The US president, under pressure on multiple fronts, makes matters worse with his mixed messages
Donald Trump has taken less than a month to turn the American presidency into a three-ring circus. If his topsy-turvy style of diplomacy is allowed to become the “new normal”, the world will be in far more precarious state than it already is, and the United States will suffer directly, beginning with the collapse of its political leadership.
The gravest concern at the moment, following three weeks of fiascos, involves fallout from the resignation on Monday of Trump’s National Security Adviser, retired army general Michael Flynn. Flynn was obliged to quit after the nature of his contacts with Russian officials on behalf of Trump’s presidential campaign was exposed. It remains to be seen whether Trump was aware of what Flynn was pitching to Moscow in his name. Should it emerge that the president knew what was happening, that would be cause for impeachment, although the Republican majority in Congress would probably block such drastic action.
Russia aside, the way Trump continues to conduct policy regarding other nations is also deeply troubling. Americans voted for him in part because of his perceived reputation as a smart negotiator in business. From the Oval Office, his tactic appears to be raising or dampening expectations depending on the circumstances and the country with which he’s preparing to negotiate. In our uncertain times, it’s an approach fraught with risk.
On the road campaigning, Trump made inflammatory remarks about China, accusing it of stealing American jobs and manipulating the yuan to the detriment of the rest of the world. As president-elect he took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wan, signalling that he might abandon the One-China concept by which Taiwan is seen not as a sovereign nation but as a “rogue province” of China.
Was that a set-up for “the art of the deal”? President Trump this week abruptly changed course after his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, asked him by phone if he was backing the 22-year-old One-China agreement or not. Trump decided he was, after all. The leader of the world’s powerful nation is either learning restraint or believes that global affairs are best managed by getting the other guy off balance and worried, and then giving him a reassuring hug. No one should feel assured by this strategy.
Trump’s dealings with Japan have been hampered by the same double-talk and back-pedalling. Candidate Trump belittled Japan in various ways, calling it a poor ally in terms of both bilateral trade and security in the western Pacific. Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had his first meeting with Trump since the inauguration. They played some golf, and Trump declared that the US supports Japan “100 per cent”, without elaborating. Another missile test by North Korea provided the context for that remark, but Japanese commentators have expressed bewilderment, wondering whether the former reality-TV star can be taken seriously, let alone be trusted.
Trump’s awkward, stumbling administration has, in a distressingly short time, severely undercut America’s diplomatic credentials. If the president does not make clear his intentions in foreign affairs and stick to an unwavering course, what remains of US credibility overseas will evaporate. Washington has already lost friends as allies look for alternative partners and protectors.
American stability has been a safe anchorage for much of the world for 70 years. If it is replaced by instability, today’s volatile conditions, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia, could worsen. This is no time for Trump to be unbalancing relations in order to strike bargains. Diplomacy demands a far more delicate touch – and a degree of honesty that he has not demonstrated so far.