Global Watch

President Trump’s foreign policy flip-flops – buckle up

Trump, calling the shots

Since taking office US president Donald Trump has been making extraordinary foreign policy U-turns.

The outrageous promises and threats made during his election campaign was that of man with limited knowledge of international affairs and set, once elected, to soon be faced with reality. 

Recent spectacular foreign policy flip-flops were therefore no surprise and to be expected.

An outstanding feature of Trump’s flip-flops is the apparent ease with which the US president’s convictions can be swayed. By his own admission, it took China’s president Xi Xi Jinping ten minutes to convince him of the complexities to find a lasting solution to the Korean dilemma.

And, after meeting with NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, there was a U-turn on prior criticism of the alliance.

Approving a missile strike in Syria, and dropping a mega-ton bomb in Afghanistan, Trump signalled his willingness to use military force even if it could jeopardise existing relations.

Since him taking office, there has been an escalation of US military involvement in Syria, a record number of drone attacks in Yemen and more US troops sent to the Middle East and South Korea.

He raised eyebrows when, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he unexpected praised NATO and said he no longer considered China a currency manipulator.

The NATO about face came after earlier complaining that other NATO members were not fulfilling their financial contributions and threatened to pull out of the alliance if they did not pay up. Trump also questioned NATO’s effectiveness, claiming it had outlived its usefulness.

To the amazement of most, he has now identified a “shift” in NATO’s commitment to “fight terrorism,” it was “no longer obsolete,” and in fact a "bulwark of international peace and security." 

He claimed, in line with his egotistical demeanour, that his criticism compelled NATO to get its act together. However, analysts speculate Trump’s backflip must be judged against the backdrop of rising tensions with Russia.

Chinese Currency Manipulation

During his election campaign Trump railed against China’s “rape" of the US economy, accusing it of keeping its currency artificially low, promising that “on day one of a Trump administration, the US Treasury Department will designate China a currency manipulator.”

That day came and went without any such labelling. And then, in one of the sharpest reverses of his presidency to date, after hosting Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump recalled his earlier claim – one which had formed the basis of his argument about American job losses, with an undervalued currency boosting Chinese exports at US manufacturers’ expense.

Trump claims China had quit manipulating its currency in recent months. Fact is, however, that China has been working to prop up, not weaken, its currency.

North Korea

North Korea, set to be the immediate litmus test for improved US-Sino relations, is in the view of most commentators, the real reason for Trump’s Chinese flip-flop.

Trump is on record being concerned about a possible trade dispute with China, which could endanger cooperation with Beijing in pressuring North Korea on its nuclear arms programme.

Trump now seems convinced China will exert the necessary pressure on Pyongyang  and said of President Xi: “I think he wants to help us with North Korea.”

The two leaders also agreed that their countries would maintain “communication and coordination” on dealing with North Korea.

Trump is adamant, and most Americans will agree, that North Korea should not be allowed to develop a nuclear arsenal, especially not one capable of reaching targets in the US.

This "won't happen,“ he said and threatened with pre-emptive strikes. North Korea has responded in kind, declaring they will not be intimidated and will retaliate “if and when necessary."

Tension has escalated, with Trump dispatching an aircraft carrier battle group to the Korean peninsula in response to indications that North Korea is preparing for another nuclear weapons test.

As North Korea’s only major ally, China is considered key to applying pressure on Pyongyang regarding its nuclear arms programme.

China, it is argued, has a special responsibility because of proof that Chinese companies, wittingly or unwittingly, assisted North Korea in the development of its nuclear capability.      

Caught in the middle of all the sable-rattling, China has urged restraint, warning that "conflict could break out at any moment” as Pyongyang vowed a "merciless" response to any US military action.

Beijing's warnings fuelled international concerns that the current situation is reaching a tipping point.

Beijing also fears a flood of refugees across its borders and leaving the US military on its doorstep, following any dramatic action against the North and the regime's collapse.

Russian fall-out

Relations with Russia is also on a roller coaster ride, nose-diving after Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria in response to a chemical attack, the US claims President Assad ordered.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the Syrian strike as a warning to other nations, particularly North Korea.

North Korea, considering Syria an ally, in return called the airstrikes “absolutely unpardonable” and prove that its nuclear weapons are justified to protect the country against Washington’s “evermore reckless moves for a war.”

A couple of days later the US, for good measure, dropped the “mother of all bombs” on an ISIS facility in Afghanistan, interpreted by most analysts as another stern warning.

The bomb with a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT, can collapse underground tunnels and bunkers – a capability that led to the belief that it could be used against underground nuclear facilities in countries like Iran or North Korea.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, particularly for geopolitical reasons, immediately condemned the American missile attack, foreign affairs minister Lavrov describing the attack as “illegal.”

President Putin also described the attack a breach of international law and confidence in an improvement in US-Russian relations as being lower than it had been under the Obama administration.

Trump responded by describing Russia’s relationship with Assad a "bad for mankind," admitting that relations with Russia are “at a low point.” Secretary of State Tillerson repeated Trump’s remark during a visit to Moscow in an attempt to amend relations.

Russia publicly admitted confusion with Trump’s actions. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman lamented: “We have to figure out what this country’s (US) strategy is. No one understands it right now. If you do, share your appraisal with us.”

Trump’s Syrian flip-flop remains unclear. He has repeatedly, before becoming president, argued against American military intervention against the Assad regime as not in US interests.

In a complete turnaround, he justified the strike as, “in the vital national security interest of the United States as it helps to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons."

Much media attention was given to the US beforehand informing Russia of the planned missile strike. Russia in turn, warned the Syrians.

The net result was an innocuous attack on a deserted air base with little damage and casualties.

According to reports the air base was operational shortly after the missile strike, with little evidence that it will be repeated. It was a once-off, symbolic strike.

A desire to put distance between himself and the pro-Russia stance he is accused of, and to build his “strong man” image, apparently motivated Trump.

Not only did he “prove” he is not in Putin’s back pocket, as many of his critics claim, but his “strong and principled” decision to show the Syrian dictator his abhorrence, won Trump some much needed home-support – not even the Democrats raised any criticism for him not informing Congress beforehand of the planned attack, as he is constitutionally obliged to do. 

Buckle up    

Notwithstanding all the criticism and ridicule, some justified, Trump as a political novice, trumped the supposedly politically much more astute Hillary Clinton during the presidential election campaign, reading the American mood better than her.

He took notice of the Pew Research Center’s report published in May 2016, concluding that 70% of American voters wanting their next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy.

In the same poll found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favoured policies that would preserve the US as “the only military superpower.

This finding is reflected in Trump’s foreign policy actions to date, although some represent dramatic changes from his campaign remarks.

Trump’s projecting a “strong man” image goes down well with the US public, particularly with his support base, presenting the US as “still (internationally) calling the shots.”

Churchill once said: “One can have a policy of audacity or one can follow a policy of caution, but it is disastrous to try to follow a policy of audacity and caution at the same time. It must be one or the other.”

President Trump, it seems, has chosen audacity, so buckle up for an interesting drive.

by Garth Cilliers

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