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Unpredictable Trump is destabilising the world

Mr Donald Trump is very proud of his unpredictability. The US President likes to boast that - unlike Mr Barack Obama - he has no intention of signalling his plans to the world.

But, as Mr Trump pursues his first presidential trip overseas, the costs of his unpredictability are becoming clear. Many of America's allies are in a state of confusion and alarm. And America's adversaries, in particular China and Russia, are taking advantage of the disarray to advance their own interests.

The problem is that Mr Trump is prone to treat foreign countries like rival businesses - which can be alternately wooed and destabilised - as the US President practises the "art of the deal". But in diplomacy, unpredictability can be dangerous - particularly when dealing with allies that need to be reassured about the consistency of America's approach to the world. These nations have built their own global strategies around a belief in the stability and steadfastness of the US.

When Mr Trump suggests that America's key commitments - from Nato to the North American Free Trade Agreement - may no longer be reliable, he undermines the belief that America itself can be relied upon. And since US-led alliances underpin the entire international security system, the result is likely to be global instability.

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The fact that Mr Trump has made reassuring statements to allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel this week - and may do the same in Brussels - cannot erase the uncertainty that he has already created.

In fact, the world is now having to deal with three levels of Trump uncertainty. The first is to do with the US President's policies. The second is to do with his temperament. The third concerns his durability. With scandals raging in Washington, there are now legitimate questions about whether Mr Trump will still be in office in a year's time.


The concerns about Mr Donald Trump's personality mount with every intemperate tweet issued from the White House, and he has already executed a few flip-flops on the policy level, says the writer. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

When Mr Trump suggests that America's key commitments - from Nato to the North American Free Trade Agreement - may no longer be reliable, he undermines the belief that America itself can be relied upon. And since US-led alliances underpin the entire international security system, the result is likely to be global instability.

On the policy level, Mr Trump has already executed a number of dizzying flip-flops. On his trip to Saudi Arabia, he called Islam "one of the world's great faiths", having previously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the US. He has declared Nato "obsolete" and then said it is no longer obsolete. He has called China a currency manipulator and then changed his mind.

He has condemned humanitarian interventions in the Middle East and then launched missiles at Syria to punish the use of chemical weapons. He has praised Brexit and then praised the European Union. His relationship with Russia remains a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

It is true that former president Obama was also sometimes accused of inconstancy towards allies. By starting his foreign tour in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Mr Trump is reaching out to two countries that were particularly upset by the Obama administration.

But while the Saudis and Israelis are part of the small group of US allies that were pleased by Mr Trump's victory - even they have reason to complain about mixed signals coming from the White House. On the campaign trail, Mr Trump pledged to rip up the Iran nuclear deal - an agreement that had been strongly opposed by the Saudis. But despite his harsh words about Iran in Riyadh, Mr Trump is so far abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal. He had also promised to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem but now seems to have changed his mind.

The fact that, in both cases, the US President has probably made a good call in backing away from unwise campaign rhetoric does not alter the impression that, abroad as well as at home, he is not a man whose word can be relied upon.

The concerns about Mr Trump's personality and temperament mount with every intemperate tweet issued from the White House. Every US ally will have to think twice before deciding whether they can rely on a commitment from his administration. What if the President changes his mind? And if his presidency goes down in flames, will there be a price to pay for having got too close to the Trump White House?

As questions mount about America's international role in the Trump era, the superpower's international rivals are (naturally enough) taking advantage of the situation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could hardly suppress his glee and amusement when visiting Mr Trump in the Oval Office. (This was the occasion when it seems that Mr Trump informed his visitors that he had sacked the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because he was a "total nut job".) Russia is also taking advantage of the West's distracted state to advance its position in the Balkans and the Middle East.

The contrast between chaos in Washington and confidence in Beijing is also striking. In the week that the Trump administration was convulsed by the fallout from the dismissal of Mr James Comey, President Xi Jinping was playing host to the biggest gathering of international dignitaries to have visited China since the Beijing Olympics of 2008. China's Belt and Road initiative to invest billions in infrastructure across Eurasia drew more than 100 interested countries to the Chinese capital. If even half the promised projects get off the drawing board, they will create a China-centred network with great economic and geopolitical significance.

China's wealth, long-term vision and confidence in the future will only bolster talk of an "Asian century". In contrast, Mr Trump's presidency risks becoming a symbol of Western decline.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'Unpredictable Trump is destabilising the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe