Trump's Foreign Policy: Straws In The Wind
NEW DELHI: It is barely seven weeks since Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Perhaps too early to figure out the details of America’s foreign policy during his presidency. However, some broad contours of his policies are taking shape, which may provide pointers to what he is likely to do in the next four years.
These pointers are based partly on what Trump said during his election campaign and partly on what has happened since he became President. Actually, quite a lot has happened in the last seven weeks or so, including considerable turbulence in US domestic and foreign policy.
Before proceeding further, it may be useful to recall that Trump’s victory in the Nov. 2016 elections was unexpected. Most opinion polls and the mainstream media (MSM) predicted victory for Hillary Clinton, who was the candidate of the US Establishment and the “Deep State” (DS), which includes the military-industrial complex, the intelligence agencies, the MSM, Wall Street, and the Jewish Lobby.
The DS is a permanent, unelected, group of institutions, lobbies, and individuals which wields enormous power from behind the scenes and continues to do so irrespective of who is the President and which party controls the US Congress. It is driven by the quest for money and power, among other things.
The present DS began taking shape almost thirty-five years ago when Jimmy Carter was President. There was a DS before that too, going back to the 1950s, which came into existence after the Second World War. However, it was much less powerful and entrenched than the present one. John F. Kennedy tried to defy it but did not succeed. Some believe he paid for it with his life.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 speeded up the consolidation of the current DS, which found that there was nobody to restrain the military power of the US. America could do what it liked. The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of a group of individuals known as the “neoconservatives,” or “neocons,” who believed in using the American military for global domination, irrespective of international laws or institutions, such as the UN.
The first military adventure of the neocons was the illegal NATO bombing of the then Yugoslavia in 1999, which was carried out without UN approval. It resulted in the disintegration of the country. Russia was too weak to counter it militarily. Having gotten away with it, the US and NATO embarked upon a series of wars in the next fifteen years, aimed at “regime change” in countries whose leaders were not US allies.
Thus, the US and its NATO allies invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussain, bombed Libya and killed Qaddafi in 2011, intervened in Syria in 2011 to oust President Bashar al-Assad, effected regime change in Ukraine in 2014, and are currently involved in a very destructive war in Yemen along with Saudi Arabia.
The US has therefore continuously been at war during the last fifteen years. Some of these wars are still continuing, with no end in sight. It is estimated that the US has lost more than 5000 soldiers and spent around US$ seven trillion to fight these wars. Tens of thousands of US soldiers have been injured, straining the social and economic fabric of the country.
But these wars have also greatly benefited elements of the Deep State, who have made enormous amounts of money by selling weapons and other material needed to fight wars. “Follow the Money” is a useful dictum to identify these elements, for whom continuous warfare has become a way of life. And to sustain that, a powerful enemy is required.
It is here that Russia comes in. Since Putin came to power in 1999, Russia has slowly but steadily nursed its economy and military back to health. Russia's resurgence has upset the neocons and other members of the DS, who had gotten used to unfettered use of American military to invade countries and overthrow regimes, as mentioned above.
It was not a coincidence that Russia, and Putin personally, were strongly demonized by the DS during the US presidential campaign in 2016. Russia was accused of all types of subversion, including hacking the Democratic National Committee emails, hacking the elections themselves, and supporting Trump. Hillary Clinton’s campaign theme was that Trump was a Russian agent.
What is noteworthy is that not a shred of credible evidence was provided by Clinton or anyone else in the DS to support the above allegations. What was provided included fake news, unsubstantiated dossiers, and rumours. They failed to impress the voters, and Trump won the election by a comfortable margin.
But the matter did not end there. Humiliated by the defeat of its candidate Hillary Clinton in the election, the DS has launched a campaign to undermine Trump’s presidency, by promoting Russophobia and by portraying Russia and Putin as a threat to US security.
It was necessary to provide the above background in order to interpret Trump’s foreign policy moves since he took over as President. His policies relating to some major countries and issues will be analyzed.
First, Trump’s approach to Russia. During his election campaign, Trump had repeatedly said that he would work to normalize relations with Russia. He implied that Russia was not an enemy of the US, and could become a partner to find solutions to problems in certain countries.
In particular, Trump said that the US and Russia could jointly fight the ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. He suggested that since President Assad was also fighting the ISIS in Syria, dislodging him, or “regime change,” was not a priority.
Trump's attitude to Moscow flew in the face of what Hillary Clinton and the DS had been saying for a long time—that Russia was an enemy which had to be deterred by overwhelming military power. Trump’s detractors, therefore, could not accept his Russia Policy. They had to make sure that he did not abandon their hard line towards Moscow.
They did so by targeting Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor (NSA). On 9th Feb., the Washington Post carried a story claiming that Flynn had spoken on the phone to the Russian Ambassador to the US before Trump’s inauguration, and discussed US sanctions against Russia with him. It was also claimed that Flynn lied about the conversation to Vice President Pence.
Under intense media and Congressional pressure, Trump asked Flynn to resign, which he did on 13th Feb. The Deep State had claimed its first victim and shown Trump what it could do if he deviated from its Russia Policy. Though Flynn had not violated any US law and done nothing to compromise US security, he had to resign because Trump could not stand up to the DS and buckled under pressure.
But that was not the end of the matter. On 2nd March the Washington Post carried another story stating that Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions had spoken twice with the Russian Ambassador in 2016 when Sessions was a Senator and failed to disclose the same during his confirmation hearings.
This time Trump defended Sessions and said he had done no wrong, which was true. Trump even went on the offensive stating that the really important issue was the illegal leaking of secret information by US intelligence agencies to the media, which he asked the FBI to investigate. Trump also alleged on 4th March that President Obama had ordered wiretapping of his phones in Trump Tower ahead of the 2016 election.
After the attack on Flynn, Trump had realized that the final target of the DS was Trump himself. Flynn’s removal was the opening salvo, and the attack on Jeff Sessions was the second. Trump reluctantly accepted that he had to fall in line with the agenda of the DS on Russia, Syria, Ukraine, and other issues. Otherwise, the DS might try to remove him by impeachment, on charges of treason and conspiring with an enemy state.
Trump’s changed approach to Russia was reflected in his appointment on Feb. 20 of General H.R. McMaster as NSA, in place of Flynn. McMaster sees Russia as a “hostile revisionist power,” and does not support normalization of relation with that country. The appointment of McMaster has been widely seen as an attempt by Trump to placate his enemies in the Deep State; it also reflects his apprehension that if he does not do the bidding of the DS, he might end up like Flynn.
Trump has also proposed an increase in the Pentagon's budget by ten percent, amounting to about US$ 54 billion. That is equal to around eighty percent of Russia's entire military budget in 2015. The US expenditure on defense is about nine times that of Russia. These figures speak for themselves in the context of Russia's purported threat to the US.
It is, therefore, safe to predict that Trump will abandon his objective to normalize relations with Russia, at least in public. He will depict Russia as a threat to US security and act accordingly. Thus, in the recent past, US troops have been deployed in Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, while NATO troops have been sent to the Baltic states—all on Russia’s periphery. The White House has also asked Russia to “hand back Crimea to Ukraine.”
Second, US relations with China. Trump raised Chinese hackles by speaking on the phone to the Taiwanese President soon after he was elected. China protested vigorously, eliciting a dismissive reaction from Trump, who said there was nothing wrong in receiving a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese President. China saw Trump’s action as undermining the US’s “One China” policy.
During his confirmation hearings, US Secretary of State Tillerson said that China’s activities in the South China Sea were not acceptable to the US, which will respond if China violates international law in that area. That cannot have pleased the Chinese.
However, in the recent past, Trump has climbed down by reaffirming the US’s “One China” policy and avoided making statements that could annoy the Chinese. He seems to have grasped China’s importance globally, as well as the massive US economic stakes in that country.
Nevertheless, it would not be surprising if US-China relations witness turbulence during Trump’s tenure in office. China is also a designated enemy of the US Deep State because that helps increase the Pentagon’s budget. The more the number of US enemies, the better for the DS.
Third, Mexico. Trump had repeatedly promised during his election campaign that he would build a wall along the US-Mexico border to reduce illegal immigration from that country. What’s more, he had also said he would ask Mexico to pay for the wall. Another issue that he had raised was NAFTA, which, according to him, was hurting the US economy, and needed to be scrapped.
After assuming power Trump continued to repeat what he had said about the US-Mexico wall. This angered the Mexican President, who cancelled a scheduled visit to the US in end-January 2017. After that, Trump sent Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly to Mexico on 23rd Feb. for damage control and normalization of relations. It is safe to say, however, that US-Mexico relations under Trump will continue to witness turbulence because Trump is serious both about the wall as well as NAFTA.
Fourth, Israel. In his approach to that country, Trump is proving to be even more pro-Israel than Hillary Clinton, who was the candidate of the Jewish lobby in the US. Trump’s Israel Policy seems to be driven by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, whose wife Ivanka, Trump’s daughter, converted to Judaism before marrying Kushner. During his election campaign, Trump had said that he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in mid-Feb. 2017 to meet Trump. After their talks, Trump said that he would accept whatever the Israelis and the Palestinians decided between themselves— either a two or a one-state solution to the Palestinian issue. This was a significant departure from the official US and UN position on the issue—a two-state solution based on the land-for-peace formula.
By adopting the above position, Trump effectively washed his hands off the Israeli-Palestinian issue, leaving it to the Israelis to do whatever they liked, and abandoning the Palestinians to their fate. He has also sent a team of US officials to Israel to examine the feasibility of shifting the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as promised by him.
It is likely that during his presidency Trump will allow Israel to do what it wishes in the region, especially regarding the Palestinians, Syria, and Iran. That cannot be good for regional security.
Fifth, Iran. During his election campaign, Trump had repeatedly expressed his anti-Iran feelings and criticized the Iran nuclear deal engineered by Obama. On 6th March, Trump imposed a 90-day ban on travel to the US by Iranian nationals. As things stand, it would be safe to say that during his presidency, US-Iran relations will come under strain. His approach to Iran will also affect US policy in Syria.
Sixth, Syria. After becoming President, Trump has spoken about setting up “safe zones” in Syria which Obama had resisted because he did not want greater and direct US military involvement in that country. Trump has said that Syrian refugees should stay in “safe zones” in Syria, rather than migrating to Europe or America.
If Trump insists on setting up “safe zones” in Syria, significant numbers of US troops will have to be deployed in the country, in addition to the hundreds of US special forces already present in seven or eight bases in northern and eastern Syria. That would also increase the chances of a deliberate or inadvertent confrontation between the US and Russian forces, who are already present in the country.
Seventh, the European Union. Trump has taken steps to reassure the EU that the US commitment to NATO remains strong, though he insists that NATO members should contribute two per cent of their GDP to NATO’s budget. Whether he would be able to enforce that remains to be seen. Under Trump, US relations with EU are unlikely to be as close and warm as they were during Obama’s presidency. It is no secret that EU members would have been happier if Hillary Clinton were elected.
Eighth, immigration. Trump has linked his policy on immigration to the prevention of terrorism in the US. On 6th March, Trump signed an Executive Order banning travel to the US for 90 days by nationals of six Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Ironically, the US has been responsible for launching wars and destabilizing three of these countries—Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The travel ban from these countries could not be more hypocritical and unjust.
Ninth, international trade and globalization. Trump has promised to implement an “America First” policy which may clash with globalization and free trade. Soon after taking over, he scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and blamed NAFTA for migration of manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Trump’s top priority during his tenure would be to fulfill his promise of bringing manufacturing jobs back to America. If, in the process, free trade and globalization are undermined, so be it.
Finally, US-India relations. While campaigning, Trump spoke positively about India. The Indian diaspora in the US, particularly some Hindu community groups, organized fundraisers for Trump. He was quoted as saying: “ I am a big fan of Hindu and India. Under the Trump administration, we are going to be even better friends. In fact, I would say…we are going to be the best of friends. There won’t be a relationship more important to us.”
Trump phoned Indian Prime Minister Modi five days after he was sworn-in as President, and described India as a “true friend and partner in addressing the challenges of the world.”
However, Trump’s protectionist approach to trade may pose some problems for India, particularly regarding the H-1B visas, which are used by Indian software companies to send technical personnel for jobs in the US. It is possible that Trump may reduce the number of the visas or impose more stringent rules to obtain them. India has conveyed her concerns to the US side through various channels, and cannot do more than wait and see what Trump finally does. But it seems clear that he will give high priority to relations with India.
This is how Trump’s foreign policy looks at the moment. It is still early days, and things may play out differently. Only time will tell what actually happens.
[The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several countries including Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United States]