Shock and dismay are reverberating around the world in response to the actions and speeches of President Trump. Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, Trump risks shattering the network of alliances and institutions of governance which the United States has in great part forged since the Second World War – the Pax Americana which we can no longer assume is securely in place.
Faced with an expansive China and a resurgent Russia, policymakers are aghast at the damage Trump is doing to the US’s position in world affairs. Trump has attacked NATO, the United Nations, the international Paris Climate Agreement, and is intending to reduce the US role and funding in the United Nations and other international organisations. He is initiating reviews into conventions the US has signed, and has expressed views in support of torture, though his advisors and generals prevented him authorising waterboarding.
Indicative of Trump’s own climate scepticism, he has appointed Scott Pruitt head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a man who has sued the EPC 14 times. Trump, in 2012, called global warming a plot by China to undermine US manufacturing.
International markets were surprised when Trump did in fact withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, even though it favoured US interests heavily, particularly in intellectual property, pharmaceuticals, investment, and government procurement. This signals an end to the global pattern of trade liberalisation and investment, and a return to protectionist ‘America first’ policies. Trump appears to have given little thought to the implications for developing countries in particular.
As Nouriel Roubini wrote in The Guardian, Trump’s “erratic foreign policies are spooking world leaders, multinational corporations, and global markets generally”.
Disillusionment with Trump’s fiscal policies is likely to be massive. ‘Trickle-down’ economics will do little for blue collar workers, while favouring corporations and the rich. Almost half the proposed tax cuts are estimated to go to the top 1% of earners. Tax cuts will fuel inflation, and his trade policies could lead to retaliatory trade wars.
To make matters even worse, Trump intends to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act and the regulatory measures Obama put in place to try to curtail the predatory behavior in finance and business circles, and to protect the economy from further meltdowns like the Global Financial Crisis. Blue-collar voters for Trump throughout the United States are in for a shock when they realise that he is following the agenda of right-wing interests funding the Heritage Foundation and its allies to consolidate the power of the rich elite.
Trump and Islam
Trump has been particularly suspicious of Islam, as illustrated by his impetuous but temporary ban on entry to the USA by Muslims from seven Muslim countries. According to the Fairfax’s Paul McGeough, Trump’s ban on Muslims is aimed to stoke populist nationalism, and is masking anti-Muslim sentiments on the grounds of security.
Trump’s hypocrisy is evident in the fact that, in forty years to 2015, not a single American was killed on US soil by citizens from any of the countries affected – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalis, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Most of the attackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, and some from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, but their citizens are not banned. Surprise, surprise! Trump has major business dealings in these particular countries.
Steve Bannon, now chief strategist at the White House and a major influence on Trump, is vehemently opposed to Islam, and wrote a film script in 2007, The Great Satan, with a set in the White House, describing an apocalyptic struggle between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West. In 2014, he wrote that we are in “a global war against Islamic fascism”. Bannon is former head of the far-right website Breitbart. In March 2016, he anticipated war with China within five to ten years.
Draining the swamp?
Trump was elected as an anti-politician, determined to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington lobbyists and insiders. His support reflected widespread anger and resentment about growing inequality, and disenchantment with social and political developments in the United States.
At first, many people hoped that Trump, a hardball billionaire businessman and media personality, would moderate his views when he took power, or at least that he would surround himself with highly competent advisers and appointees who could rein in his impulsive and abrasive rhetoric and develop professional policies.
Alas, Trump is a man of his word, as he has frequently said, and intends to implement his campaign pledges, despite what his professionals in the State Department and elsewhere might think. Instead, he has chosen people for key positions who align with much of his thinking, including many with deep involvement in Wall Street finance and energy companies. His Secretary of State, Rex Tilllerson, is former CEO of Exxon Mobil, and has had close links with Russia’s President Putin.
Turnbull’s thump from Trump
Australians have been especially shaken by Trump’s demeaning phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull. We think of ourselves as one of the closest allies of the United States, and our governments have followed the United States – foolishly, as most would now say – into wars, particularly in Vietnam and Iraq, at the cost of many lives and much treasure.
Now, Australia has to deal with a US president who has revealed himself as barely able to distinguish the truth from ‘false facts’, who is impetuous and rash in his judgement, totally inexperienced in diplomacy and international affairs, and wants to conduct government like a businessman bargaining hard for his deals.
To add insult to injury, insiders in the Trump elite have leaked details about the humiliating phone call with Turnbull. If Trump can dish out such rude and undiplomatic behaviour to the leader of one of its closest allies, what can other nations expect?
Australia rarely rates a mention in the international media, but the Trump phone call resonated around the world, given top billing by online news channels like CNN and the BBC, and capturing front-pages in world newspapers. This was no longer business as usual, and it certainly wasn’t diplomacy as usual. Governments everywhere are trying to recalibrate how to deal with this wild-card president.
The refugees on Nauru and Manus Island
Trump was clearly furious that Obama had made an agreement with the Australian government to vet 1250 refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru for settlement in the US. Many of these people come from countries to whose people Trump had just denied entry to the USA. Trump had also banned entry to all refugees.
Commentators like Michelle Grattan have been urging Turnbull to walk away from any agreement with the Americans, who may decide they have to accept some refugees. But they will demand a price from Australia, especially as Trump will drive a hard bargain. Australia is particularly worried it might be pressed to commit to further adventures in the Middle East, or join in a US confrontation with China, our largest trading partner.
It is time for Turnbull to bring the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island back to Australia, perhaps with some going to New Zealand or Canada. Many Australians are ashamed of the treatment given to these unfortunate people in indefinite detention for three or more years. This has done great harm to Australia’s international reputation, and may no longer be needed as a deterrent to boat arrivals, since naval patrols have intercepted any further attempts to reach Australia by boat. Many groups in Australia are campaigning for the Turnbull government to resolve this issue once and for all by resettling the refugees in Australia.
Can the US avoid calamity?
In an extraordinary article in the normally staid Commonweal magazine on 2 February, Gordon Marino wrote what many others are thinking, that Trump is of “unsound mind”.
John Dean, former White House Counsel to President Nixon, has warned that Trump’s presidency “will end in calamity. Even Republicans know this!”. Nobel laureate Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect, went further, saying that Trump will be impeached for exploiting his position to further his business interests, and for erratic decisions contravening US law or the Constitution. “The only question is how grave a catastrophe America faces first.”