One month down, at least 47 to go. Love him or loathe him, the last 30 days have been an amazing rollercoaster ride with plenty of loop-the-loops, U-turns and reverses. Can the Donald Trump administration keep up this rant-a-day, pell-mell pace for another four years? Foreign leaders must approach the White House with trepidation, where even the handshake is a hurdle.
But in this maelstrom, can anything be discerned regarding the future of the US president’s foreign policy? He does not fit into a specific school of international relations, nor is there likely to be any sense of a Trump doctrine. Issues of clarity are rare, but he has stuck to his anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-free trade, pro-Brexit, anti-EU campaign stances. Will this last, or will reality soften his positions?
Far more frequent are the contradictory statements, hardly a surprise from a man who at times supported the 2003 war on Iraq, and at other times opposed it. All too often, Trump’s headline-grabbing comments that echo worldwide are later given a perhaps calmer but differing explanation by one of his minions, something that barely bothers him.
While he thinks NATO is “obsolete,” Vice President Mike Pence claims that “the US strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our support of this trans-Atlantic alliance.” Similarly, while Trump avoided saying Russia should adhere to the 2015 Minsk agreement, Pence made clear it should.
The summit between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided what appeared to be a policy-shredding moment when Trump proclaimed to the background chorus of Netanyahu’s chuckles: “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”
Decipher that as you will, but it was clear from Netanyahu’s delight that he felt under no pressure to sanction a Palestinian state anytime soon. The reality remains that both a one-state and two-state solution are a million miles from being achieved. Yet a day later, Trump’s ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, insisted that Trump still supported a two-state solution.
Netanyahu will hardly feel shackled by Trump saying: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” The Jerusalem embassy move is still under consideration, but on the timing once again there are differing smoke signals. Trump’s deep-seated contempt for Palestinians was highlighted when he blocked Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, from becoming UN envoy to Libya.
He needs friends and allies at home and abroad if he is to progress with any of his policies. His ambitions cannot be achieved by isolationism. The question remains whether Trump has any other style of operating, or a reset button for his administration. If he does not, it will be a very long 47 months.
Then there are the “I’m tougher than the last guy” positions. Iran’s ballistic missile tests, a foolhardy and dangerous provocation, presented Trump with an open goal to polish his hawkish credentials. Sanctions followed and Iran was put on notice.
North Korea’s aggression was met with a similar reaction. Yet in both cases, Trump is keeping all his options open. After all, just like his predecessor Barack Obama, he was elected on a platform of avoiding costly foreign wars, not starting them.
Keep them guessing is a Trump favorite. He sets great store by being unpredictable, a theme that runs consistently through his book “Crippled America.” On Russia, there are always hints of the potential for a closer relationship (notwithstanding the investigations into the Trump team’s links to Russia), yet with no clarity as to what this might mean.
Yet for foreign policy this has consequences, usually negative. In many respects, the future of the Syria talks are being undermined because none of the key belligerents are sure what US policy will be. Russia has queried what the US plans for safe zones are. Iran is fearful about Trump’s hostility. Turkey is anxious about the US position on Kurds and opposition figure Fethullah Gulen.
Nobody is sure what Trump’s promise to smash Daesh will mean in practice, save perhaps a small increase in US forces on the ground. Many in the Gulf view him favorably, but he routinely describes some Gulf states disparagingly — “they have nothing but money.” As Mexico will pay for the wall, the Gulf will pay for safe zones, so he claims. Many issues barely get a mention. Above all, Trump goes strangely Trappist on the issue of Africa, save for targeting three states with travel bans: Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
Above all, as with all areas of policy, Trump needs to work out how to run his administration and become effective at governing a country rather than businesses. Continuing to rant and rave at all who oppose or criticize him will tax even his supporters’ patience. Will he dare to do so when he starts his travels overseas, hosted by other leaders? Can he tap into any hidden unearthed statesman-like qualities when needed?
Ultimately, Trump needs friends and allies at home and abroad if he is to progress with any of his policies. His ambitions cannot be achieved by isolationism. A federal judge was the first to reveal to him the limits of his power, but the lesson has yet to sink in. The question remains whether Trump has any other style of operating, or a reset button for his administration. If he does not, it will be a very long 47 months.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.