22 February 2019

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

Niculae Iancu

Image source: Mediafax

Challenges for UN

On the 1st of June, president Trump was announcing US’s pullout from the Paris climatic agreement. The White House leader was criticizing the provisions of the deal negotiated by the Obama Administration and signed by 195 countries under UN’s aegis, thinking that this way “he fulfilled his solemn duty to protect America and its citizens”. A new accomplished promise campaign. In the pullout announce, made on White House’s Rose Garden with strong applause from the audience, Trump was claiming that “it is time to get out”, adding a historical key to the moment that is was supposed to be considered, by the entire international community, as a new attitude against the rules of the international system and a new pathway for the US global businesses strategy. Actually, Ronna McDaniel, the president of the National Republican Council, was saying that “this is a clear message that we will not remain stuck anymore on the international agreements which are a burden for the American taxpayers”.

Despite the fact that the pullout cannot be functional sooner than November 2020, immediately after everyone will know the results of the presidential elections, or the fact that Trump announced Washington’s availability to renegotiate the treaty “in the benefit of the American businesses and American citizens”, the retreat decision from the climatic agreement is Trump’s Administration biggest challenge for the UN and the global governance set of rules, established by the US itself at the end of World War II.

A year after, on 19th of June 2018, the US ambassador to UN at that time, Nikki Haley, along with the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, were announcing US’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council (HRC), calling on a “chronic bias attitude against Israel” and the existence of some “abuses against human’s rights” from some of the council’s members, like China and Venezuela. In his turn, Pompeo was actually calling on the exact vision of Trump’s Administration, when saying that “the UN Council of Human Rights is not capable of fulfilling its mission without reform”.

Reforming the central institutions that the entire international system is based on seems to become the leitmotiv of Trump’s Administration decisions, and the UN was not left out in the cold. Furthermore, Forbes magazine was justifying US’s withdrawal from the HRC not by calling on the international system reform, but on an attempt to “withdraw the Trump Administration from the global scene” for the US to become “a marginal actor, running from the global leadership position it had since the end of World War I”. We shall not forget that under HRC aegis, in 1948 it was adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document of a free democracy. Its promotion and defence has created, during recent history, sanctions and has led to wars. On the other hand, the US’s withdrawal from HRC means a financial loss for the UN, as the US is the council’s biggest sponsor.

Anyway, US withdrawal decision from the HRC was actually introduced by president Donald Trump himself, in his first speech in front of the UN General Assembly, from 19th of September 2017. In his message, Trump was saying that “The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies. But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return. As long as I hold this office, I will defence America’s interests above all else. […] We also thank Secretary General for recognizing that the United Nations must reform if it is to be an effective partner in confronting threats to sovereignty, security, and prosperity. […] In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble aims have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights record sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.” Crystal clear!

Meeting the Kremlin leader

Although different as substance and with no immediate juridical or administrative effects, president Trump’s decision to meet the Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin, and the North-Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, have increased the global security analyses for weeks and these are actually the most important moments for the international security evolutions of the first half of White House’s current administration mandate.

The Trump-Putin summit took place in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, on 16th of July 2018. The long-awaited bilateral meeting comes after their two previous meetings, from 2017, when the American and the Russian leader have participated at the reunions of two international cooperation formats. The context was quite tense. On an international plan, the Helsinki meeting took place only a few days after the NATO summit from Brussels and the use of the term “enemy” against the European Union.

As for the American internal policy, Congress’s mid-term pre-campaign was starting and the debate regarding Russia’s interference in the presidential election campaign was intense. Actually, Trump was going to deny, during the press conference at the end of the Helsinki meeting, the evaluations of the American intelligence agencies regarding Moscow’s interference in the elections. Therewith, the decision of both presidents for the two meetings to take place behind closed doors, only with the translators inside, have raised critics and concerns all over the world, on the approached subjects and the tone of the dialogue.

Despite the fact that the discussions agenda is not public as we speak, we can speculate the central topics they have approached from the messages transmitted during the press conferences and the ulterior actions of Russian part. Hence, the war in Syria was a controversial topic, Trump asking for the withdrawal of the Iranian troops from the battlefield, meanwhile, Putin was supporting their presence. The compromise was keeping the Iranians away from Syria’s border with Israel. Another controversial topic was Crimea’s illegal annexation by Russia and, implicitly, US’s sanctions imposed on Russia. It seems that Putin would have clearly expressed Moscow’s position on Ukraine not becoming a NATO member state, ever.

Also, they would have discussed extending the new START agreement, which is going to expire in 2021, as well as the INF agreement, wherefrom the US was ulterior going to withdraw, unilaterally.

What is left after this summit? Both presidents’ statements could be relevant. Vladimir Putin was describing the meeting as “sincere and useful”, meanwhile Donald Trump was saying that it was a “profound and productive dialogue”, adding that the relations between the US and Russia “were never as bad as they were at the beginning”, but that “things have changed now”.

We will have to track the evolution of these countries’ relation, complicated by Russia’s numerous challenges against the Western space and by the escalation of the tense situation in Ukraine or the diversification of hybrid threat’s tools and methods that Moscow has practiced in almost all its international business. Maybe talking about the 2018 Helsinki moment as “history’s only capitulation of a US president against Kremlin leader”, as Michael McFaul was defining it, an ex-US ambassador to Moscow, is exaggerated. From the statements made publicly, “improving the relations between Washington and Moscow”, the objective that John Bolton stated some weeks before the meeting was reached.

Meeting the North-Korean dictator

President Trump was going to meet the North-Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, on the 12th of June 2018. However, in order to understand the meaning of this Summit, it is necessary to take a look at the evolution of their relation, before this meeting.

Some days after installing at the White House, Trump was posting the following message on Twitter: “Pyongyang just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”. It was the beginning of the tensions between the two leaders, which was drawing the international attention on the nuclear danger, unexampled since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, the danger of a war with human loses inside the US’s territory was becoming more possible than ever since the end of the Civil War, in the midst of the XIX century.

In April 2017, across a show dedicated to the “founding father”, Kim Ir Sen, the communists from Pyongyang were presenting a movie wherein an American city was completely vanished by a Korean nuclear missile.  The entire world was becoming the witness of aggressive propaganda which was going to be Kim regime force claim during 2017. In May, they have tested the ballistic missile by actually striking the Pacific Ocean, alerting not only Washington but all the other allies in the region, with Japan and South Kore ahead. In these circumstances, Trump was warning, in August, that the north of Korean Peninsula will be stroked with “fire and anger”, and in November he was announcing that “the era of strategic patience has come to an end” and a “major conflict could happen” and the UN Security Council was adopting new sanctions against the Pyongyang regime.

Although the messages transmitted by the two leaders were reaching unexampled tonalities, surround be this international system which has been for decades defined by a diplomatic language and reasoned actions, on 18th of March, 2018, president Trump was accepting Kim Jong Un’s invitation to have a face-to-face meeting. The US president saw it as an opportunity to denuclearize North Korea. Actually, it was going to be the central objective of the American diplomacy in the North-Korean matter, although there were many who were expecting more firm measures from the Trump Administration for taking down Kim’s dictatorial regime.

On the 12th of June 2018, the historic meeting between the leaders took place in Singapore, being the first time ever when a sitting American president met a leader of the Pyongyang regime. In the common press conference that followed the summit, the two leaders were announcing the change of their relation, from conflict to cooperation, as well as the commitment of the Korean part to ensure “with no delays” the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Although generally presented, the agreement between both parts have created great expectations for the international community, some of them thinking that, for the first time, a peace agreement between the two Koreas could actually be discussed.

However, no significant progress was made until today. Pyongyang did not do anything to denuclearize the Peninsula and the US did not take down the sanctions against Kim’s regime. Yet, a second summit was announced for the end of February 2019.

Despite North Korea’s quite decreased geostrategic relevance, regarding the area and the population, its permanent aggressive attitude against the Western world, as well as the totalitarian, extremely oppressive regime continuation has permanently placed Korean Peninsula’s security on Washington’s international security agenda. Given these circumstances, president Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong Un, despite the fact that it made history, it also highlighted that the White House leader is seeking results. This time, we are talking about the direct approach of a nuclear threat which is in the hands of a regime seen as irrational given the functioning rules of the international system. Even if its methods were harshly criticized, Trump will have to prove the world that his strategy was correct and that it can actually be a model for the management of the crisis, at least according to the prevailing privileged doctrine from the last quarter of the century.

US’s pullout from the Iranian treaty

On 8th of May 2018, president Trump was announcing US’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iranian nuclear agreement. The treaty was signed on 14th of July 2015 by Iran and the other six states, among them the US, which was aiming for Teheran to respect its commitments on giving up its nuclear military program. The UN Security Council has adopted the 2231 Resolution from 20th of July 2015, placing the entire process under the aegis of the UN.  However, Trump’s Administration has decided, after three years, to unilaterally denounce the treaty and to impose sanctions to Teheran, without actually proving that the Iranian part has broken the treaty.

Basically, the reason for this decision was the treaty’s ineffectiveness, Donald Trump calling it “defective”.  In the press conference related to this matter, the American president was saying about the Iranian regime that it is “the main sponsor of terrorism” and that “It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies and militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.” In these circumstances, Trump was saying that the “Iranian nuclear treaty has raised serious economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity, and no limits at all on its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”

Effectively, this is a key moment for Trump’s Administration first half of the mandate, by which Washington undoubtedly marks the biggest state threat against the international security, as the ulterior actions developed by the US related to Teheran were going to prove. Therewith, the international community was receiving president Trump’s unilateralist behavior confirmation and was starting to be concerned about the stability of the entire international institutional security architecture and its subsequent tools, in times when Washington’s foreign policy critics were already calling it the “era of unpredictability”.

We should also mention that Trump’s decision has provoked a division in the Western space, where the EU set apart, through Federica Mogherini’s voice, the High EU Representative for Foreign Businesses and Security Policy who was announcing, in the same day, Union’s commitments continuity in the Iranian treaty. Also, Great Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, have expressed their “regret” in a common statement and their intention to “upkeep the commitments” they have assumed in the nuclear agreement. EU’s strategic autonomy vision was receiving some wind in the sheets.

The “trade war” with China 

 China is the world’s second great economic power, after the US. Its last decades' economic growth has an ascension that could bring it to the top by 2050, or even faster, according to global economic analysis centers. The dynamic of the Chinese economy and increasing volume of the international financial investments have brought China as the main enemy in the center of US’s national security strategies. The Chinese potential to threaten the US’s global interests creates unexampled changes for the geopolitical models promoted by Washington’s elites. The systemic transformation of the American security architecture already started by moving its center of gravity from Atlantic to Pacific, for what I was calling, in the beginning, “America’s Pacific century”.

In these circumstances, the Chinese trade tactics, that Donald Trump considers illegitimate, have been a central element for his electoral campaign. Many of the priorities announced in his first 100 days at the White House were about China, seen as the “responsible for almost half of US’s trade deficit”, in a speech from December 2016. On that occasion, Trump was saying about China: “they did not play by the rules, and I know they will do it, they must do it”.  Also, he was saying that China was a “currency manipulator”, was accusing it of subvention and he was announcing trade taxes up to 45% to “stop the illegal Chinese activities, including for stealing the American trade secrets”.

Starting from these campaign commitments, president Trump started in March 2018 what the security analysts call “the trade war” with China or even a “new cold war”. Let’s see what was the process of the “operations”.

On 1st of March 2018, Donald Trump was announced that the United States will impose taxes for the international steel and aluminum trade. The Washington Administration was imposing restrictions to China, but not to Canada and EU, wherewith the negotiations continue. In 3rd of April, the US announces a list of 1.333 Chinese products categories the 25% taxes were imposed on.

On the 4th of April, China announces new possible reprisals by applying taxes for US essential exports, including vehicles. On 5th of April, Donald Trump states that “in the light of China’s unfair reprisals” he asked the trade authorities to “analyze if extending taxes for a Chinese exports volume worth of $100 billion would be ok” and to identify what categories of products should be targeted. On the 15th of June, president Trump decides to impose taxes for products imported from China worth of around $50 billion, calling on “Beijing’s long theft of American intellectual property”. On 16th of June, Beijing was announcing immediate “reprisals” for the new US-imposed taxes, by imposing a 25% tax for an extended category of American products, worth of $34 billion, with chances to add another volume worth of $16 billion, including for energetic resources.

In all of this frayed nerve game, the financial numbers are reaching staggering values. On 18th of June, president Trump was asking the government to look for products worth of $200 billion to impose another 10% tax, if Beijing will actually materialize the measures announced on 16th of June. Also, Trump was announcing that he is ready to impose taxes for products worth of $200 billion, in the following three months, after consulting the American public. For a better understanding of these numbers, Romania’s GDB at the end of this year could be around $225 billion.

On 1st of August, president Trump was announcing that the list of products worth of $200 billion is done and he was asking his counselor to see what the consequences of imposing 25% taxes would be, instead of the 10% he previously announced. China reacted saying that it will have to “defend its dignity” if the US will implement the announced taxes.

It was panic all around the financial market, the Chinese currency has decreased to the lowest level recorded from May 2017, and the global economy increase was starting to be taken down. Until November, the US has imposed sanctions for products worth $250 billion, meanwhile China for products worth $110 billion. The conflict was reaching an unexampled level and, as consequence, at the G20 Summit from Buenos Aires, from 1st of December 2018, president Trump and Xi Jinping have agreed on “slowing the fire” for 90 days, as well as to start the discussion for a “peace treaty”, which is a new trade agreement between world’s two economic giants.

As usual, conflicts are producing also a number of collateral victims. The most affected industry seems to be the vehicles one, firstly in the US, but also Europe. Then the food industry, as including Coca-Cola has announced prices increases due to aluminum’s raise for packing. Then, the easy industry and many other industrial sections have announced important loses. Globally, the IMF estimated a decrease of the global growth with 0,5% until 2020, according to BBC. Similar to the same source, Morgan Stanley is estimating a global possible GDP decrease with 0,81 percentages, if both parts will impose a 25% tax.

President Trump’s decision to start a “trade war” against China determined Roberto Azevedo, the president of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to state that the “current protectionism wave” has created “the biggest free trade crisis since 1947”, the moment GATT was founded, WTO’s predecessor. Azevedo was adding that “it is the moment when the organization’s fundaments, the cooperation principles, the indiscrimination principles are questioned. This is really serious.” Is there anything left to say?

(To be continued)