Playing a New Tune
Will he or won’t he succeed as the next US President?
The U.S. President-elect, Donald Trump, recently caused quite a stir in the media with his overly enthusiastic comments in a congratulatory phone call from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. Trump’s characteristic style of communication that digresses from traditional diplomacy expected of a president, was a complete surprise to the Pakistani premier. Sharif promptly released a transcript of the call to the local media as proof of his own popularity with the incoming American leader.
The transcript quickly hit headlines worldwide despite some skepticism surrounding its accuracy. Apparently, during the call Trump praised the “amazing country” of Pakistan with “one of the most intelligent people,” and offered to help resolve regional conflicts, saying that he is “willing and ready to play any role” that Pakistan wants “to address and find solutions to outstanding problems.” Since the India-Pakistan Kashmir dispute has been the largest flashpoint of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours for decades, the offer was interpreted in Pakistan as validation of the Pakistan position. The local media reported a rise in optimism and goodwill in the Pakistani citizenry towards the incoming U.S. President. However, a careful analysis would find this optimism to be misplaced at best and resting on a simplistic world view removed from actual geo-political realities, or mere wishful thinking.
The 2016 U.S. election campaign has come to be known as the most divisive campaign in American history that forced voters to choose between two highly disliked candidates and also brought to light the changing priorities of the American electorate. After eight years of President Obama, they seemed ready for change again for a variety of reasons too complicated to write about here. Race, security and economics topped the list and Donald Trump emerged successful in swaying enough voters to his vision.
From the beginning, Trump defied popular polls and pundits and secured Republican nomination with ease. Then, he calmly bagged the election win, dashing the hopes of the first female presidential candidate of a major party and former First Lady and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Despite losing popular vote to the Democratic nominee by the reported 3 million in the highest ever loss for any president-elect in U.S. history, Donald Trump was declared to be the rightful 45th President-elect of the United States in accordance with the rules of the U.S. Electoral System and is set to take office on January 20, 2017.
Throughout the campaign year, the President-elect was accused of running an aggressive and divisive campaign by his opponents. His many controversial statements against fellow Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds, his proposal of creating a Muslim registry (considered reminiscent of Nazi Germany) and of imposing a temporary ban on Muslims from entering the country, mocking a disabled reporter who disagreed with him, using degrading language for women while advocating punishment for those seeking abortion and his support for the use of torture in interrogation did not endear him to many Americans with a different vision of their country.
His persistent refusal to make his tax returns public, and his alleged use of loopholes to avoid paying taxes for 18 years made him an even more controversial candidate. He even cast doubt on the country’s own election system with allegations of expected rigging and voter fraud, and sought to undermine intelligence agencies’ capability to do their job when they questioned Russia’s role in hacking and possibly influencing the election outcome. However, none of this was enough to dissuade his loyal supporters of whom Trump had famously declared in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Not surprisingly then, his approval rating continues to rise and is reported in some polls to be higher now than anytime during the campaign.
Donald Trump had established himself as the unpredictable candidate devoid of political correctness early on and continues to proudly own that label. He picks spats on twitter with critics and communicates directly with his millions of followers on seemingly inconsequential issues. He has even claimed to not need daily intelligence briefings considered routine for any president-elect because he thinks he is “really smart” – earning him criticism from the former CIA head, Leon Panetta: “Trump has no experience or background in government, foreign policy, national security, or counterterrorism…” and should find time for the briefings. Even President Obama remarked that governing well came down to being well-informed and not being smart.
The international and local media that have covered Trump extensively for years are still trying to understand his real position on various issues. Since he has been in the public eye for decades, his previous and changing views are documented in detail and have been discussed Yet, Trump’s plans as future president and Leader of the Free World may be in some ways as much a mystery even now as they were over a year ago. His proposals during the campaign were accused of lacking specificity and relying more on grandstanding rhetoric. His communications team regularly appeared to face the unenviable prospect of trying to explain and sometimes explain away what came to be known as his ‘flipflops.’
However, as Donald Trump continues to apply unconventional methods in his dealings keeping the media and his opponents forever guessing his true intent, it is clear that as a long time reality TV star he is incredibly savvy about using information to his advantage and taking risks for ratings whenever he deems necessary. His critics think such risk-taking and disregard for consequences makes for good reality TV, but one requires a different set of critical thinking skills while interacting on the international level: his friendly overtures towards Russia, criticism of NATO, and opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal have sent off alarm bells for many US allies directly affected by his positions. His foreign policy shifts became evident with the congratulatory call he took from the Taiwanese President that marked a change from decades of US position on one-China policy. His cabinet picks also indicate an attempt to challenge established positions of the out-going administration. The selection of Rex Tillerson who received a medal of freedom from Putin as Secretary of State has been highly controversial, just as choosing David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel deemed an equally unpopular choice for his hardline stance on the two-state solution to Israel-Palestine conflict.
It is in this context that the phone
Trump’s plans as future president and Leader of the Free World may be in some ways quite a mystery.
call between Donald Trump and Nawaz Sharif begs review. To be sure, the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan is a cause of continued tension between the two countries and though India strongly opposes it, Pakistan would welcome any mediation from the United States. To this end, it is easy to fall prey to optimism of finding a solution through involvement of the highest office of the world’s most powerful country, and many Pakistanis may choose to retain that illusion. However, others are of the opinion that Trump’s friendly overtures towards Pakistan may simply be attributed to his characteristic refusal to play by traditional rules of diplomacy and lack of regard or understanding of regional geopolitical intricacies due to his lack of experience in governance. There appears to be little chance of Trump actually going ahead with his offer and offending India, another nuclear power and a country where he has strong business interests. He has openly called himself a “friend” to the Indian people. His previous position on Pakistan also serves as a reminder: in 2012 Trump had tweeted: “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect – and much worse. #TimeToGetTough”.
It would be in Pakistan’s interest to keep a wait-and-see approach. For the sake of the optimists among us, the best case scenario would be that the President-elect keeps his word to Sharif, and finds value in helping to resolving this simmering conflict once for all. He is known to defy expectation and could very well be ready to surprise us all yet again. For now, to his compatriots and to the rest of the world, the new occupant of the Oval Office and his world view shall both remain a mystery.