BY SHASHI MALLA
President “T”, the Disrupter-in-Chief
There is little doubt that US President Donald J. Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in diminishing America’s global estimation and status. Still, he gives himself an ‘A +’ for his role in domestic and international affairs. He was laughed at by world leaders, heads of states and governments at this year’s UN General Assembly. This was hugely embarrassing for his domestic audience. Most Americans have now realized that he must go – sooner than later. He is an acute and present danger, both for his own country and the world at large. A beginning has been made by the loss of the US House of Representatives by the Republican Party (which has been identified as Trump’s party by the American electorate). The Democratic majority in the House is expected to play a more robust role in Trump’s two remaining years, and he will be under heavy scrutiny starting with January of the New Year.
Trump has not only caused havoc to America’s international standing, but to the whole system of international relations and to the world order. He had hardly assumed office than he immediately started to withdraw from multilateral accords, staring with the Paris Climate Agreement.He then proceeded to tear up the multilateral trade agreement in the Western Pacific. He has started trade wars, above all with China. His policies have harmed America and the world. It is now incumbent on the US Congress to take action and protect America’s standing in the international arena. He is definitely on a collision course with Congress which may curb his ‘war making powers’ and clamp sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
He started treating friends and allies like enemies, even members of the strategic North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and dictators like friends (above all Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea). He takes great delight in unilateral action, considering foreign policy as purely transactional. His ill-considered slogans: “America First” and “Make America Great Again” (“MAGA”) translate into a narrow view of American economic and national security interests.
Trump’s world view is completely disjointed. He doesn’t read books or articles, but is an avid watcher of the right-wing “Fox News” cable channel, and keeps up ardent contacts only with like-minded people. And he conducts policy through his Twitter feed. He is thus limited in scope and judgement. He completely disdains the vast web of international institutions, norms and rules-based systems that the United States itself helped establish and develop since the end of World War II (learning from the mistakes of the order established after WWI ).Knowledge, as they say, is power, and ‘little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.’ Because of Trump’s ill-conceived policies, trust in America’s dependability has declined sharply around the world.
G – 20 Meeting in Argentina
Trump and the leaders of the major industrialized/developed nations face a major international test at the meeting of the “G – 20” in Argentina (November 30 – December 1). When G 20 world leaders met for the first time in 2008, their desperate mission was hugely successful. They were able to rescue the global economy from the worst financial crisis in more than 70 years.They are expected to reach a consensus on two of the most significant and contentious issues on their agenda – trade and climate change.
Last week, countries attending a major Asia-Pacific summit failed to agreeon a joint communiqué for the first time as the United States and China clashed over trade and security. In may this year, Trump rejected a statement by fellow leaders of the top G – 7 industrialized economies after a tense gathering ended in acrimony, again over tariffs and trade.
It will be the first time that leaders will meet since Trump imposed tariffs US Dollar 250 billion of Chinese imports to force concessions from Beijing on greater access to Chinese markets, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft. China responded with its own import tariffs on US goods. Many world leaders anxious to see a swift end to the US-China trade war are hopeful but not confident that a meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of G – 20 may yield at least a partial ceasefire. However, ShiYinhong, the head of the Centre for American Studies at Beijing’s elite Renmin University who has advised the Chinese government on diplomacy, has said that the two leaders cannot reach a fundamental agreement. Trump himself is going to the meeting all-knowing and over-confident!
“MBS” Pariah or Suave Reformer?
In the meantime questions are swirling over the participation of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”) at the G -20 meeting. Before that, MBS is touring the Middle East in a bid to drum up support as questions abound as to how he will be received in Buenos Aires. No doubt that Saudi Arabia is a very important country and the only Arab state in the G – 20. On his first stop, he was welcomed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally that is part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen.
He will also visit Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia. This has been dubbed “ a tour of brotherly countries” as global condemnation continues over the brutal murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “I think it’s trying to rehabilitate his despotic image after almost two months of negative press coverage over his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”, said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. He also noted that the Argentine trip puts MBS in possible legal jeopardy under the legal doctrine of “universal jurisdiction” under international law.
On his last leg, MBS is slated to visit Tunisia. However, Tunisian politicians and civil society groups have expressed their opposition to the upcoming visit. Tarek Kahlavi an activist said: “It is a shame that Tunisia, which has witnessed a democratic transition and a revolution against tyranny and dictatorship, will receive a criminal whose hands were stained with the blood of Saudis and Yeminis.” Tunisia is after all where the ‘Arab Spring’ started. Trump, who will probably be meeting MBS, and has been criticized back home for challenging the CIA’s report incriminating MBS, said that Washington would not slacken its support for the kingdom. He also made the non-sensical remark that if blame was at all to be apportioned, then “Maybe the world should be held responsible, because the world is a vicious place.” [!]
Trump has said: “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”Thus his top priorities remain protecting Israel, fighting terrorism and resisting Iran, which he considers the main factor behind the volatility in Lebanon and the wars in Syria and Yemen. He has completely exonerated Saudi Arabia for civilian deaths and injuries and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Rami G. Khouri, a journalist and senior fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard said succinctly: “It is a terrible reminder of how precarious the leadership situation in the United States and Saudi Arabia is in terms of adhering to the rule of law and to common decency and ethics.” But it is too demanding of Trump to demonstrate moral leadership and stand up for international norms.
To deflect from domestic woes, both Trump and MBS may be tempted to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and even seek a [limited] armed conflict. According to Richard N. Haass (President of the Council on Foreign Relations in “Project Syndicate”), the US and European governments should signal that they would be more open to working with Saudi Arabia if the power of MBS were reduced. To demonstrate US displeasure, there should immediately be limits on US arms sales and intelligence support. There are indications that the US Congress is likely to impose these sanctions/restrictions.
According to Haass, what is desperately needed is to mount increasing pressure on MBS to make a concerted push to end the Yemen conflict. With the same arm-twisting what needs to be avoided at all costs is “exploitation of the Trump administration’s anti-Iran animus to provoke an armed confrontation that would force others to overcome their qualms and side with Saudi Arabia.” There can be consensus that MBS has created a very bad situation in the region. The trick should be “to establish sufficient limits so that it does not become worse.”
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]