Donald Trump said that he “didn’t expect that reaction” when un-named diplomats at the UN General Assembly laughed at his claim that his administration has accomplished more in two years than virtually any previous US administration in history.
While it is not clear who was laughing, it can be reasonably postulated that Chinese and Russian diplomats were sitting respectfully in spite of supreme disagreements with many of Trump’s policies. Based on the generally poor reception Trump continues to receive from America’s traditional European allies, it could be surmised that a bulk of those laughing at Trump were Europeans who in a fit of arrogance decided to totally disregard diplomatic protocol, thus bringing shame upon the UN and their individual nations.
The un-diplomatic behaviour of certain audience members not withstanding, the fact of the matter is that Donald Trump is no laughing matter. While the US is indeed running roughshod over much of international law as unilateralism becomes the rule while win-win compromises become almost invisible exceptions so far as Washington is concerned, the reality is that Donald Trump did not foment this reality. This reality has existed in respect of America’s relations with the rest of the world since at least the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and if one were to ask native Americans their view on Washington’s unilateralism, they would accurately state that it began long before America’s war with Spain that ushered in the first overseas empire of the United States.
What Trump has done however is give a majority of the nations on earth a clear escape route from American hegemony. This route is certainly not an easy one as it is rife with sanctions, tariffs, artificially conjured inflationary pressure and in some cases even military threats (this is true in respect of Iran and Venezuela in particular). But be that as it may, in proudly waving the flag of protectionism, unilateralism and an opposition to global connectivity, Trump has allowed the Chinese superpower to become an unambiguous champion of a new model of global connectivity based on respect for national sovereignty, bespoke bilateral agreements made without overarching strings attached, free trade on a fair and voluntary basis, cooperation based on negotiation rather than coercion and win-win outcomes founded on the principle of peace through prosperity.
But beyond the US proudly forfeiting its always dubious claim to being the leader of a respectful and “rules based” global movement for greater multilateral connectivity, Donald Trump has also achieved a great deal in terms of promoting selective peace. While selective peace can likewise be labelled as selective aggression, it is helpful to remember that under prior administrations the pursuit of aggression was far more uniform than under Trump. Thus, while under Trump one can argue as to whether the proverbial cup is half empty or half full, before Trump the cup was unambiguously empty in its entirety.
Donald Trump recently stated that after initially tough negotiations, he has “fallen in love” with Kim Jong-un. Putting the hyperbolic language aside, the fact that any US President has replaced words of merciless hostility towards the DPRK with words indicating positive trends in cooperation is necessarily a good thing. Furthermore, as the DPRK’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho rightly stated during his recent General Assembly Address, it is Trump’s domestic opposition more than Trump himself that is attempting to sabotage the Korean peace process in a manner that can only be described as a dangerous and reckless “lose-lose” mentality.
Elsewhere in the world, under Trump it appears that in large part the US has given up its goal of militarily re-shaping the Middle East according to the pro-Israel regime change model of the Bush and Obama years. The fact that America’s top Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia and Israel are simultaneously pivoting closer to both Russia and China is proof positive that the US is far from the only superpower of consequence in the fraught region.
Of course, the positive signs regarding Korea, Trump’s drawing of a clear line between US unilateralism and Chinese win-win multipolarity, the less “hands-on” approach to the Arab world and an atmosphere of economic realism in respect of Europe are of course balanced out by the obvious negative policies of the Trump era including increased provocations in the South China Sea, the weaponisation of Indian geopolitics in order to provoke China on its western borders, a more intense obstructionist strategy in Afghanistan and baseless threats against Iran and Venezuela.
However, while Trump is objectively original in his positive attributes, his negative attributes are merely more rhetorically honest reflections of the policies of his predecessors. No US President in the contemporary era has ever looked with neutrality towards any leftist Latin American government and likewise no US administration has had normal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979. Furthermore, it was under Obama that an anti-Chinese policy in both the South China Sea and in India began to foment. While former Congressman Dr. Ron Paul continues to argue for a ‘trade with all, be hostile towards none’ policy, such an enlightened set of political values remains far removed from both the mainstream and vocal fringes of the reality in Washington.
In this sense, while Trump is far from perfect so far as the wider anti-hegemonic global community is concerned, based on recent and long term American history and the current political landscape in Washington – Trump is likely as good as it is going to get.
The realistic alternatives to Trump as are clearly seen in the opposition Democratic party and anti-Trump factions of his own Republican party support all of the aforementioned negative attributes of Trump but have none of the positives. Should Trump cease to be President, the likelihood is that the US would once again try to rival rather than enact a separate economic system operating parallel with China. Likewise, without Trump the US would resume hostility against the DPRK (North Korea), pursue anti-Russian policies in Europe based on military strategy rather than the slightly more benign petro-economic strategy of Trump and all the while, such a non-Trump led America would fill the world’s ears with rhetoric vastly more insincere than the straight forward prose of Trump.
The reality is therefore that unless the US were to adopt the genuinely anti-interventionist policies of the pre-1898 era (something that is simply not going to happen under the current political conditions in the United States), Donald Trump is as good as things are going to get in respect of US relations with the rest of the world. In this sense, one can laugh at Trump if one wants to, but the joke is on those who prefer to laugh at a surprisingly honest US leader who has replaced the duplicity and malign tendencies of his predecessors with a kind of mixed bag aggression that is predictable on a bad day and surprisingly peace minded on a good one.