Trump emerges from the chaos with clearer global pol­icy agenda

The Australian - - WORLD - WAL­TER RUS­SELL MEAD

Don­ald Trump in­her­ited a world in cri­sis, with the Pax Amer­i­cana chal­lenged in Asia, the Mid­dle East, Europe and the Caribbean. To­day the White House has clear pri­or­i­ties — but ques­tions about tem­per­a­ment and com­pe­tence per­sist.

Think back 10 months to In­au­gu­ra­tion Day. North Korea was reg­u­larly test­ing and im­prov­ing its mis­siles and nu­clear weapons, well on its way to threat­en­ing the US main­land. China was in­ten­si­fy­ing its mul­ti­fac­eted chal­lenge to the Asian sta­tus quo. Iran’s ex­pan­sion­ism threat­ened to plunge the Mid­dle East into chaos, and the regime had out­ma­noeu­vred an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that was des­per­ate for a nu­clear deal. Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and sup­port for break­away forces in east­ern Ukraine pre­sented le­gal and geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges to the post-Cold War or­der. Venezuela’s pro­gres­sive degra­da­tion threat­ened to desta­bilise Latin Amer­ica, a re­gion of di­rect in­ter­est to the US.

Re­mem­ber, too, the US Pres­i­dent’s scep­ti­cism of global en­gage­ment. He came into of­fice con­vinced that US in­ter­ests were be­ing un­der­mined by the mul­ti­lat­eral trad­ing sys­tem, as es­tab­lished by the Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tions. He dis­dained the process en­shrined in last year’s Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

If all this weren’t enough, the in­com­ing team knew that the US pub­lic was in­creas­ingly scep­ti­cal of large over­seas com­mit­ments — whether to diplo­macy, for­eign aid or war. And the jour­nal­is­tic and for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ments vis­cer­ally op­posed Trump on per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal grounds. Tal­leyrand, Met­ter­nich, Bis­marck and Kissinger, work­ing to­gether, would have had a dif­fi­cult time man­ag­ing a port­fo­lio this large, ur­gent and un­wieldy. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has strug­gled vis­i­bly to de­velop a co­her­ent ap­proach. Yet as the Pres­i­dent’s first year nears its con­clu­sion, some or­der has be­gun to emerge, and at least the out­lines of a Trump global pol­icy now seem clear.

The first task was to set pri­or­i­ties, and it is ob­vi­ous that the White House is putting Asia and the Mid­dle East above other re­gions and is­sues. The crises in Ukraine and Venezuela are on the back burner. So are cli­mate and trade pol­icy, though the Pres­i­dent’s tweets some­times dis­guise this re­al­ity.

When ad­dress­ing its pri­or­i­ties, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has cho­sen an ac­tivist ap­proach, tight­en­ing re­la­tions with tra­di­tional al­lies to re­store re­gional or­ders un­der threat. This means check­ing Iran by work­ing closely with the untested new Saudi lead­er­ship, as well as Egypt, the United Arab Emi­rates and Is­rael.

This anti-Iran phase is be­gin­ning in earnest now that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s orig­i­nal goal of de­stroy­ing Is­lamic State’s so-called caliphate has been largely achieved. The White House also hopes the new con­stel­la­tion of forces will al­low progress on an­other goal: con­tain­ing and maybe even re­solv­ing the Is­raeli­Pales­tinian dis­pute.

In Asia the ad­min­is­tra­tion, work­ing closely with Ja­pan, is try­ing to as­sem­ble and strengthen a coali­tion to coun­ter­bal­ance China — while si­mul­ta­ne­ously seek­ing Chi­nese co-op­er­a­tion in tight­en­ing the screws on North Korea. The White House hopes that of­fer­ing Bei­jing a smooth trade and po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship will in­duce it to pro­vide real help with the North Korea prob­lem, even as the US works to per­suade the North Kore­ans that the risks of con­flict are real.

Trump’s for­eign pol­icy has so far turned out to be more con­ven­tional than his rhetoric and style would sug­gest. Work­ing with Amer­ica’s tra­di­tional al­lies in Asia and the Mid­dle East against those re­gions’ re­vi­sion­ist pow­ers hardly amounts to a strate­gic rev­o­lu­tion.

But if Trump’s goals are con­ven­tional, the state of the world is not. He may well fail. The chal­lenges are large, the learn­ing curve is steep, and the ter­rain is un­for­giv­ing. Al­lies and ad­ver­saries are watch­ing the Repub­li­can Party’s dis­ar­ray on is­sues such as health­care, as­sess­ing the prospects of a Demo­cratic wave in next year’s con­gres­sional elec­tions, and pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the progress of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump’s for­eign pol­icy, like his pres­i­dency over­all, is a gam­ble whose out­come the Pres­i­dent can­not fully con­trol.

For now Trump is per­form­ing a high­wire act, jug­gling his way across the Indo-Pak re­gion even as his ad­min­is­tra­tion pur­sues am­bi­tious goals in the Mid­dle East. Some of the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­tries hope he fails, and they will do what they can to trip him up. Amer­i­cans, re­gard­less of party or their per­sonal sen­ti­ments about Trump, should wish him suc­cess over­seas. The con­se­quences of fail­ure could be ex­treme. Wal­ter Rus­sell Mead is a fel­low at the Hud­son In­sti­tute and a pro­fes­sor of for­eign af­fairs at Bard Col­lege

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has cho­sen an ac­tivist ap­proach, tight­en­ing re­la­tions with tra­di­tional al­lies to re­store re­gional or­ders un­der threat

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