Nicolás Maduro with a pro-American technocrat, Juan Guaidó, has failed miserably. Undeterred, he continues to sanction Maduro’s ideological allies in post-Castro Cuba and to exacerbate the Central American migrant crisis, meanwhile enthusiastically embracing Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president.
Trump made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia, signalling the importance he attaches to close relations with the energy-rich, autocratic Gulf kingdom. He has since strengthened the alliance in opposition to Iran, deploying troops to Saudi Arabia and supplying advanced weaponry for its war in Yemen. The Saudi connection has also come to symbolise Trump’s indifference to human rights abuses, whether in the Philippines, Russia or on the US-Mexico border. When the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered by Saudi agents, Trump defended senior figures in Riyadh such as its crown prince who allegedly ordered the killing.
When Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, visited the White House recently, Trump boasted he was ready to mediate in the long-running dispute over divided Kashmir. It was a vainglorious gesture, reflecting Trump’s ignorance. When, shortly afterwards, India imposed direct rule on Kashmir, effectively detaining its population, Trump did nothing. Whether the issue is the Delhi-Islamabad nuclear standoff, the unending Afghan war, Chinese attempts to gain strategic leverage in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, or the Rohingya refugee tragedy in Bangladesh, Trump’s south Asia policy, like that in sub-Saharan Africa, is ineffectual and near non-existent. Maybe they are lucky.