LONDON – The world looks much less safe now than it did before U.S. President Donald Trump was inaugurated, but the threats are not quite what doomsters feared in January.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have not become the buddies some expected. Instead the U.S.-Russia relationship has reached a new low. Russian attempts to infiltrate the U.S. administration have not made progress. Russia has not succeeded in destroying NATO.
Trump has not decided to back the Assad regime in Syria in the fight against the self-styled Islamic State. Instead Trump, in contrast to the cautious line taken by Barack Obama, reacted decisively and quickly to the Syrian use of poison gas, which killed civilians, including children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, by ordering a missile attack on the Syrian air base from which the attack had originated. Many saw this action as salutary and necessary, although the isolationists who wanted America to cease to intervene in conflicts where U.S. interests were not directly involved condemned it and it angered the Russians.
A trade war with China has so far been avoided. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump have apparently established a limited personal rapport. And there will be urgent conversations on trade issues.
Obama warned Trump that his most difficult problem would be the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. Trump and Xi spoke about this, but no progress has so far been made in eliminating the threat, which continues to grow.
Plans to build a wall on the Mexican border are going ahead, but the North American Free Trade Area has not so far been torn up.
Trump’s executive orders to stop people from specified countries in the Middle East and Africa coming to the United States have been halted at least temporarily by the courts.
Trump’s demand for an immediate end to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, has been stymied by the failure of Republicans in Congress to agree on how this should be accomplished.
Trump’s plans for infrastructure investment have not yet got anywhere. His proposals for tax cuts and tax reform are still in limbo, not least because there has not been any agreement on a proposed border tax to pay for cuts in income and corporation tax.
His one congressional success so far has been the endorsement of a new conservative justice on the Supreme Court, but only by changing the voting rules in the Senate.
The failure of Trump to act quickly and effectively on the broad agenda on which he was elected raises a series of difficult questions and there is yet no consensus on the answers.
Has Trump already has been swallowed up by the Washington “blob”? Has he been emasculated by the checks and balances enshrined in the U.S. Constitution? Have the “grown-ups,” as the more experienced members of the Trump team are called by some, taken control of the levers of power from the adolescents?
Can Trump be weaned off using Twitter to control the U.S. administrative machine and manipulate public opinion? Can he develop a hard skin to make him less sensitive to critical comments?
Was the missile strike in Syria a one-off measure provoked by television images? The U.S. mega-bomb dropped on caves in Afghanistan and the dispatch of a naval group to waters off North Korea suggest that as U.S. commander in chief he is determined to show that he can and will act decisively. If so is he now prepared to think through rationally the implications of his actions on the basis of advice from his military experts?
How will Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad respond to the new situation? Their defiance and lies were only to be expected. Will they now at least think twice before taking further actions against civilians in Syria?
Xi seems to have taken the news of the strike conveyed to him over dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Florida with sangfroid, but will he see the strike and U.S. fleet moves as a danger signal of possible sudden action against North Korea? If so, will he ratchet up Chinese action to restrain the North Koreans? How much real clout does Xi in fact have with the North Korean regime? Have Xi and U.S. generals persuaded Trump to recognize the implications for South Korea and Japan of military action against North Korea’s nuclear weapon sites?
“America First” will remain Trump’s mantra and isolationist pressures have not been dissipated, but he seems now to recognize that American economic and security interests require America to remain involved with the rest of the world. Old-fashioned isolationism is incompatible with pursuing American interests in the world and with the wish to “make America great again.”
America is still the only democratic superpower. Its interests could be irreparably damaged if its unpredictable businessman president and commander in chief who has given the impression that foreign affairs for him are a form of business bargaining were to overlook external threats to American security and well-being. But it behooves him to think through fully the consequences of his actions
Trump cannot afford however to concentrate solely on foreign affairs. He surely recognizes that he must soon take effective action to carry out some at least of his promises over economic policies to those who chose him as leader.
The best way forward for Trump, America and the rest of the world would be for him to concentrate on rebuilding America’s infrastructure and on tax reform, but significant infrastructure spending would run up against Republican conservative adherence to a balanced budget. Tax cuts without identifying alternative sources of revenue face the same problem.
Trump has appointed protectionists with mercantilist leanings to his team. His instinct and their advice are likely to induce Trump to take more than token steps to fulfill his promises. So protectionist measures must be expected even if they are unlikely to satisfy his supporters in the American Rust Belt.
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984. He was president of the Asiatic Society of Japan from 1982 to 1983 and chairman of the Japan Society of London from 1985 to 1995.
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