GlobalAffairs

One year of Trump and the abnormal is new normal

Jan 20 marks one year after Donald Trump's inauguration as US President. Time to accept the leader is here to stay.

LONDON • It is difficult to believe that United States President Donald Trump has been in office for only a year, for the amount of controversy and scandals he fuelled, the congressional hearings he prompted as well as the great number of political corpses he left behind already exceed those generated by any previous two-term US presidential administrations; Mr Trump's is a roller-coaster journey of a kind nobody alive today can recall.

It's also increasingly difficult to get a sober evaluation of Mr Trump and his government, for most US politicians and almost all pundits around the world are sucked into this daily maddening vortex of "OMG, guess what Trump said today" chatter, in which the only guarantee is that the "revelations" of tomorrow about the goings-on in the White House will be either more shocking or more titillating than the ones of yesterday.

But amid all this haze, the anniversary of Mr Trump's first year in office does provide us with some pointers to his presidency and his foreign policy priorities. And although most of the world's leaders may be none the wiser as to how to deal with the man who runs Washington, it is possible to work out what can and what cannot be done in engaging with Mr Trump.

It is frequently said that Mr Trump's knowledge of foreign policy is shockingly poor; German officials privately complained, for instance, that when Chancellor Angela Merkel first spoke to the newly elected US President, he did not seem to have any idea of where Ukraine was, or why the showdown with Russia over the fate of that country made any difference. Nor was Mr Trump aware that he cannot negotiate trade deals with individual European countries, but must do so with the European Union as a whole. Other stories showing a similar kind of ignorance abound from elsewhere.

HISTORY OF IGNORANT PRESIDENTS

But although it is true that Mr Trump is the first president since Dwight Eisenhower in the early 1950s to enter the White House without having served in any elected capacity whatsoever and is therefore uniquely inexperienced in the way the machinery of government works, it's also true that most US presidents came to office being utterly ignorant of the world outside their own country, and that did not prevent them from being successful in world affairs.

Just think of Harry S. Truman, the tailor with no college degree from a small city in Missouri who only accidentally stumbled into the Oval Office in 1945 because his predecessor died, but who was nonetheless responsible for the creation of the post-war world order we know today.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Or reflect upon the record of Mr Bill Clinton, who came to office not only professing to be ignorant of world affairs, but also dismissing those who considered foreign affairs important as "stupid"; he too is now remembered as a competent global statesman. So, at least when it comes to ignorance of the world, Mr Trump conforms to the norm in the US, rather than the exception.

The differences between the current US leader and his predecessors are that, while previous US presidents were eager to learn about their world duties and did so fast, Mr Trump is not keen to learn, and in no rush to do so.

And, while previous presidents - with the possible exception of Mr Ronald Reagan who was also dismissed at that time as "demented" - accepted global arrangements as they were at the time and sought to manage these as best as possible, the current White House occupant accepts none of this; he believes that the world of today is one in which everyone takes advantage of a gullible United States, and that it falls upon him to redeem the America which generations of supposedly limp-wristed presidents betrayed.

OVERTURNING THE WORLD ORDER

That explains one of Mr Trump's biggest paradoxes: that, without exception, he has been harder on America's allies rather than those who challenge America's supremacy. He has riled Europeans by threatening to dissolve Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance which is the bedrock of European security, unless the Europeans paid more for their defences. And he has pulled out of trade deals with America's closest Asian allies, while at the same time being all sweetness and light to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and talking wistfully about a deal with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

As seen from Mr Trump's perspective, all this makes perfect sense: it's America's friends who need to be shaken so that they stop taking advantage of the US, and it's in America's enemies where the new President may discover hidden opportunities.

And it is the same view of the world which accounts for another Trump trait: his willingness to engage in what appears to be utter recklessness to everyone else - namely to suggest or adopt policies which blow up all previous accepted international diplomatic frameworks.

That was the case with Mr Trump's suggestion - mercifully now forgotten - that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to have their own nuclear weapons, that the nuclear deal with Iran should simply be torn up, or that Jerusalem should be officially recognised as Israel's capital, consigning to the dustbin decades of US foreign policies.

The President is willing to "experiment" with such hare-brained ideas because, unlike all his predecessors since 1945, he believes that, as The New York Times recently quoted him as saying, "the post-war international order is not working at all".

TRUMP IS HERE TO STAY

Given this situation, what can other governments around the world do? First, not engage in the flights of fancy which the majority of the US media and pundits have currently fallen victim to, by believing that Mr Trump won't complete his term in office.

None of the leaks from the current legal committees of inquiry in Washington have revealed a direct link between the US President and Russia's intelligence services, and without that "smoking gun", no impeachment of Mr Trump is feasible.

Besides, in the United States' over 200 years of history, only three presidents were threatened with impeachment, only two of these were subjected to the process, and neither lost power. The force of history is against impeachment.

And the idea that Mr Trump could be declared unfit for office due to alleged insanity is only favoured by US journalists for whom Trump-hate has now become a professional obsession. The safe assumption, therefore, must be that Mr Trump will remain in the White House at least until January 2021.

NOT ABNORMAL, JUST THE NEW NORMAL

The second conclusion that foreign governments should draw is that what now seems abnormal is the new normal; it does not look very likely that Mr Trump will be "tamed", and that the "grown-ups" in his administration would come up trumps. The story of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is instructive in this respect: Mr Trump promised to do it during the electoral campaign, then was prevailed upon not to do it, but then still did it.

The same may apply to the cancellation of the nuclear deal with Iran, where Mr Trump's advisers prevailed on the President to merely delay action, and the same applies to the US President's threat to impose trade sanctions on China; the fact that this has not happened does not mean that it won't happen. In short, many more shocks could be in the offing.

And no government around the world has managed to stumble upon the appropriate strategy of dealing with the mercurial US leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's tactic of smothering Mr Trump with love has worked up to a fashion, but there is no evidence that it has given Japan a greater say.

Chancellor Merkel's preference for lecturing Mr Trump on what she expects from him has not worked either; Mr Trump remained both unchastised and unfriendly. British Prime Minister Theresa May's approach, mixing both love and "frank criticism" achieved the unique distinction of both annoying and repelling the US leader. And Chinese President Xi Jinping's tactic of flattering Mr Trump almost certainly only postponed rather than averted rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. There is, simply, no single, fail-safe method of dealing with Mr Trump.

Ultimately, however, what governments around the world need to work out is whether Mr Trump is an exception, an outburst of populism which will go away when the current President eventually departs from the political scene, or whether he is merely a harbinger of a new and irrevocably changed United States.

A year into his presidency, most US pundits still dismiss Mr Trump as a passing phenomenon, an aberration. But then, Mr Trump has already proven most pundits wrong once, and he may do so again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'One year of Trump and the abnormal is new normal'. Print Edition | Subscribe