THE “world-in-bewilderment” one liner may be appropriate to sum up the reaction of allies, friends and foes — and others with no special relationship — to the changing face of the United States under President Donald Trump.
If, at the turn of the century, the US was the lone superpower, its world domination today seems to have been complicated by a number of factors, including the spread of religious extremism, globalisation, its own financial and military limitations on venturing into alien regions, and cultures that are antithesis to what are called American values and ideals.
Ever since Trump entered the White House as the nation’s 45th president, the world is still struggling to understand this man who 10 months into office still remains an enigma even for most Americans, let alone for foreign observers. America’s allies in Europe, for example, display bewilderment — those who watched the face of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meet-the-press event not so long ago in Washington, with a straight-looking Trump, oblivious of Merkel’s presence and not responding to her offer to shake hands, will know what I mean — while others like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heap scorn in response to Trump’s criticism over the two countries’ nuclear activities.
And, in between, there are others such as Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who was recently in New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly, hoping in vain to get an audience with Trump who has faulted that country for failing to act against terrorism from its soil and threatened to cut off financial assistance to it.
Let’s not forget Chinese President Xi Jinping, alarmed in the first few days of Trump’s presidency when the new White House resident held a telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen raising red flags in Beijing. Xi, already having received a sampling of Trump’s unpredictable temperament, has been facing pressures from the Americans to curb the North Korean leader if it wants Washington to go easy on the huge Chinese trade surpluses in trade with the US.
At a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, America’s leading foreign policy think tank, Gideon Rose, the editor of the prestigious Foreign Affairs journal, led the discussion on “Trump and the Allies” with panellists Fakako Hikotani, professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy at Columbia University, Jon D. Michaels, Professor of Law University of California’s Los Angeles School of Law, and Shannon K. O’Neil, director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Programme at CFR.
The message coming out of the discussions was that the world was confused and concerned over the behaviour of the present US administration. Unpredictable and impulsive responses from the world’s most powerful man in crisis situations were of equal concern as the responses of those whom he criticised. America’s partners around the world get the impression that Trump was all set to dismantle as much as possible of what his predecessor had set up — from affordable healthcare (“Obamacare”) to reforming the tax structure, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Expect adverse sentiments from America’s allies if the Iran nuclear deal was annulled, as Trump has threatened to do.
The allies take Trump’s threat seriously: after all, Trump’s first act as president was to withdraw the US from the TPP with one stroke of the pen, although he had promised to do that during the presidential election campaign.
Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP has raised doubts among America’s allies and friends about America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The TPP was considered a flagship of the Obama administration’s “pivot” — the rebalance — to Asia and an expression of America’s economic and security commitment to the region. While Japan is pushing through the TPP without America, as Hikotani said, there are other potential TPP members who hope that the US would reconsider its decision and join the TPP at some point in the future. The door would always be open for the US which only needed to knock at it. Indeed, Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, during my interview with him in Kuala Lumpur a few months back, had said that the TPP “may be dead, but not buried”.
Trump, scheduled to visit Asia next month to attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meet in Vietnam, is certain to face questions not only about America’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region, particularly fuelled by concern over China’s bellicosity in the South China Sea, but also a possible TPP membership.
Can Trump take the right action to reinforce America’s commitment in the Asia-Pacific region, and allay the doubts of those who have become sceptical about his world vision? After 10 months in office, Trump now needs to seriously work on foreign policy issues that concern America and also the world. America’s world leadership is being increasingly doubted by allies and friends, and scoffed by its foes. That’s not a good sign; America and its president need to restore the nation’s global standing.
The writer is a New York-based journalist with extensive writing
experience on foreign affairs,
diplomacy, global economics and