Donald Trump does not travel well. At his first major summit, he was too tired to walk through the Sicilian streets with the other G7 leaders, and took to his golf cart. He literally pushed aside the prime minister of a small European country to stand at the head of the pack. He found himself in a minority of one over the Paris climate accord, rejecting arguments that he was ceding world leadership to China. And he was irritated by all the tough-guy talk from France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who boasted to a French newspaper that his white-knuckle handshake with Trump was “a moment of truth”.
When he returned home, Trump’s response was to embrace his isolation. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he declared as he pulled out of the Paris agreement, barely a month ago.
This week, Trump is preparing to travel to his second summit, the broader G20 group of world leaders in Hamburg, and the omens do not look good. The summit is hosted by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who was so very disappointed in Trump’s leadership last time around. Germany’s protesters are perhaps the only group looking forward to Trump’s arrival.
This is the Trump paradox, five months into his presidency: the more he tries to assert US leadership, the less of a leadership role he plays. For someone who campaigned on the promise to make America great again, the reality of government has been an exercise in looking weak again and again.
Trump is not the first president to suffer such a rapid belittling. At the same point in his first year, Bill Clinton was reduced to thumbnail size on the cover of Time magazine, after a disastrous transition and a hapless response to the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The Incredible Shrinking President, screamed the magazine cover.
Clinton would go on to lose Congress the following year and face never-ending investigations that led to his impeachment. Of course, he also achieved great international popularity, a healthy re-election victory and stunning economic growth.
For now, Trump shows no sign of Clinton’s adaptability. The scandals and investigations engulfing him are more profound and numerous than anything since Watergate. And yet the US economy remains healthy, the stock market is touching giddy heights, and a handful of Middle Eastern allies are dancing with joy, if not swords, at Trump’s arrival.
It is possible to measure how much Trump has made America weak again. The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 40,000 people in 37 countries this year, examining global attitudes to the US and the president since Barack Obama left office. The numbers are grim reading for anyone but Vladimir Putin.
Confidence in the US president has collapsed 42 points to just 22%, while favorable views of the country overall have dropped 15 points to 49%. The declines are staggering in European countries, and the 10 countries where US presidential favorability ratings plunged the most includes South Korea and Japan: two allies who are clearly not reassured by Trump’s belligerent tone toward North Korea. Trump starts his presidency at the low point where George W Bush ended his, after years of cowboy diplomacy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are just two countries registering a rise in confidence since the Obama era ended: Israel and Russia. In Israel, where Obama clashed repeatedly with the Netanyahu government, confidence has risen 7 points, from 49 to 56%: hardly a tidal wave of happiness.
The only country to fully embrace Donald Trump is Mother Russia herself, where confidence has rocketed 42 points, from 11% to 53%. Given the number of Russian immigrants in Israel, the two countries may really reflect only one dynamic: the curious case of Trump’s crush on Moscow.
However, the survey does not tell the full story. Trump’s foreign policy has led to a marked shift in attitudes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where leaders made little secret of their disdain for Obama. After the ceremonial pomp and swagger of Trump’s official visit to Saudi Arabia in May, the Saudi-led Gulf coalition announced a blockade of Qatar for supporting terrorism. The blockade was welcomed by Trump, who gushed on Twitter: “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.”
The president’s views were not shared by his own state and defense departments, who sent a very different set of signals to the region, no doubt concerned about the fate of the large US base in Qatar which is the hub of air operations for Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The Trump effect in the Middle East represents the kind of unpredictability that threatens to destabilize further a region already in turmoil. By improving relations with some allies, Trump has worsened relations with others. Along the way, he has jeopardized American national security interests. It seems his single-minded pursuit of individual challenges or countries does not translate to the complex politics of the Arab and Muslim world. As a result, the great self-styled dealmaker is starting to look like he got played in his first big negotiation on the world stage.
“You can argue that the leaders in the Gulf feel that they have in Trump not just an ally in the traditional sense, but actually a kindred spirit, and they can go beyond where they would have been with America as a traditional ally,” says Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House.
“He’s almost given them a blank check by making Iran the number one enemy. China is complicated. He’s discovered that Russia is complicated. The enemy has narrowed down to one: Iran. If you’re in the Gulf states, you can let your hair down on some of their deeper grievances, which are encapsulated, in a way, by Qatar as the fifth column, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. This is risky at this moment when so much is up in the air across the Middle East.”
Trump’s upheaval is partly intentional. He was elected on the promise of destroying Isis, rather than downplaying its capabilities, as Obama did in its early stages. Trump wanted to project strength through the Middle East, not the weakness he perceived in his predecessor. And above all, he wanted to push and shove European allies to step up: to increase their military spending and reorient Nato towards terrorist threats.
These are not outlandish demands. In fact, they are something like the consensus view of English-speaking diplomats, at least, on both sides of the Atlantic for most of the post-9/11 period.
What is outlandish is the almost entire absence of any diplomacy in Donald Trump himself. Take the flap over Nato’s article five on collective defense: the very essence of the military alliance. At the new Nato headquarters in Brussels, he dropped a planned endorsement of article five, deeply unsettling his Nato allies.
Then, several days later, after a deluge of complaints from friends and critics alike, Trump finally endorsed the alliance’s key principles while standing next to the Romanian president in the White House rose garden. For a reality TV star who prides himself on his powers of presentation, his choice of staging and timing was as weird as his initial decision to snub his military allies.
The result of all this chest-thumping is the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of promoting American leadership, Trump is leaving a vacuum in Europe that is being filled by the German-French alliance. With Britain busy with its own Brexit chaos, that leaves Trump and the US with fewer friends and less influence.
‘Leadership in partnership’
“There is a vacuum and the Europeans are filling it,” says JD Bindenagel, a former US ambassador who is now the Henry Kissinger professor at the University of Bonn’s center for international security and governance. “Donald Trump certainly isn’t filling it.” That means, for Bindenagle, the emergence of a German model of “leadership in partnership”: a group leadership approach that is entirely opposite to the solo style of Trump himself.
American power has never been solely based on diplomacy or military force. Its foundation is the country’s economic strength, and Trump’s claim to the presidency was largely built around his supposed credentials as a successful business executive.
Regardless of his anarchic management of the White House, the Trump economy is nothing to be sneered at. You don’t have to be a purveyor of fake news to acknowledge that the stock markets have rejoiced at the arrival of a real estate developer in the Oval Office. Since Trump’s election in November, the Dow Jones has rocketed by more 3,000 points, representing a 17% rise. It took the market three years under Obama to record the kind of leap it made in just seven months under Trump.
The unemployment rate has continued to fall to low levels last seen a decade ago, before the financial meltdown. This may have been a long decline engineered by the Obama administration over many years, but the facts remain stubbornly true: the US economy is mostly healthy and Trump has not – despite many predictions to the contrary – altered its vital signs. Real wages have continued their long, slow recovery of the past two years, after several years of stagnation after the Great Recession. The end of the Obama era and the start of the Trump era represent a good (but not great) economy.
The standout is the stock market, whose irrational exuberance may be temporary but is based on several expectations: that Trump will continue to loosen Obama’s business regulations on the financial and energy sectors, and that he can cut taxes across the board. The former can be achieved through executive action, without any new legislation. But the latter needs Congress to act, and Trump’s Republicans have been a remarkably consistent failure despite controlling the entirety of political power in Washington. Even on tax cuts – the single point of Republican agreement for the past several decades – Washington is no closer to success than it was in November.
Comprehensive tax reform will be a protracted affair, swarming with industry lobbyists and the pet projects of minor congressmen. But even the more limited tax cuts embedded in Trump’s healthcare overhaul proved too incendiary for some of his own party’s senators. Without tax cuts, it’s not clear what the markets are so happy about. And there is a dawning realization that Trump’s dream of tax cuts will not materialize, nor will a promised surge in spending on roads and bridges. That’s partly why the IMF lowered its forecast of US growth from 2.5% to 2.1% for 2017 and 2018 – a long way off Trump’s official promise of 3%.
For its part, the business community is far from content. Executives who met with Trump inside the White House have broken with him on his junking of the Paris accord. Other companies have promised Trump they will keep jobs in the US but continued to move those same jobs overseas regardless. Boeing recently announced it would cut 200 jobs from a South Carolina plant where Trump personally pledged to protect American jobs earlier this year.
“I think they are troubled because this isn’t your normal administration,” says Mark Bloomfield, president of the American Council for Capital Formation, which advocates for deregulation and cuts in capital gains tax. “As far as the business community is concerned, in this administration they are orphans. It’s unclear how much influence they have. I’m not sure they comprehend what is going on with trade policy. I’m not sure they know how to get a handle on it. The average businessman would have been more comfortable with George W Bush or George HW Bush.”
Trade sits at the heart of those concerns: an area where Trump campaigned aggressively to promote “America first” and end the global system of trade as we know it. Inside the White House, he has bounced around on trade from do-nothing to destroy-everything, but that period may well be coming to an end.
Trump is expected to make an imminent announcement on Chinese steel that could rupture the global trade rules. The excuse would be a finding from his commerce department that foreign steel threatens US security, an argument for protectionism that could easily be copied around the world.
“The steel decision is enormously consequential [in its] using a national security justification to block steel imports,” says Ted Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s something the United States has never done because it’s a big loophole in the trade rules. This is a Pandora’s box. There’s a lot of nervousness with respect to the trade system about a United States that asserts itself unilaterally by demanding concrete steps to reduce trade, thinking it will be more successful than a United States that works with its allies to write mutually beneficial trade rules.”
As Trump officials have telegraphed their move on Chinese steel, the pushback has been hard from industries that consume steel: the auto and construction sectors. Once again, the apparently easy politics of making America great again are far more complicated when some businesses will grow weaker from Trump’s decisions.
In the meantime, the stock market does not seem to care. “Either the markets are not paying attention or they are discounting the likelihood that the administration will do anything,” says Alden. “The markets may be betting that at the end of the day, the Trump administration will blink, as they have on other things on China.”
The reaction to “America first” has been a rapid assertion of “America second”, even among formerly steadfast friends. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, recently told parliament that it was time for Canada to assert itself. “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” she said.
Much like political junkies in America, the international community of elected officials and policymakers seems exhausted by five months of Trump’s engagement with the world. But that exhaustion is not just the result of Trump; rather, it follows a path of disappointment stretching back more than a decade.
“We can almost afford to take a break from American leadership,” says Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, an international affairs thinktank. “First we had George W Bush and the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then Obama ended up failing to follow through on the rhetoric in the Middle East. And now we have Trump. That’s quite a trio. Does he put an end to the withdrawal of American leadership? It’s a short step from leading from behind to not leading at all.”
Other presidents have been lampooned. Europeans considered Reagan as lightweight as Trump. George W Bush threatened to blow up international peace, much like Trump.
But the pace and the depth of Trump’s decline is astonishing, and the gap between his rhetoric and the reality is intercontinental. As George W Bush discovered, the unilateral path is hard to travel when America’s allies are essential players on everything from economic to military cooperation. The first six months do not bode well for Trump or America’s fortunes. If this is Trump’s idea of a stronger America, his foreign foes have less to worry about than his friends.
Source: The Guardian