TP O’Mahony.


Donald Trump threatens to repeat US errors on world stage

US domestic and economic policy are likely to change utterly now Donald Trump is in power, but his foreign policy remains a mystery, writes TP O’Mahony.

Donald Trump threatens to repeat US errors on world stage

If Noam Chomsky was right when he said, after George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, that America was the greatest threat to world peace, then that threat may have just increased twenty-fold.

Donald Trump’s triumph creates a nightmarish scenario, one whose contours and repercussions we can only guess at. A loose cannon, a vain, unpredictable man, will soon occupy the Oval Office, pledging to “put America first” and “make America great again”.

It was left to Margaret Beckett, who became Britain’s first female foreign secretary in 2006, to tell it like it is last week on Sky News after Trump’s election: “He is a vile, horrible man, a man who constantly tells lies.”

That’s the reality, and it is foolish to think that a stint in the White House will result in a character transplant — not with a man as self-obsessed as the president-elect.

The one thing that was indisputably proven by the Trump-Clinton contest for the White House was that racism and misogyny are on the rise, and that rise seems certain to be accentuated now.

That’s on the domestic front, and the protests we have already witnessed in several American cities may be a portent of things to come. One of the factors fostered by the extremist rhetoric of the Trump campaign was white nationalism, which is essentially racist. Even 150 years after the end of the American Civil War — which abolished slavery — race is never far from the surface of American politics.

Worrying as all of that is, the far greater worry is in the field of foreign policy, where the potential for international conflict is acute. Today, American power and influence are being challenged on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the break-up of the USSR.

There were warnings during the bitter presidential campaign about the risks of giving Trump control of the nuclear button — outgoing president Barack Obama declared him unfit to be president — but all of that went unheeded. And so last Thursday the president welcomed the president-elect to the White House.

Soon Trump will sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, and if political leaders elsewhere are concerned and uneasy, if not fearful, they have every reason to be. The foreign policy establishment in Washington DC — and Trump will be at the centre of this — has long been in thrall to the doctrine of manifest destiny. This is the deeply embedded belief in American exceptionalism, the conviction that the US is “God’s own country”.

The history of manifest destiny can be traced back to the pilgrims who arrived from England in the 17th century in ships such as the Mayflower to settle in the New World. On one such ship, the Arbella, as it approached the East coast of America in 1630, John Winthrop preached a sermon in which he proclaimed that the new community he and his fellow puritans were about to establish would become “a shining city on a hill”, watched by the whole world.

In his book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy, William Pfaff says that “America from the start was assumed to be a fixed foundation, part of God’s fixed plan”.

Basing a foreign policy agenda on a conviction that God is on your side is inherently dangerous (Bush believed God wanted him to invade Iraq — a decision that has had catastrophic consequences, making it the worst American folly since the needless war in Vietnam).

According to the US imperial model that emerged in the 20th century, presidents were entitled to authorise aggressive international intervention — even military pre-emption — in order to eliminate obstacles to the Washington vision of the future.

Pfaff writes: “The American conception of Manifest Destiny, originally seen as transcontinental expansion, has been recast since the time of Woodrow Wilson as the creation of a world order that is nominally pluralistic but under ultimate American leadership — which, it is taken for granted, would be welcome to nearly all.”

By the early 20th century, America had embraced “a political ideology based on faith in universal human progress toward democracy, validating the superiority of American institutions, ideas, and practices”.

The imperialism that this has bred was frighteningly expressed by after sanctioning the invasion of Iraq: “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defence of our great nation.”

As Pfaff, who was, like Chomsky, a stern critic of the US’s imperial ways, emphasised, successive American presidents have consider it their right and duty to use all means to promote “the American project to bring democracy to a recalcitrant world”.

There is immense hypocrisy here, of course, because when democracy yields results (such as the election in a free vote of the Marxist Salvador Allende as president of Chile in 1970) which are deemed inimical to US interests, legitimately elected governments will be overthrown. (Allende was toppled by a CIA-backed coup in September 1973.) How a bombastic and unpredictable President Trump, a man with a suspect temperament and limited knowledge of international affairs, will accommodate himself is unclear. Even the broad outlines of a foreign policy could not be gleaned from anything that Trump said during the bitter contest waged between himself and Clinton.

But some of his statements — such as declaring Nato to be “obsolete” and saying that the US may not come to the defence of the Baltic states if they are threatened by Russia — have caused deep concern and fears in European capitals. One of those fears is that Trump may be an isolationist president. Already, Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has warned that going it alone is not an option for the US.

From the point of view of the Irish government, there is a concern about the new administration’s commitment to the maintenance of peace and stability in the North.

The one thing that could be safely assumed about a Hillary Clinton-led administration is a continuity of commitment to the North. No such assumption can be made about a Trump administration.

We are all aware how important the American involvement was in promoting and supporting the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; John Hume had been particularly assiduous in building Irish-American links on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, have already made initial moves to open lines of communication with the president elect, but he will face such a crowded in-tray on entering the Oval Office that there is no way of knowing where Anglo-Irish affairs in general, and Northern Ireland, in particular, will figure on the Trump agenda.

Already, Theresa May and her team in Whitehall are concerned about the status of the “special relationship” that has been such an important part of the architecture of the world order since the end of the Second World War.

From a Dublin standpoint, moral revulsion must not stand in the way of establishing links with the Trump administration. Like it or not, he is going to be the next US president in January. That’s the reality and all European governments are going to live with it.

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