World community sizes up a diminished Trump

M.K. Bhadrakumar February 16, 2017 3:05 PM (UTC+8)
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For the world at large, the resignation by the US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on Monday is not about an obscure 19th century law that defines a phone conversation between him and the Russian ambassador.

What it conveys are three things. First, the US is sliding into a vicious civil war. A Fox News poll released on February 14 shows that the American public is almost evenly divided over President Donald Trump’s job performance since his inauguration on January 20. When asked if the Trump administration is working on things that will help their family, 47% of voters say yes, while 48% say no.

Public opinion is split, and Washington is also going to be increasingly divided on party lines.

The Guardian newspaper is probably right in estimating that Flynn’s resignation “is unlikely to mark the end of the Trump administration’s crisis of legitimacy over its relationship with Moscow. The manner of this matter suggests that this is only the beginning.”

There is a point here, considering that the media leaks of such top-grade confidential materials by sources in the intelligence establishment shows that it is all being carefully orchestrated in accordance with a game plan to bring the Trump presidency down on its knees.

Consensus becomes difficult from this point on. No matter what Trump does or says, one half of Americans vehemently reject it because it is primarily about him, his personality. One half of the nation harbours a visceral hatred of him and is unwilling to accept him as the head of state.

Reconciliation is difficult since the fight is over entrenched interests, too, with one faction unwilling to vacate in terms of an orderly transfer of power in a democratic transition.

This schism in America puts the world at large in a dilemma. Unless and until one faction defeats the other into abject surrender and submission, the global community will be wondering about the legitimacy of the man who carries the imprimatur of the president.

Secondly, Trump functions in a hostile environment. There is no guarantee that confidential exchanges with his administration will remain as privileged information. Tomorrow they could well appear as sensational reports in The Washington Post newspaper. How could diplomacy be conducted in such a climate?

The establishment apparently rules the roost in Washington. Suffice it to say, Trump may have won an election but, clearly, he cannot formulate his Russia policies unless the establishment effectively allows him to do so.

The establishment has also shown that it has the ability and the grit to undermine Trump if he were to deviate from their script. Never before has an American president been in the predicament of being at odds with the system. These are uncharted waters, and there is no certainty that Trump will prevail over the establishment.

Trump has already retracted on Crimea. He is in no hurry to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Syrian conflict. He no longer considers Nato to be “obsolete.”

He has exhibited a rare capacity to show restraint vis-à-vis North Korea. He’s had second thoughts regarding shifting the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He may even allow a surge in Afghanistan, which the military wants.

The constancy of American policies is in serious doubt. For the world’s diplomats, a constructive engagement with the US in such circumstances is fraught with risks.

A third phenomenon – strange to say the least – is that the world community at large also takes a partisan view of the American civil war.

Among the main power centres in the multipolar world setting, there are three streams of opinion. One stream, represented by Russia, seems to favor Trump. It is hoping against hope that Trump will ultimately prevail in his agenda to improve the US-Russia relationship.

However, doubts linger. Even if Trump prevails, he may only succeed in cooling the hostile climate of relations, but may not be able to deliver any concrete results such as, for example, the easing of sanctions. So, what is the big deal?

Meanwhile, the New Cold War syndrome refuses to wither away. The Nato defence ministers are gathering in Brussels on February 15-16 to discuss efforts to step up the alliance’s presence in the Black Sea, which has been historically a “Russian lake.”

Clearly, the western bloc on the whole loathes Trump and is full of nostalgia for Barack Obama. The forthcoming European elections – in France, Netherlands and Germany – will not change this attitude. Some European allies all but identify openly with Trump’s enemy camp.

This creates an unprecedented disequilibrium within the Western alliance. Trump leads the alliance, but the partners do not know how far he is to be taken seriously.

Finally, there is China, which has reason to feel pleased that things have come to such a pass in America. China watched Trump with unease bordering on trepidation initially. But now it is becoming clear that he cannot be a dominating president.

Trump wears the air of confidence and resolve, but how far China lends credibility to it is unclear. The ensuing pantomime will be hugely consequential to the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Arguably, China prefers to deal with a strong interlocutor in Trump. The North Korea problem is of immediate concern and the choice is narrowing dramatically. On one side, the thaw between Washington and Pyongyang, while on the other there is the unthinkable possibility of war and massive bloodshed on the Korean Peninsula.

Equally, China senses that Trump’s interest lies in accepting its help to make a success of his growth strategy. It’s a “win-win” proposition for China, creating a level of interdependency, based on the willingness to share power and the relinquishing of US supremacy in Asia.

On the whole, the stars are shining for the China Dream. The Communist Party of China newspaper, the Global Times, noted in an editorial comment with a touch of disappointment: “Leaders need to establish their authority, and the same is true in the US. Flynn’s resignation eroded Trump’s authority as president.”

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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