Issue 113:2017 07 13:Going steady (J.R.Thomas)

13 July 2017

Going Steady

Foreign policy on the hoof

by J.R.Thomas

Last week Eric Trump, second son of You-Know-Who, flew to Scotland to open the Trump Organisation’s new course at Turnberry in the south west of the country.  “We made Turnberry great again” said Mr Trump, referring to the remaking of one of Scotland’s top courses over the last three years, but using a tag line that the Trump family no doubt intends as its motto.  The Trump family are making lots of news at the moment – not just Eric, who turned up with a very pregnant wife to open the new course, but also his elder brother, Donald Junior, who has now remembered having a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the election campaign last year.  Mr Trump Jr, and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, both attended the meeting which was supposed to provide inside information on Hillary Clinton’s links to the Russians supporting her presidential bid; but no such information was forthcoming.  And so the meeting slipped his memory.

Mr Kushner’s wife Ivanka Trump was also causing waves in Hamburg this weekend when she sat in for her father at a side meeting at the G20.  It is not unusual for senior officials to sit in for their bosses in these sessions, but this has caused further accusations of nepotism in the White House; somewhat surprisingly as Ms Trump Kushner is officially First Daughter and a close adviser to her father and might be expected to fulfill this role. (Which leads to a pointless pondering as to how the three main European national leaders do not have a single offspring between them; but we will leave that one for the sociologists to consider.)

Meanwhile The Donald himself has been busy on one area of politics that few expected a Trump administration to take much interest in – not least because The Donald made clear that it was to be a low priority when he became President – that is, foreign affairs.  Mr Trump seems to be spending more time in Europe and the Middle East than in Washington at the moment, his latest long-haul trip being to Hamburg for the G20, which was accompanied by the traditional feasting and sluicing and rioting (the latter by Left wing protestors, we should make clear, not the magnificos at the well-laden tables).  Mr Trump preceded this by a visit to Poland where he was warmly welcomed – he spoke in Warsaw to a large and a very enthusiastic crowd.

But there was less warm enthusiasm for Mr Trump in Hamburg, either from his fellow attendees or from the largely hostile and wet crowds (extensive use of water cannon) in the streets.  The wet ones became increasingly annoyed with Mrs Merkel’s reaction to their traditional disruption (though it was the city authorities who sent in the water cannon) and Mrs M also got some pretty hostile media reporting for holding the G20 in such a notably left-wing city.  She, in a rare mistep, seemed to have decided that holding the hooley in Hamburg, her birthplace, would improve her election build-up; it seems likely to have done the opposite.  Mr Trump’s main interest seemed to be his meeting with Vladimir Putin, the first time they have actually met.  Their discussions apparently focused mainly on cyber security matters, during which Mr Trump twice pressed Mr Putin as to whether he had interfered in the US presidential contest.  Mr Putin said he didn’t and Mr Trump subsequently said he is willing to accept that.  It is difficult to see what else he could do – arm wrestling is rather ruled out on these occasions.  Still, Donald’s opponents back home were not happy, wanting some firmer actions than the Administration is contemplating, such as joint action on cyber crime. This went down especially badly with an unexpected dissident, Marco Rubio, now beginning to limber up for a run at the 2020 Presidential nomination, and an expected dissident, John McCain, who presumbly isn’t.

But there is a serious underlying message from Hamburg.  Mr Trump may be spending time outside the US, but when he turns up to these sort of events, he is there as at best a participant; perhaps almost as an observer.  He is not there in the role in which American Presidents have turned up at past global summits; as a world leader, as the President of the most powerful nation on earth.  We should not be too surprised by this.  His election campaign was predicated on changing America’s position in the world, ending her hyper-active role as ethical and moral leader, world policeman and rescue squad, but concentrating solely on what is good for America and Americans. (This, it should be pointed out, is the progression of a trend begun under President Obama.)  Hence the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, her increasingly go-it-alone stance on trade negotiations, the emphasis on each participant committing to fully fund NATO, and Trump’s relationship building with Putin.

A pattern is emerging here, of a sort.  Mr Trump clearly is not driven by much of a party political line.  He may be a Republican president, but he is semi-detached from the Republican Party.  He has certain core beliefs – he is pro-business and pro-low tax and pretty much anti-big government, but the general theme is pragmatism.  There is not in Mr T, though there is in many of his cabinet and advisors, a consistent body of philosophical belief, and it is that which keeps throwing his opponents off their stroke.  But his emotional responses, unfiltered and unshaped by a political philosphy, also confuse his friends – they never quite know how the President will respond to almost anything.

Relations with China are a case in point – orginally a close and friendly relationship with President Ji; then increasing hostility as the affairs of North Korea came more to the forefront.  Now, with a personal meeting between the two presidents, matters seem once again to be on a chummy level, though quite what China can do about her wildman neighbour remains obscure – the Chinese don’t want nuclear warheads in their skies, even if heading further east, nor do they want North Korean refugees trying to get across their borders.

It is a possibly Chinese (or it could be Russian) problem that is also driving another matter where the President’s potential response remains obscure.  Westinghouse, a great American engineering company, is in Chapter 11 (effectively pre-bankruptcy) because of financial problems in its nuclear engineering division, which has shared in the difficulties of its owner Toshiba, a Japanese corporation.  Not only are a lot of jobs at stake, but so potentially are major elements of the American nuclear business – all four of the power stations under construction in the US, and the giant Moorside in the north west UK, are effectively being built by Westinghouse.  Toshiba is attempting to scramble out from under all this and one option would be to sell Westinghouse.  Whatever the purely financial value of the business, there is a danger that a foreign competitor might see a strategic angle in controlling such important technology.  A Chinese one for instance, or a Russian one.  Even a profoundly freemarket supporting president might well want to protect such a business, and it is assumed that Mr Trump would take the same stance, but nobody is quite sure.  All that is known is that intensive conversations are going on.  And a lot of lobbying.

This is not a Presidency as we conventionally understand them.  Each issue is being dealt with on its own terms.  How a major crisis, if and when one emerges, will be dealt with is far from clear; even such issues as the amendment of the healthcare regime and the construction of that wall are waiting resolution.  That does not seem to be deterring the electorate, as witnessed by the recent by-election in South Carolina which returned a pro-Trump (“America First”) Republican – after a hard fought and very expensive (on both sides) campaign.  So for the time being it is still about Making America Great Again; business as unusual you might say.


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