22 February 2019

Donald Trump at the mid-point of his presidency. Major decisions which have changed the world (Part I)

Niculae Iancu

Image source: Mediafax

Two years have passed since president Donald Trump took the Oval Office in Washington. Two years marked by strong turbulences and endless debates regarding the stability and legitimacy of the international system, established at the end of World War II. Two years which have recorded a series of major decisions from the leaders of the biggest global power, which have created surprise or concern, admiration or disproval, uncertainty or appreciation for the American citizen or the entire international community.

These decisions’ consequences, still hard to speculate today, will be recovered in a better, more pragmatic world, which is following the rules adapted to 21 century’s realities, wherein the cost-benefit relation is fairly and legally distributed between the actors of the international system. Equally, the consequences could be the way around, in a world profoundly divided, a world of boundaries and constraints, insecurity and isolation. Time will prove which of these scenarios was feasible and if a fair world is actually a safer world too.

As consequence, with this analysis, I am presenting you Trump’s Administration major decisions, from the first half of his mandate. These could have a significant influence on how the international system is traditionally functioning and, especially, great power in shaping the future world.

Instead of an introduction- The Wall at the border with Mexico

The financial breach, so as much as partially, of the public American institutions, have entered the fourth week. It is already the longest crisis in US’s government history. The Congress debate between democrats and republicans on public expenses budget for the raise of a wall at the border with Mexico, which president Donald Trump thinks it could stop the emigrant wave coming from the South, entered in a rough spot. Those who are suffering the most from the political conflict are, as usual, the citizens. This time we are talking about the almost eight hundred thousand workers from the affected federal governmental agencies and institutions and their families.

In order to support his demand, Donald Trump is calling on an emergency situation, a true “national security problem, a terrorist one”, as is CNN writing. Fencing people’s freedom of movement off was many times, a force measure taken by politicians who were standing against a crisis with apparently no political solutions, determined by the movement of many people who were seeking for a better world. Yet, no matter if the policymakers were or not on the same side of the wall with those who tried to stop them, each time, such solutions were harshly criticized and turned against the initiators. Maybe the best example is the Berlin Wall, which proved to be the most immoral similar political decision of human’s recent history.

Trump’s Administration perseverance in making the American Congress approves the $5 billion budget, in 2019, for raising the wall, quite uncommon for a country considered to be the global champion of liberal democracy, of human’s rights and multiples liberties, is just the most recent confirmation that the president wants, at any cost, to accomplish his electoral promises. It comes after a long series of major internal and external political decisions, seen by the media across the ocean, as well as by many of world’s capitals, as having strong isolationist tendencies, as part of a nationalist-unilateralist behavior, unexampled in decades within the international liberal order. 

All of this aside, such conclusions are not but the expression of an analysis model which has ruled the international security and relations study for the entire post-war era. But what if this model has run out of resources, and the world is not the same anymore? Because today needs a new theory, and president Donald Trump, consciously or not, might make history for what the future analysts could call “the fundaments of international security and new global order”, in a world that we can only think we are imagining today. 

The pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership

It all began on the 20th of January 2017, Donald Trump’s “inauguration day” as the 45th president of the United States. After being inaugurated into this position, Trump was launching the foreign and security policy model “America first”, in a speech centered on calling on the national interest in the detriment of any other interests of previous common commitments. Basically, the American primordiality vision aims to reduce United States’ commercial shortcomings, “consolidate the old alliances and create new ones” and “protect the borders” against foreign threats, all of this “for the good of the American workers and American families”.

Only three days after being installed in the Oval Office, on 23th of January 2017, Trump made a major decision for his mandate: the pullout of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic agreement between 12 states from Pacific’s coasts, including Canada and Mexico or Japan, Australia and New Zeeland. The treaty has been negotiated by the Obama Administration and was aiming to create the biggest free trade market, by reducing taxes and protecting the commerce in a huge geographical space, covering 40% from the global economy.

For the American creators of the initial treaty, the TPP strategic value was strengthening the United States’ supremacy in Asia and fortifying its regional alliances. TPP it was part of a vision that the secretary of state of that time, Hilary Clinton, the future democratic counter candidate in the presidential elections won by Trump, was talking about in the title of Foreign Policy’s article “America’s Pacific century”, published in 2011. Hilary Clinton was saying that “the Asia-Pacific region has become a key driver of global politics (..) It is the home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India and Indonesia”.  With such words, Clinton was making a first delimitation of the parts of a pending power balance, which will probably dominate the international security for the decades to come, with or without the US inside the TPP.

Still, withdrawing the United States from the treaty, in the Trump era, seemed predictable, given how the topic was politized during the electoral campaign. Regarding this subject, Donald Trump was saying “our country has serious issues. We are no longer winning. It was happening in the past, but today there are no more victories. When was the last time someone saw the United States defeating China in a commercial debate? When did we ever defeated Japan, regardless of the topic? The Japanese are selling millions of cars in the US and we do what? When it was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? There is no such thing because they are defeating us every single time”.

Despite the initial shock on the international scene, the other 11 states reviewed the treaty and adopted it under the name the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPATPP), proving the devotion against Pacific’s integrative vision, even in the absence of the US. In these new circumstances, it was created, on the 30th of December 2018, the world’s third-biggest common market, after NAFTA and EU.

The critics of Washington’s pullout decision asked themselves if China will not replace the US, this way having the possibility to intensify its influence in the region. China’s influence is already manifested through many bilateral and multilateral agreements, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN. The unfortunate consequence would be that the US will face double loses.

Even if China getting close to CPATPP is not something to be happening soon, given the treaty’s too high standards for the coordinated economy in Beijing, evolutions must be carefully tracked, all the more so few relevant state actors have shown their interest in the new partnership, like Indonesia, South Korea or even Great Britain. The latter, according to island’s press, could enter CPATPP in search of more active reinvolvement opportunities in the most dynamic economic area in the world, especially given the Brexit.

Despite the strategic surprises and shocks on the international policy, United States pullout from the TPP is the biggest isolationist decision assumed by the Trump Administration. This could be seen, given its economic significance, as the historical moment which writes down the entrance in a turbulent and uncertain period, marked by tensions coming from questioning the integrative vision and global governance tools created at the end of two global conflagrations.

Furthermore, in TPP’s retreat memorandum, president Trump announced his “administration intention to directly discuss with each country, in a bilateral format, to negotiate the future trade deals”. We will see if this will be the policy the Washington Admiration will actually follow in most of the international cooperation formats it is part of, whether “Gs”, climatic or other types of treaties or even military alliances. Anyhow, the premises of international systems’ division are stronger than ever.

“Muslims banning” executive order

On 27th of January 2017, president Trump was signing the executive order by which he was introducing travel restriction in the United States for the citizens of six Muslim states, for a 90 days period, as well as for Syrians, for an unlimited period. The title of this order is extremely significant for what was going to be Washington’s Administration firm behavior in guaranteeing American citizens security, by adopting coercive and unpopular measures, against any types of threats: “protecting the nation against foreign terrorists’ entry into the United States territory”.

Signing this order raised a lot of internal, political and social protests, and also has determined some juridical actions to block its effects, mainly because of the lack of constitutionality, given that it was seen as a discriminatory action, religious-based. On one hand, as expected, the Democrats have blamed the order in the bloc, but some other Republican congressmen have joined them also. Among the latter, senator John McCain, the Republican candidate at the 2008 presidential elections, who has expressed his concern about a possible consequence determined by “increasing sympathy in the countries nominated by the order, for terrorist organizations like ISIS”.

Also, he said that such an action could be considered as “turning the back to those to have risked their lives to activate as interprets for the American militaries and diplomats”, in the conflict zones, drawing the attention to the long military involvement of the US in the entire surrounding area of the Islamic world. In other words, Washington would know what led to the actual migration phenomenon, part of the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, as the UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, was describing it.

On the other hand, starting with 28th of January, thousands of Americans have gathered in airports and other locations, to protest. These actions have created what the press across the ocean called the “airports chaos”. On the social media platforms, there were launched campaigns under the aegis of hashtags like #Muslimban or #TravelBann. One of the results was getting more than half a million signatures for a petition which was asking for order’s cancelation.

Also, the officials from the states subjected to interdictions have reacted, blaming the American government. For example, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has called the order “disgraceful” and going against the “Iranian grandmas”, meanwhile he announced response measures.

Ulterior, the document was many times reviewed, after the courts’ blocking decisions. Trump’s Administration has promised not to give up the measure, proving that he truly wants to come with solutions for what he promised in the electoral campaign. Moreover, the order was extended to include citizens of other states too, like Venezuela, North Korea or Chad. This was the context which allowed many analysts, from the entire world, to affirm that extending the entry restriction in the United States means “the end of the American dream”, and the result is raising an “invisible wall around America”, as it happened before in the “xenophobia” era, the third decade of the past century, when the access to the US was prohibited to Asians, Italians, Greeks and East-Europeans.

Going beyond these tonalities and avoiding the harsh generalizations, 27th of January 2017 remains the most important moment for Trump’s policy dedicated to migration control and terrorist risks’ decrease on United States territory, in a full humanitarian world, with millions of people forced to leave their countries and homes, because they do not find long- and medium-term solutions for the conflict they are facing. It is the moment when the Administration returned to its internal problems, announced when Donald Trump was saying “the Americans that our country forgot about, will not be forgotten from now on. […] In the center of this change we have a crucial certainty:  a nation should serve its own citizens”.

Reviewing the North-American Free Trade Agreement

On 18th of May, the White House shares with the Congress its intention to “modernize” the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), wherefrom are part Canada and Mexico. Donald Trump calls it the “worst trade agreement in history”, and the announcement regarding its renegotiation comes after, initially, Trump made public his intention to pull out the United States from the treaty.

After the panic moment created by the possibility to actually do it, the renegotiation decision was like an oxygen balloon and has created the idea of a general consensus regarding the upgrade of the biggest free trade agreement in the world, from a financial perspective. Internally, Republicans, as well as Democrats, were pleased with the idea of reanalyzing agreement’s provisions, although with different perspectives on how big the changes should be. Externally, the Mexicans officials have shown their availability to start the negotiations immediately, meanwhile, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was seeing it as the turning point in aligning the North-American common trade to 21 century’s realities.

The negotiations turned out to be not as affable as one may have believed, given the unanimous support initially expressed. For example, Donald Trump was announcing, in August 2018, that the US got to an agreement with Mexico and he was threatening with leaving Canada outside the deal if it will not tie in quickly with the negotiations. The deadlock was more serious than it may seem today, at the end of it. American president’s threat has activated legal analysis mechanisms in Washington, and their warning was something like: the three of you, or none!

Furthermore, this “none” would have led to an unimaginable disaster, in an extremely integrative economic system, with supply and production chains spread on the entire continent, at least for the majority of the US businesses. Given these circumstances, we have to remark, once more, Administration’s assumption level of some significative risks, with all this all or nothing stakes, to reach some supposedly essential objectives to increase American citizens wealth. We should not neglect that this deadlock was happening soon after Trump accused Trudeau of “treason” and “back stubbing him” and calling him “a weak man with no honor”, at the G7 summit, from Charlevoix, Quebec, where he refused to sign the final pledge. Therewith, we should notice that it is not just about a US strategic ally, but also about the only ally with a common border, in US’s geopolitical map, seen as essential, in all security paradigms, to evolve and to install it in the unique global superpower.

At the end of a laborious path, with syncope and compromises, on 30th of November 2018, president Trump, the Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau have signed, in Buenos Aires, the new NAFTA type agreement, called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). According to some members of Canada’s prime-minister team, they needed “48 hours of work and conviction” for it to be publicly made at the signing ceremony, together with the other two leaders. The deal has two sections about the labor market, which are strengthening the US’s intellectual property and are imposing upgraded standards for the vehicle industry.

Yet, the “NAFTA 2.0 agreement”, as the American press is calling it, has to pass through the ratification procedure across the national parliaments, and the Democrats, who took the control over Representatives Chamber, are already sending some concerning signals. Equally, there are concerns about the result of Mexico’s ratification, given the obligation to increase salaries in unsubsidized industries, or the debates across the Canadian parliament, as the treaty does not have any agreement about raising the taxes for steel and aluminum, that Trump’s Administration has imposed on Canada and Mexico, like in the relationship with some other European allies.

Regardless of how things will end in the Parliamentary procedures, the final version of the North-American free trade agreement, as well as the history of the 18 months of negotiations, are offering enough learned lessons for those who want to sit at the negotiations table with Trump’s Administration, on strategic interest topics. This time also, it can be highlighted American part’s firmness to upkeep its “tough” references, dedicated to protect the American economy and, implicitly, the jobs of the American citizens, who today seem to be in the midst of the “whole strategy” that Washington is following to revitalize the American supremacy, but on a new “made in USA” pedestal.

NATO and common security costs

Between 20-27th of May 2017, Donald Trump went on his first tour abroad. The first stop, significantly important for the American analysts, Saudi Arabia. Its symbolism would come from the economic dimension of the relationship with the Saudis and the central role that Washington would give Riyadh in US’s strategy for the Middle East issue. After Riyadh, Donald Trump went to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Vatican, Italy and ended his tour with Brussels, at the meeting with the European Union’s leaders, being his first participation at a NATO summit, the perfect occasion to inaugurate Alliance’s new headquarter.

The entire Western community was expecting the speech of the new American president. The leaders of the allied nations were hoping for a positive or at least peaceful message, after the critics he brought NATO during his electoral campaign when saying: “for many decades, we have subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.[…] We will reinforce old alliance and we will form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth”. While expecting the message, the allies were deciding, the night before, to join the international coalition for ISIS combat, as a political benevolence gesture, which was anyway reflecting the reality of some NATO states presence in the Middle East.

Despite the expectations, in his speech, the American president wanted to reaffirm the central topics of the “America first” vision, blaming the European allies for “Alliance’s low funding”, avoiding a clear answer to questions related to US applying the provisions of the well-known Article 5, if one of the allies would be attacked.

Donald Trump was leaving Europe, at the end of his first international tour, leaving the European leaders clearly concerned and aware of a new breach between Atlantic’s two rims, on fundamental topics of common defence, the climatic changes and free trade. Additionally, in a Europe whose Cold War wounds are still alive and East’s threats are growing, it was emerging a great concern about the different perspective regarding the Russian threat like it was noticed during the discussion between president Trump and EU leaders, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.

A year after that, on 12th of July 2018, Donald Trump was coming back to Brussels, to participate at the 29th Summit of the Alliance. This time, the concerns about the US position were huge, all the more so at the end of June, nine NATO member states have received personal letters, wherein Donald Trump was making them aware of not respecting their commitments about allocating 2% from GDP for defence, and the US investments for common defence and the “American militaries sacrifice” were “more and more hard to explain to the American taxpayer”.

In order to strengthen this message just before the summit, president Trump was asking on Twitter, while arriving in Brussels, if the “NATO allies will give the US back the costs for defence”. Furthermore, at the breakfast with the NATO General Secretary from the same day, “president Trump was making a shocking statement: Germany is Russia’s prisoner, due to Russian oil and gases import and the participation at the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, given that Berlin contributes too less at the European defence”.

To create a better and more ambiguous condition regarding his statements, despite the pessimist evaluations and speculations, totally different from the 2017 summit, some announcing US’s inevitable pullout from NATO, Donald Trump was going to send an extremely positive message, greeting the success of the high-level meeting. The American president was noticing that his relation with Alliance’s leaders is good, especially that they have agreed on “significantly increase the costs for defence”.

“NATO is stronger than it was two days ago”, was saying Trump, increasing the international security and policy analysis about him applying mercantilist tactics, used in his previous businesses, for these major issues of the international system. Yet, for some of them, used to long- and medium-term predictability comfort, president Trump’s movements were already too much.

(To be continued)