News analysis

Nations start pushing back after chaotic two weeks

Jonathan Eyal "We don't understand what he's talking about," Japan's Deputy Finance Minister Masatsugu Asakawa said after United States President Donald Trump accused the Japanese government of manipulating the value of the yen, allegedly to gain a trading advantage in American markets.

Indirectly, Mr Asakawa spoke for many other governments around the world, equally bewildered by a US president who appears to run his country's foreign policy through decrees, tweets and one-liner remarks, seemingly oblivious to the confusion, contradiction or offence he is causing.

Two weeks since his inauguration, almost everything the President does starts with an impulse, blends into confusion and ends in acrimony.

The most egregious example is the decree stopping the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from either entering the US or seeking US visas. The ban itself, although unpleasant and almost certainly ineffective in reducing the scourge of terrorism, is not unprecedented.

But it was its execution that proved shocking, with no thought given to the citizens of these countries who were either in mid-air on their way to the US when the shutters came down, or already held the status of US permanent residents. The legal basis for this action also appears to be doubtful; US courts are now tearing it apart.

The Trump administration was also surprisingly lame in explaining the logic behind the selection of countries whose citizens are being refused entry. For these were not countries that produced many terrorists, but nations that have lax domestic security provisions and don't cooperate with the US intelligence agencies in stamping out terrorism.

That's why Saudi Arabia, which otherwise was home to many terrorists, is not included in the banned list, while Somalia, with few terrorists but a poor administrative capacity, is. Yet no senior administration official offered this explanation, leaving punters to speculate that the list of blacklisted countries was random.

The entire episode is a sobering reminder of the dangers inherent in a government that treats its civil servants as enemies.

Meanwhile, nobody appears to have the courage to urge Mr Trump to stop being gratuitously offensive to leaders of other nations. It was one thing for him to order the construction of a wall on the US border with Mexico, but quite another to insist that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto should be expected to agree in advance to pay for it before arriving for a planned visit to Washington. That heaped intolerable humiliation on Mr Pena Nieto, and made cancellation of the visit inevitable.

The same rude behaviour was directed towards Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In principle, Mr Trump had a point in complaining about an immigration deal signed by former president Barack Obama, his predecessor, under which the US is expected to accept for resettlement migrants Australia itself won't accept. The deal was so controversial that it was kept secret by Mr Obama until the US elections were out of the way.

But what was the point of being offensive to Mr Turnbull by telling him, as Mr Trump did, that his phone conversation was the "worst" the US President recently had?

Mr Trump also undertook some sensible moves. He appears to have understood that lifting economic sanctions on Russia is impossible as long as Russian troops continue to occupy bits of neighbouring Ukraine. "The dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions," said Ms Nikki Haley, America's new ambassador to the United Nations.

President Trump also seems to have pulled back from an election promise to transfer the US embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that would have risked uproar in the Arab world. And, having nominated a supporter of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands as the new US ambassador to Israel, Mr Trump surprised everyone by warning Israel on Thursday that the construction of such new settlements "may not be helpful" to Middle East peace efforts.

But broader concerns about his administration remain unanswered. Apart from just bashing China, Mr Trump appears to have no coherent strategy to engage Beijing, and does not seem in a hurry to unveil one either.

Unlike all his predecessors since 1945, Mr Trump seems to relish the spectre of the European Union's (EU) potential disintegration, a stance that speaks volumes about the lack of strategic knowledge at the top of his administration.

And then there is the President's broader international perspective. Mr Trump sees the world as essentially one in which he has to battle everyone as foreign countries constantly treat the US "like a bunch of dummies", as he put it last week. He also believes that the best way of dealing with foreign leaders is to browbeat or humiliate them, as a prelude to striking a better deal.

But foreign governments are already pushing back. A summit of EU leaders that ended yesterday was largely devoted to notifying Washington of the strict limits to what European leaders are prepared to accept. Australian government officials are beginning to reconsider if the entire premise of their country's security strategy now needs to be relooked. Mexican officials are doing the same.

"It's time we're going to be a little tough, folks," Mr Trump told supporters at the end of the week. He will soon discover that other nations will get tough as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Nations start pushing back after chaotic two weeks'. Print Edition | Subscribe