9 February 2017

Trump presidency:Much global turbulence lies ahead

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By C. Uday Bhaskar

It is a little over a fortnight since the assumption of office by US President Donald Trump on January 20 and in this brief period, the tweets and related statements from the White House have roiled the global political, strategic and economic domains in a visible manner.

Iran has been placed under limited sanctions (Feb 3) for its ballistic missile test and the White House has officially put Tehran "on notice." Sensitivities among key US allies have been bruised and UK, Germany – and now Australia are case in point.

In many ways Mr. Trump has been true to his campaign promises (threats?) which had aroused considerable global interest at the time. Post November 8 when the surprising Trump victory was announced, interest transmuted into anxiety about the manner in which the new POTUS (President of the US) would bring about major policy changes. 

Iran apart, the most significant development of the last fortnight includes the executive order signed by Mr.Trump wherein he has taken the US out of the 12 nation TTP (Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership) thereby signaling a protectionist trade policy and banning citizens of some Islamic nations from entering the USA. China has been cautioned and the wall with Mexico is yet another Trump goal - two initiatives which could trigger heightened domestic anger and resistance within the USA.

The Trump manner of discharging the many onerous responsibilities that devolve upon the POTUS was discernible in his first public appearance (performance?) after assuming office. The acceptance speech by the new US President was graceless and petulant. He rubbished the contribution of his predecessors – particularly former President Barrack Obama – and vowed to ‘make America great’ by loudly advocating a simplistic but seductively attractive slogan – ‘ America first.’

The solemn swearing was a visibly partisan affair and while his core constituency applauded his elevation to the White House, thousands of his detractors marched the streets of the USA in protest. Women across the world joined their sisters in the US and demonstrated their street power in denouncing the reprehensible anti-women statements associated with Mr. Trump. 
Students have also entered the divisive domestic US debate and the more recent events at the University of Berkley are illustrative. But the Trump reaction remains predictable. He angrily denounced the protesters and lashed out at the media for ostensibly distorting facts about the crowd strength for and against him! 

This assertion flew in the face of empirical evidence but this was rubbished and a new phrase has been introduced in to the Trump lexicon ‘alternative facts.' Is this the new semantic for Trump reality? Some sections of the US liberal media have begun to describe President Trump as ‘Liar-in-Chief’ – and this is a very unhappy and deplorable start to the four year Trump tenure.

A preliminary assessment of the Trump directives points to more turbulence and uncertainty apropos the hitherto established patterns of globalization and the conduct of inter-state relations. The summary rejection of TPP is the first potentially tectonic exigency. This trade initiative was deemed to be a major achievement for the Obama administration that had brought together 12 Pacific Rim nations into an exclusive trade grouping. 

TPP is now in the dust-bin. The inference is that the US will now follow an isolationist and protectionist trade policy that goes against the grain of globalization and the effect on the rest of the world will be to adversely impact economic growth.The macro implications of this rejection can prove detrimental not only to the spirit of globalization and the reduction of trade barriers but also enhance the appeal of China (which incidentally was not part of TPP) as a champion of globalization and equitable economic growth – a theme that was avidly projected and supported by Chinese president Xi Jinping at the recently concluded Davos deliberations.

President Trump’s security and strategic policies are yet to be formally unveiled in detail but some strands have emerged. The core of the trump doctrine – as it were – is contained in his acceptance speech and certain elements have been elucidated over the last fortnight by Mr. Trump and his senior advisers.The first security policy priority is a tweet equivalent, where he promised to obliterate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth. While this assertion will be welcomed by many of the nations that have borne the brunt of this scourge – including in India – the means to achieve this objective are still blurred.

Radical Islamic terrorism for the USA is the threat posed by the IS (Islamic state) and the al-Qaida and the violence that rages in Afghanistan. US policies from the time of President Ronald Reagan (1980-88) have pursued contradictory objectives in relation to Islamic terror. While some nations were censured (Iran, Libya and North Korea aka axis of evil) and others invaded on dubious premises (Iraq), countries representing the nursery of such ideology (Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) were embraced as staunch allies. How President Trump and his nascent national security team will square this circle is not evident.

The second strand relates to China and the Trump orientation towards Beijing which is a critical interlocutor for the USA. The Trump team and corporate America cannot be oblivious to the profile of China as the rising power that will soon become the world’s number one GDP. As US president elect, Mr. Trump ruffled the feathers of China by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from the Taiwanese President and Beijing is uneasy about the how the ‘one-China’ policy will be defined by the new White House incumbent.

A statement by Sean Spicer, the new White House spokesman at his first press meet dwelt on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and it was more assertive than the Obama formulation on this contentious issue. In relation to a media query on the SCS, Mr. Spicer replied: “The US is going to make sure we protect our interests. If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we'll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by another country."

The response from Beijing has been swift and sharp. Reiterating the ‘indisputable sovereignty’ of China over the SCS, the Chinese foreign ministry warned that it would “remain firm to defend its rights in the region". Earlier the just confirmed US Secretary of State, oil tycoon Rex Tillerson had also made statements about the SCS islands deemed to be provocative by Beijing. 

Chinese official media ominously warned that such a policy could lead to a ‘devastating confrontation’ – with the more extreme commentators pointing to the use of nuclear weapons! 

This is still the first fortnight of a new American presidency but it is evident that turbulence and Trump are becoming 'yugely' synonymous.

(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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