President Donald Trump has made significant changes in traditional US foreign policy positions in some areas since assuming office in January this year. In other instances, he threatened to make modifications, only to revert to time-tested US policies. Where he departed completely from the tradition of his predecessors was in his communication style.
Trump revels in being direct and abrasive, showing little regard to either sobriety of language or consistency. As behoves those who hold the most important office in the international system, earlier presidents chose their words with care and caution to ensure that they faithfully reflected their, and therefore, US policy positions on global issues. They showed an awareness that imprecision and careless use of language could cause misunderstandings and give rise, especially at critical times, to political and economic turbulence in different parts of the world, if not impair global stability.
Not Trump. He could not be bothered if his words spread confusion, dismay and despair. Indeed, it has seemed that he often sought to use contradictory and intemperate language as negotiating tactics. This may have been part of his 'art of the deal' in business, but it is much too dangerous in diplomacy, especially at the rarefied level of the group of global leaders who anchor the international system. Among them, the US President is first among equals.
As the world endured Trump's manner of conducting diplomacy through this year, it will have to do so through his term, for there is no way he will change. And now, from style to substance.
Trump has taken his most decisive and potentially far-reaching foreign policy decisions in West Asia. He has gone against the policy of achieving some balance between the Israelis and the Palestinians and Obama's leaning towards neutrality between the Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran. The latter policy position emerged after Obama reached the nuclear deal with Iran. On the issue of Islamist terror, Trump has shed all inhibitions, such as seeking to prevent offending the larger body of moderate Muslims. The policy of naming Islamic countries in his decision to put curbs on immigration has been part of the same disregard for worldwide Muslim opinion.
Trump would have been aware that his decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital would provoke great anger among Muslims everywhere but most in West Asia. He did so only after he had co-opted the new Saudi leadership and some other Sunnis by adopting a stridently assertive anti-Iran stand and threatening to reverse the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has openly sided with the Sunnis and thus has reduced them to making proforma statements on the Jerusalem issue. At the same time, he has as yet taken no actual step on the nuclear deal but is boxing Iran in through a revival of sanctions against it. All in all, though, the Jerusalem recognition can have a long-term hardening of Arab and Muslim opinion, making the Palestinian issue more intractable.
After all the threats to the North Korean leadership to wipe it off the face of the earth, Trump has reverted to diplomacy to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile provocations. Trump's bluff and bluster did not make any impression on Kim Jong-un who remained intransigent, secure in the knowledge that his capability to inflict unacceptable damage on South Korea and Japan would hold Trump's hand. The US continues to maintain that all options remain on the table, but this position worries US allies more than it does Kim. China holds the key to Kim's behaviour and, notwithstanding all its claims, it does not seem willing to put a real squeeze on him. One result of the continuing stand-off may be Japan shedding its inhibitions on the nuclear front.
Trump wanted to give up America's confrontationist approach towards Russia. In this, he would have made a big break with US's policy towards President Vladimir Putin. However, the ongoing investigations into Russian interference, implicitly on Trump's behalf, in the US presidential elections have made it impossible for him to adopt more conciliatory positions towards Russia. This has strategic global implications, for the West's continuing negativity has prevented any dilution of the Russia-China relationship.
Like his immediate predecessors, Trump's greatest foreign policy predicament comes from the rise of China. This has been further accentuated by the consolidation Xi Jinping's power. Here, too, the sharp rhetoric of Trump the candidate has given way to the more sober assessments in line with past US policy. Thus, while the containment of China is a US objective and for this purpose relationships with major Asian states, including India, are being strengthened, no adventurous steps in the economic or commercial areas have been taken. The fact is, neither the US nor China can take any negative steps in these sectors without major damage to each other and the global economy.
Of immediate relevance to India was Trump's policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia, which he announced personally in August. In a complete departure from his basic instinct to withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump decided that US forces will remain in Afghanistan as long as they were needed. Thus, he set no deadlines. He also demanded that Pakistan should close the Taliban sanctuaries and threatened action, although unspecified, if it did not do so. More significantly, he openly asked India to enhance its economic profile in Afghanistan. The last point angered the Pakistanis the most. It initially reacted with apprehension and anger, but as the weeks passed it engaged the US. Now, though the US demands on the Taliban safe havens are being reiterated in forceful language, its policies on the ground appear more and more like they have been for the past 15 years.
On the Paris Accord, vital to the future of the planet, Trump kept his campaign promise and announced US withdrawal from the intergovernmental agreement. He claimed that his decision was in keeping with his 'America First' policy.
All US presidents since World War II have attempted to be leaders of the world while securing American national interests. Trump is obviously content in abandoning the US presidency's global leadership ambitions.
(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)