There is a saying in the worlds of politics and business that most people who come to prominence are those who in defeat bear malice and in victory seek revenge. It is therefore unsurprising that President Donald Trump displays both characteristics in international as well as domestic affairs, although his targets vary erratically between friend and foe. His near-psychotic concentration on achieving the destruction of Iran is understandably malicious and revengeful, given the nature of the man, but his latest exhibitions of would-be superiority involve allies, which even for Trump is dramatically misguided.
The Trumpian United States has few friends, mainly because in his two years in the White House Trump has gone out of his way to belittle, demean and insult long-standing partners and antagonise those who may have been considering seeking closer ties with Washington.
His announcement last December that “America is respected again” was wide of the mark, because, unfortunately, America has become a global joke — but a dangerous joke whose president may be a raving booby, but is still powerful and appears intent on upsetting what little tranquillity remains in this turmoil-stricken world.
One recent diatribe was unprecedented in length, vulgarity and volatility. When he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2 he set a new low for absurdity in what the commentator Stephen Colbert described as being an “epically weird” harangue which The Atlantic said was the longest presidential oration in history. Moving on from this bizarre performance, Trump turned to international affairs and, as Politico reported on March 5, “kicked India and Turkey out of a decades-old US program that allows developing countries to export thousands of goods to the United States without paying duties,” in a scheme known as the Generalized System of Preferences or GSP.
The reasons given by the US Trade Representative for Trump’s orders were that India had failed “to provide the United States with assurances that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors” while “Turkey’s termination from the GSP follows a finding that it is sufficiently economically developed and should no longer benefit from preferential market access to the United States market.”
In the case of India, Washington has been trying for years to wean India away from its defence and trade association with Russia, concurrent with encouraging it to join the Pentagon in confronting China. The US Defence Department stated in September 2018 that “A decade ago, US arms sales to India amounted to virtually nothing. Today, the United States is the second-largest arms supplier to India, and US officials say they hope to increase that business,” and the US focus on China has resulted in stronger military ties, with a joint statement last December indicating the intention “to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation as a key pillar of the strategic partnership between India and the US.”
Washington has been intensifying its confrontation with China in the South China sea, where in addition to overflights by nuclear-capable bombers it conducts what are absurdly called “freedom of navigation patrols” in waters where there has never been a single case of interference with any of the vast number of merchant ships that pass though every year. The rationale is given as support for the Convention on the Law of the Sea which, most ironically, Washington refuses to ratify. Nevertheless, the US has been trying hard to persuade the Indian government that it should contribute warships to join US patrols in the South China Sea, which, so far, India has refused to do. So it might be thought that the Trump Administration would do its best to encourage India to buy more US weapons and to cooperate in its anti-China antics (however unwise that would be) by keeping their relationship friction-free. But this isn’t the way Trump works.
Washington’s unfortunate timing of the announcement that it will penalise India in trade arrangements extends to India’s domestic circumstances, because there are national elections due in April, and the party of Prime Minister Modi (an arch-nationalist and no mean war-drummer himself) was already having difficulties, and is looking shakier day-by-day. Indeed the whole bizarre affair was well summed-up by Professor Harsh Pant of King’s College London when he said “the discourse in this country has been that America needs India to balance China, and the question will be: Why is America doing this to India?”
But there doesn’t seem to be a sensible answer to that question.
The same holds for Washington’s treatment of NATO ally Turkey, whose President said on February 26 that Ankara might buy the US Patriot missile system “if you [the US] provide us good conditions.” But it’s blindingly obvious that the US declaration that Turkey “should no longer benefit from preferential market access to the United States market” is not going to make President Erdoğan keen on buying Patriot missiles — or anything else stamped “made in the USA.”
There is a Russia factor in the US-Turkey relationship, because Ankara has placed an order for world-beating S-400 surface-to-air missiles, which has riled Washington, as has India’s forthcoming acquisition of the same system. The Military-Industrial Establishment in Washington made its feelings known on March 8, when chief Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers told reporters that “If Turkey takes the S-400, there would be grave consequences in terms of our relationship, military relationship with them.” But this doesn’t seem to worry President Erdoğan, who had already made it clear that “The S-400 is a done deal, there can be no turning back. We have reached an agreement with the Russians. We will move toward a joint production. Perhaps after the S-400, we will go for the S-500.”
The signals are that Turkey is moving further away from the US and is possibly considering leaving NATO. After all, the US has torn up favourable trade arrangements, and NATO has done nothing for Turkey which is working with Russia in many spheres. The most recent example of regional military cooperation was on March 6-8 when four Turkish and Russian vessels conducted a minor exercise in the Black Sea, aimed at demonstrating and sharing techniques involved in mine-avoidance.
Trust is fostered by cooperation based on preparedness to understand differing viewpoints. Even more importantly, it is stimulated by adopting pragmatic policies aimed at establishing confidence, rather than by ceaselessly confronting and confounding others. For so long as Trump considers that “Make America Great Again” depends on confrontation and malevolence then his country will achieve neither trust nor cooperation world-wide. And when he casts allies aside with sneering condescension, taking revenge for what he considers to be unwarranted favouritism in the past, he is destroying America’s path to Greatness.
A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on March 12.