We thought that we had become blasé with Donald Trump’s obnoxious tweets, his bluster and bullying, the insouciant way with which he is wrecking America’s alliances and destroying its credibility. We were wrong. The recent string of events in Washington have shown that there can always be something worse expected from the actions of the US President.
The abrupt decision to withdraw the US forces from Syria that prompted the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and of the US Envoy to the coalition against ISIS, was not only a reversal of policy coming as a shock for decision-makers in the administration and the Congress, but also for the US allies in Syria and a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds who had relied on American support and are now exposed to the offensive of the Turkish forces against them that will follow the US withdrawal. Iran and Russia — whose expansionist ambitions the Trump administration pretends to fight — must still wonder by which miracle this golden gift, handing them the full control of Syria and a reinforcement of their position in the Middle East, has been bestowed on them.
As this was not enough, the announcement of the President intent to reduce the US troops in Afghanistan could not have come at a worst moment, as American diplomats had resumed discussions with the Taliban to revive a peace process in the country. So, the US President managed in just a few days to strengthen the hands not only of Moscow and Tehran, but also of the Hezbollah, ISIS and the Taliban, three major sources of terrorism threat against America. Even some of the staunchest supporters of Mr Trump in the Republican Party are aghast at his latest initiatives.
This chaos in the foreign policy domain, driven by the most primary forms of isolationism, is mirrored on the domestic and economic fronts by another kind of chaos driven by an outsized ego and the spoiled child-like abusive impulses of a man not able to accept that there could be limits to his power. The damages that the US economy is beginning to feel because of the sanctions against China which were aimed to “punish” Beijing; the havoc and uncertainties created by the shutdown of the government by a President who could not bear that the Congress would refuse to fund a Wall which, he had promised, Mexico would pay for; the increasing worry about the negative economic impact of an exploding national debt now at $21trillion generated in part by an unnecessary fiscal stimulus; the concerns about American monetary policy created by the incessant criticism from the President of the Federal Reserve and rumours that he was looking at ways to sack its Chairman, Jerome Powell (which he cannot do); these actions and tweets — and repeated displays of utter ignorance about some economic realities — are contributing heavily to the angst of an increasingly jittery business and financial community, reflected by the worst December for the US Stock Market since the Great Depression — with all other financial places following suit.
The US President is now unbound by the departure of James Mattis, the last remaining wise voice in his cabinet who could delay, mitigate or put under the carpet some rash initiatives. He is under increasing pressure from the investigation of the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller closing in on the possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian interferences; he is on the defensive and furious as the House of Representatives will now be controlled by the Democratic Party and has the means not only to block some policies and initiatives but to launch very embarrassing investigations on, for instance, the finances and taxes of the president.
The combination of these factors is likely to create an even more volatile and unpredictable context as Mr Trump might very plausibly be tempted to create some diversions with new initiatives meant to show to his base how strong a president he is and how he does not hesitate to take blunt measures on issues where his predecessors did not dare to do so.
What does that mean for 2019? On the American domestic front, we have to expect an even confrontational political environment, with deadlock on policy-making areas where the House of Representatives can institutionally have a decisive say. At this writing, it looks for instance, that the government shutdown could possibly go beyond the first week of 2019 as the President is digging his heels on making the budget hostage of the funding of the Wall between the US and Mexico - with increasing negative repercussions on the economic life of the country.
On the international front, America’s international allies in Europe, Japan, Korea and South East Asia are bound to accelerate the strategic reassessment of how to protect their interests in a global environment where they cannot any more rely on their relationship with a United States which has ceased being the anchor it had been for the last 70 years. Nobody has forgotten in Tokyo and Seoul that candidate Trump had threatened to renege on the US-Japan and US-Korea defense treaties if the US did not get more money from these countries. And the same applies to Nato.
One can expect Vladimir Putin looking for how – beyond Syria and the Middle East – he can exploit America’s disorderly retreat to push his agenda for the restoration of Russia as a global super-power. In that respect, the tactical rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing will become even more pronounced as the two countries see now an opportunity for definitely closing the era where America was able to shape global events.
Watching the recent upheavals in Washington, one possible conclusion President Xi Jinping might draw is that the chances of a compromise with the Trump administration keep declining. An isolationist America rejecting any multilateral framework, with a dubious record about the reliability of its pronouncement and commitments, and whose approach to any problem or conflict boils down to bullying the other party to make it capitulate, does not incite to get to the negotiating table.
The kind of concessions that China might be ready to consider will not suffice to Donald Trump and the people around him primarily interested at sustaining America’s technological and geopolitical supremacy and containing China. However, the train has already left the station when it comes to China’s rise. If US measures can certainly cause difficulties and additional problems to the Chinese leadership and even slow down the country’s advances, this is now a rear-guard battle that will render more difficult the search of a modus vivendi between two super-powers condemned to find the way for a mutually beneficial interaction if they don’t want to self-destruct and the rest of the world with them.
Many in Washington and other capitals in Europe and Asia must today consider either with glee or angst that, with such a President, America does not need an enemy.
The writer is President of Smadja & Smadja, a Strategic Advisory Firm. @ClaudeSmadja