Donald Trump’s mood swings dangerous for world

The president has discarded the US’s traditional foreign policy by antagonising allies, cosying up to enemies, and then flip-flopping on a whim, writes John Lloyd.

US president Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Picture: Pablo Martinez

US president Donald Trump doesn’t practice traditional diplomacy. As in domestic policy, but with a thicker fog of ignorance, Trump treats each issue of foreign policy or engagement as a separate event, and reacts to it according to his mood.

This behaviour is unlikely to change. If it does not, and Mr Trump’s presidency continues, the world, including the important part of it he governs, will become more dangerous.

The considerable good that Americans do abroad will shrink. And the rule-based systems that the US seeks to police will decay and be replaced with more regional and national confrontations and with more failed states.

Mr Trump’s shifting moods have produced several notable flip-flops. Most prominent has been Russia, in part because he praised its president, Vladimir Putin, again and again, from mid-2013 to February this year.

That stopped after the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack in early April, when Mr Trump promised retaliation and switched from admiration to distrust of Russia, Syria’s main ally.

It was a double switch — on Russia, but also on his non-intervention policy. Mr Trump ordered a missile strike on the base from which the Syrian planes staged their attack. He had vowed not to intervene in foreign quarrels, and had appeared indifferent about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.

During his election campaign, Mr Trump criticised China for manipulating currency and for destroying US industry with cheap imports, but changed his tone after an apparently friendly weekend with Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mr Trump’s Florida resort.

He had grumbled before meeting Mr Xi that relations between the two countries had to be radically adjusted. After the meeting, and after receiving some encouragement for his view that China would put pressure on a North Korea threatening nuclear war, Mr Trump shifted once more, asking rhetorically why he would be rude to China on currency manipulation, when it was assisting him on North Korea.

For some in the foreign-policy establishment, hostility toward Russia and cautious overtures to China were a return to the natural order, underpinned by the president’s discovery that Nato was not obsolete after all.

There’s something in that view: Russia was never going to remain a favoured nation of America for long and, as early as his January meeting with British prime minister Theresa May, Mr Trump had appeared to agree when she told journalists that he was “100%” behind Nato. But to say he’s become a “normal” foreign-policy president is a stretch.

The basis of mainstream US diplomacy has historically been a warm attitude toward traditional, close allies, cool-to-aggressive toward opponents, and sometimes critical of authoritarian states with which business can or must be done.

These postures are full of moral gulches and vast hypocrisies — many were exposed in Wikipedia’s publication of US state department cables — but everyone knows how the game is played. Mr Trump isn’t like that. He makes no secret of his dislike of some close allies and appears to admire, rather than tolerate, authoritarian leaders.

In their first White House meeting, Mr Trump pressed German chancellor Angela Merkel, the US’ most important European ally, to meet Nato’s military spending target, and, in an awkward quip, repeated his claim that he had been wiretapped by the Mr Obama administration.

He abruptly terminated his call with Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, after Mr Turnbull asked Mr Trump to honour the Obama-era commitment to take 1,000 migrants from an Australian detention camp.

Mr rump received Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, more politely, but a few weeks later blamed Canada for trade violations. He held Ms May’s hand as they walked through the White House colonnade, but soon after criticised her secret services for spying on him, with no proof on which to base such a colossal charge.

By contrast, Mr Trump relished the first-round success of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, whose political lineage is racist, anti- Semitic, contemptuous of Muslims, and intent on isolating France from both the EU and the global economy.

He congratulated Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the narrow, and possibly manipulated, victory in a referendum on increasing Mr Erdogan’s power. This will likely lead to Mr Erdogan arresting and detaining more government officials, military officers, journalists, and academics.

Mr Trump treated Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi like a long-lost friend, though Mr Sisi is much more brutal with internal enemies than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was (Mr Sisi helped remove Mr Mubarak.)

Mr Trump’s attitude to his southern neighbour, Mexico, has alienated the country’s political class. President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled a visit to Washington, as Mr Trump repeated his campaign promise to build a wall between the two countries and to deport millions of Mexicans deemed to be illegal immigrants.

This is not mainstream diplomacy. It is, to adapt the president’s customary designation of the press, lamestream diplomacy: Lamed by lack of strategy, experience, and, often, common politeness, his preferences proceeding from a worldview that prizes displays of strength and is contemptuous of liberal allies.

Will this change? Of course, and in every which way. Flip-flops, switches, and change make up the one unchanging theme of Mr Trump’s diplomacy.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow

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