With each passing day president Donald J. Trump and his close advisers continue to dismantle the scaffoldings of the post-war world order his Republican and Democratic predecessors have invested a lot of blood, sweat, treasure and good will to build.
The seventy-year-old complex system of alliances, international institutions, and regional trade deals, which was undergirded by liberal democratic values, market economy and the rule of law, is being challenged by an insurgent presidency the likes of which the American republic has never seen. President Trump’s decisions, mostly by theatric signings of Executive Orders (EO), his speeches, interviews as well as his morning salvos of tweets, confirm a dogged determination to ignore, disrupt and undermine traditional values and principles that have guided American diplomacy for generations, as well as the accepted standards of international interaction, and long held commitments and assumptions about friends and foes.
President Trump and some of his closest confidants such as Stephen Bannon his chief strategist (who is emerging as the single most influential aide to Trump) and Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, have already exhibited signs of a bunker mentality barely two weeks into Trump’s age of uncertainty. The nations of this Hobbesian world are solitary, nasty and brutish. The motto “it is a nasty world out there” summarizes Trump’s view of international relations. Everything is strictly transactional. Friends, allies and foes are in constant flux. President Trump and Stephen Bannon are opportunist Republicans, that is they are using the Republican party’s apparatus to serve their goals as nationalist, nativist ideologues.
Presidents are always tempted to concentrate executive power in their hands while relying on a small clique of trusted advisors, and only rarely including in this exclusive group the heads of the other major departments. This is more so in the Trump administration. Most decisions involving national security and foreign affairs were taken and framed by the president and his few trusted men, chiefly Bannon, Flynn, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior advisor Stephen Miller.
None of the five men had served in any political capacity before. The political and legal storm generated by the EO temporarily suspending the entry of all refugees, closing the gates to Syrian refugees, declaring a limited “Muslim ban” from seven majority Muslim countries, is a case in point. The heads pf the major departments and agencies relevant to the implementation of the EO, that is Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson were not fully briefed.
The “Muslim ban”, that Trump promised in various forms during the campaign, and putting Iran “on notice” because of its provocative ballistic test and aggressive regional behavior, along with the two “tough” and uncharacteristically blunt telephone calls Trump had with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto brought to the fore all the issues and threats that animate this administration and that are at the core of its world-view : radical Islam, immigration/refugees and trade. When Trump realized during his call with the Australian PM that he would have to honor an agreement reached with the Obama administration to resettle 1,250 refugees at two Australian centers, he shouted at him “this is the worst deal ever,”.
Trump accused the leader of the country that fought alongside America in most of its wars in a century, that Australia will be exporting the “next Boston bombers” to America. The conversation with Mexican President Peña Nieto was equally angry, because Mexico refuses to pay for the construction of the infamous wall. Trump complained about the drug cartels, and said that of the Mexican government cannot reign in those bad “hombres”, he is willing to dispatch American troops to do so.
The various EO’s signed so far are designed to assure president Trump’s base that he is addressing these national security threats, by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), beginning the process of building the wall along the borders with Mexico to stem the entry of illegal immigrants, and to stop the resettlement of refugees from Syria, with the ultimate and still unspoken goal of placing severe restrictions on immigrants/refugees from Arab, Muslim and African states. Walls will be built, bans will be imposed, and trade barriers will be erected, as the underpinning of the isolationist and xenophobic concept of “America First”.
Trump’s America will pursue its economic interests regardless of common political interests or shared values. Deals will be struck based on their utility and if they serve America’s economic interests strictly and regardless of any other considerations such as respect for human rights. Throughout his campaign, and since his election, president Trump, unlike his successors, never invoked respect for human rights and the values of liberal democracy overseas as fundamental principles in America’s foreign policy. President Trump, who has business interests in many parts of the world, is nonetheless very weary of the world.
He sees many of America’s allies as freeloaders exploiting America’s generosity and benevolence. These astonishing and baseless claims were at the heart of his inaugural speech. “For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We've defended other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own.”
On Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast Trump spoke as if America is a hapless third rate state being ravaged by wolves; and not the country with the largest economy in the world and possessing the most powerful military in history; “we're taking advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It's not going to happen anymore”. From this prism the world is a dark and dangerous place; “the world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways. And I've never seen it so much and so openly as since I took the position of president…” In this harsh world even old allies like Australia and Mexico should not expect deferential treatment. Trump assured his audience, “when you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. Just don't worry about it. They're tough. We have to be tough. It's time we're going to be a little tough folks.”
Trump used this tough approach towards the European allies too. For many years he exhibited a jaundiced view of the NATO alliance which he sees as “obsolete” and an economic burden on the U.S. since various members have been reducing their military budgets. Trump is dismissive of the European Union because he sees it as a competitor to the U.S. He once accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of using the EU as a “vehicle” to serve German self-interest. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, EU officials are questioning the commitment of the U.S. to their security. One such official, Donald Tusk went as far as saying that the Trump administration poses a threat to the EU on a par with China, Russia and the wars and anarchy in the Middle East and Africa.
The motto “it is a nasty world out there” summarizes Trump’s view of international relations. Everything is strictly transactional. Friends, allies and foes are in constant fluxHisham Melhem
Enemies from the East
President Trump and his two senior advisors Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn share the same dark view of Islam as a religion and not merely of political Islam or the extremist terrorist groups like ISIS or al Qaeda. During his campaign Trump called for a complete ban on the entry of all Muslims to the U.S. He intoned once that “the hateful ideology of radical Islam should not be allowed to reside or spread within our own communities”. Trump inverts the issue by saying “ I think Islam hates us”.
For years, Bannon and Flynn have been peddling a vulgar version of the “clash of civilizations” thesis, claiming that Islam (without qualifications) and the West will engage in an apocalyptic struggle. In 2014, when ISIS forces were on a rampage in Iraq Bannon told a conference in Rome that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” He added “there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global”. On his radio show before he joined Trump’s campaign Bannon said “Islam is not a religion of peace…To be brutally frank, Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise”. He advocates taking a “very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam”. In another program Bannon asserts that we are indeed engaged in a “global existential war,” and he believes that a “fifth column” of Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media, without presenting any evidence.
National security advisor Michael Flynn, known for trafficking in fake news and peddling conspiracy theories such as Sharia Laws are being spread in America, claims that “we are in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam”. Last February Flynn tweeted: “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. He later said that “Islam is not necessarily a religion but a political system that has a religious doctrine behind it”.
In addition to his fear of Islam, Mr. Bannon is fixated on another foe from the East; China. When he was editor of Breitbart news, Bannon spoke frequently about the inevitable war between the U.S and China. President Trump has declared that “we already have a trade war with China”. Throughout the campaign candidate Trump had accused China of devaluing its currency.
On the hierarchy of nasty international economic actors, president Trump would most likely place China on the top. In recent years, China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, particularly building new islands by moving sediment from the seafloor to reefs, then turning them into airstrips and radar bases is very worrying. However, the economic competition with China remains the main threat to the U.S. as seen by the Trump administration. This rising tension with China, explains in part President Trump’s interest in improving relations with Russia, to balance China.
President Trump, has convinced himself that he can collaborate with Russia to fight his number one enemy in the Middle East, ISIS, even though Russia id not fight ISIS in Syria. Some see president Trump’s positive view of President Vladimir Putin as a function of past business transactions, but one could see other political reasons for a potential shift in the relations between the two countries. Stephen Bannon said in 2014 that the “Judeo-Christian West” could learn from Putin’s “traditionalism”. This view is in line with the views of some of the right wing anti-immigrants political movements in Europe that see Putin as the last
Christian white leader standing against what they see as waves of Muslim immigrants and refugees overwhelming the West.
Given the hostile views of Trump and his men towards Islam, it will be difficult to develop the much needed international and Middle Eastern alliances to defeat or at least contain the destructive, nihilistic variants of Islamist terrorist organizations that have wreaked havoc in the region. The belligerent nationalism of the Trump administration with its pronounced virulence against Muslims will overshadow relations between Washington and the majority Muslim states including those that are currently on good terms with the Trump administration.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem.