It’s clear Donald Trump will do almost anything to cling to office. Lie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish? Go for it. Label Joe Biden a radical socialist? Silly, but worth a punt. Start a war with China or Iran? Pause right there. This is not beyond the realms of possibility, given his pathological need to win.
As November’s poll nears, Trump is weaponising foreign policy – not to defend US security and national interests, but to help him grab a second term. It’s not about putting “America First”. It’s all about putting “Trump First” – by any dangerous means, and at any cost.
Trump has no big international successes to his name. On the contrary, he has trashed America’s global reputation and alienated its friends. His North Korea jamboree was all hot air. His Afghan policy is retreat without honour. Israel’s shabby deals with Gulf dictatorships, stitched up by the White House, undermine the quest for Middle East peace.
Scornful of traditional diplomacy and lacking significant achievements, Trump chooses confrontation. He exploits visceral fears, just like he does when campaigning at home: fear of nefarious foreign foes, fear of the other, fear of difference.
His China-baiting at the UN last week was typical scaremongering. He characterised the pandemic as a global war triggered by Beijing. Covid-19 was the “invisible enemy”, a “plague” and the “China virus” – terms intended to frighten and divide. Just in case Xi Jinping and the other watching Johnny Foreigners did not get the message, the US, he said, had spent $2.5tn on defence since 2016. “We have the most powerful military anywhere in the world.”
Was this a threat? Maybe the entire planet should put its hands up and surrender.
Such crude electoral sabre rattling has unpredictable global implications, not least for flashpoints such as Taiwan. The island’s 70-year stand-off with China is old news. What’s different now is a rapid, armed escalation on both sides, stoked by Trump. In recent weeks, the US has mooted billion-dollar weapons sales, sent high-profile envoys to Taipei, and deployed powerful naval forces. In reply, China is running increasingly intrusive military operations.
Trump’s calculated provocations may be largely for show, part of his politicised anti-China vendetta. Who believes he truly cares about Taiwan’s freedom? But he is relying on the good sense and restraint of China’s leaders, which is not guaranteed.
The west’s collective failure to protect Hong Kong from communist takeover, and a suspicion in Beijing that Trump, bottom-line, would not fight for Taiwan if it were invaded, courts disastrous miscalculation.
Trump’s relentless, reckless goading of Iran further illustrates his willingness to sacrifice sensible, consensual policy at the high altar of re-election. The breathtaking arrogance of last week’s US bid to reimpose UN sanctions on Tehran – without the support of the UN – was matched only by its futility. Every major country lined up against Washington, not because they are anti-American but because, on this issue, America is simply wrong.
So far, Iran’s regime has not risen to the bait. Its response to ever more frenetic efforts by Elliott Abrams, Trump’s recycled Reagan-era hawk, to blame Tehran for election hacking, assassination plots, mystery explosions and cyber-attacks, has been to do precisely nothing.
Frustrated, Trump has sent the USS Nimitz carrier strike group into the Gulf, ostentatiously cruising off the Persian shore. Still Iran holds fire.
Trading solemn promises and long-established foreign policy objectives for votes, Trump has primed the entire Gulf region for post-election mayhem
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, cannily compared US pressure to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
“We instantly recognise the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations,” he told the UN.
Trump hopes to vandalise the 2015 Iran nuclear deal beyond repair, lest Biden reboot it. But once again, as with his assassination of Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Suleimani, he is gambling that Iran’s hardliners do not outflank Rouhani and begin shooting.
Or perhaps, at last knockings, he will purposefully start a fight to salvage his struggling campaign. He has already picked one with the UK, Germany and France, who publicly accuse the US of acting illegally. This unprecedented schism will only widen if he is re-elected.
Trading solemn promises and long-established foreign policy objectives for votes, Trump has primed the entire Gulf region for post-election mayhem. This prospect may be moving nearer following the bogus UAE-Bahrain-Israel “breakthrough”.
Trump portrays himself as a great Camp David-style peacemaker. He more closely resembles a cheap souk huckster peddling threadbare carpets that quickly fall apart.
Lasting peace is not built on injustice, occupation and theft, specifically the despoliation of Palestinian dreams. Such gross betrayal is an affront to all fair-minded people – and a recruiting poster for violent extremists.
Suggestions that Saudi Arabia’s lawless autocrats may soon make common cause with Israel’s rightwing leadership, in anticipation of lucrative US investment, weapons and nuclear deals, and a blind eye turned to their human and gender rights abuses, underscore the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of Trump’s fake peace-ifying.
It may win him a few evangelical Christian and Jewish votes but not the Nobel medal he craves. His booby prize will be lasting infamy.
Ironically, Trump’s efforts to re-purpose America’s foreign policy for personal advantage are probably lost on most voters. Pollsters suggest they prioritise the economy, healthcare, Covid-19, crime and racial equality over foreign relations. The electorate is also deeply ambivalent about America’s global role. Many who have bought into Trump’s politics of fear view the world as hostile and unreliable.
Sadly, this is how much of the world now views America, too. Whether he wins or loses, the widespread international damage wrought by “Trump First” distortions and machinations will be hard to erase.