Just a few weeks into the Trump administration, most of Washington is exhausted. The most immediate impact on Geneva is likely to be felt at the United Nations. Hints have circulated in Washington and New York, that Trump may want to cut US contributions to the UN by up to 40 per cent. Nikki Haley, the new American ambassador to the UN, has no diplomatic experience, but she appears intelligent, open-minded and ready to stand up to Trump to the extent that she can. When Trump casually remarked to Benjamin Netanyahu that he might feel comfortable about dropping America’s insistence on the two-state approach that promises Palestinians autonomy over their own territory, Haley ignored the remark and stated flatly that at least for the moment US policy still favours two states.
In her opening remarks to the UN, Haley stressed that the US still intends to support its friends, but in a somewhat darker tone, she added that America will no longer tolerate waste or those parts of the UN that are not functioning effectively. More ominously, Haley indicated that in the future the US would be likely to retaliate more harshly against countries that oppose US policies. “We are taking names,” she said. While Haley clearly means well, the US State Department has largely been shunted to the sidelines. Virtually the entire senior level of staff members were fired before Congress had had time to confirm the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. (See Mark Shapiro article on Tillerson’s relationship to Big Oil). There is already pressure on USAID to review its support policies. While several European Union countries have noted that they will step in to compensate for any cuts, one senior UN official in Geneva points out that Trump’s threats could actually help the UN push through urgently-needed reforms, such as an end to political appointees, nepotism and dysfunctional management.
Another area for concern is climate change. Trump says he is determined to reverse everything that was achieved by Barack Obama. Trump is clearly a skeptic when it comes to global warming, and he has loudly promised to reinvigorate the struggling coal and fossil fuel industries, most likely by cutting subsidies to alternative green energy. Trump’s pick to be director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, is also a climate change skeptic. Pruitt previously served as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, whose politics are dominated by oil. Pruitt saw his job as lobbying for oil companies, and he even went so far as to let an oil company lobbyist draft memos, which Pruitt then sent out on his official stationery. Pruitt’s main job may be to dismantle the agency he was commissioned to manage. Individual states, especially California, have said that they will continue to work to protect the environment even if Pruitt demolishes the EPA, but it is unlikely that any leadership towards diminishing green house gas emissions will come from Trump.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Trump’s vision of international relationships is framed by the possible trade advantages he can secure for the United States. The approach is “transactional.” Alliances are commodities that can be bought and sold or used as tokens to bargain for a better deal. That is a major change from the previous US approach which sought alliances as mutual insurance policies against future threats. The sudden about face means that the US, which had previously promoted itself as a bedrock of international security, is now a less than reliable ally.
Trump’s approach means increased unpredictability in US policy and it introduces a dangerous volatility into an already unstable international arena. With each country left to fend for itself, the tendency will be to reignite a global nuclear arms race. Pakistan and India can be expected to resume nuclear testing. Iran’s determination to have its own nuclear bomb has been effectively vindicated. North Korea’s obsession with developing its own intercontinental ballistic missiles suddenly looks more realistic.
There was a brief hope that Rex Tillerson along with the new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, a former general, might calm things down and provide some adult supervision, but it now looks like they and others may have been chosen mostly as window dressing. Trump continues to make impulsive decisions and to veer off in unexpected directions without consulting anyone. The exception to the rule is Steve Bannon, whom Trump picked to be his key strategist. Bannon is a bizarre character who formerly headed a website, Brietbart.com, which he described as a platform for the “alt-right,” a newly minted euphemism for a ragtag collection of neo-fascists and white supremacists.
At times, Bannon seems to be acting as Trump’s Rasputin. In fact, he often likes to compare himself to Lenin, storming the Winter Palace. At other times, he sees himself as Thomas Cromwell, the scheming chancellor to Henry VIII, portrayed in the BBC television series, ‘Wolf Hall’. Bannon doesn’t have a palace to burn as Lenin did, but he has made it clear that he wants to overthrow the supposedly bourgeois Washington elite. What he intends to put in its place, is anyone’s guess.
At a Vatican conference in 2014, Bannon tried to shed light on his philosophical roots. A major influence appeared to be Julius Evola, an Italian fascist philosopher who was a major influence on Mussolini, and promoted an obscure theory known as Traditionalism, which holds that progress and equality are poisonous illusions that weaken the human spirit. Evola’s ideas experienced a resurgence in Italian fascist circles in the 1960’s, and soon crossed the Atlantic, where they became particularly influential in Breitbart circles. Fascism, it turned out, was just what the economically disenfranchised, underemployed, rust belt underclass needed to rationalize the fact that it had been bypassed by a rapidly evolving global economy. This was precisely the group which Trump, a reality TV star, appealed to in his campaign. Trump’s politically incorrect, authoritarian message delivered in a limited, but easy to understand vocabulary, came across as a vindication of economic failure and a promise that the future would somehow be different. It was a lie, of course, but one which a segment of the population, convinced that they had already lost everything, were more than ready to believe.
Bannon’s played a major role in drafting the catastrophic executive order, which cancelled visas for Muslims from seven Middle Eastern countries. His magnum opus was immediately rejected by a federal court, but still managed to cause chaos and lead to massive nation-wide protest demonstrations. Another memo, leaked to the Associated Press, described plans for mobilizing 100,000 National Guard troops to hunt down Hispanic immigrants. The White House denied any knowledge of the memo, which had Homeland Security’s new director, John Kelly’s name at the top. Kelly said he had never seen it and had not been consulted. Bannon is the most likely promoter of the plan. If it were to be put into effect it would ultimately mean creating large concentration camps to hold the millions undocumented immigrants currently in the US.
With an absolute majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Republican leadership seems to want Trump to survive at least long enough to push through its own agenda, which largely consists of absolving the federal government of as much financial responsibility as possible by dividing up tax revenues and handing the loot in block grants to the individual states to do as they wish. Governing is turning out to be harder than the Republicans expected, however. Republican Congressmen are finding that they are forced to face more and more riotous protests at home. Some have needed police protection to safely exit town hall meetings.
Reality is slowly descending on Trump as well. After casually suggesting to automobile manufacturers that he might help them by slapping an across the board 20 per cent duty on all imports, manufacturers explained that most cars today are assembled from thousands of parts manufactured by the global supply chain. Far from helping business, Trump’s grand scheme would increase the cost of American cars beyond anything the average consumer could pay. The same principle holds for a wide range of imported goods sold at discount stores like Walmart. If Trump does succeed in hiking import duties, the lower economic brackets that Trump depends on are likely to rise in instant revolt.
Trump also faces a growing succession of inquiries looking into why Russia interfered to help him in the election. US intelligence agencies intercepted frequent telephone conversations between members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence before the election. Trump’s early campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had previously worked to promote pro-Russian candidates in Ukrainian elections. Some of Trump’s previous associates were actively trying to promote a plan to have a pro-Russian government replace the current government in Ukraine, and to then lease the Crimea to Russia for the next century.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, delivered an updated version of the plan to the White House, a week before Trump’s National Security Director, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after he lied to the FBI about the contents of secret telephone calls to the Russian embassy in Washington. A series contacts that Flynn had had with Russian intelligence, starting with a trip to Moscow when Flynn was still in the US Army and directing the US Defense Intelligence Agency, created the impression that the Russians might have been trying to recruit him to work as a mole inside the White House.
Trump’s open flirtation with Vladimir Putin has caused concern around Washington. The Guardian newspaper reported that Trump has around $300 million in outstanding loans from Deutsche Bank, which is under investigation by the US government for allegedly looking the other way when Russians tried to use it for money laundering operations. The bank was sufficiently worried to carry out an internal audit to determine whether Russian funds might have been used to underwrite Trump’s loans to the bank. Trump’s organization had been on the point of signing a deal to build a multimillion dollar Trump Tower in Moscow, but put it on hold when Trump began campaigning for the presidential election. Deutsche Bank’s audit found no direct connection to money launderers, but Trump’s continues to refuse to inform Congress about the exact nature of his international business dealings.
Trump’s team in the White House is beginning to look like damaged goods, not so much because of the Russians, but because of the president’s erratic behaviour and his refusal to consult with anyone before making critical decisions. Trump thought he could get former Navy vice-admiral, Robert Harward, to replace Flynn as National Security Adviser; Harward turned him down, pleading family responsibilities. The real reason was that Trump would not guarantee that the new NSC director could pick his own team or overrule Bannon when national security was involved. Former Army general David Petraeus, who had headed the CIA, also turned the job down for the same reasons. There’s a general consensus that no one with any genuine status will want to be associated with the administration with its current dysfunctionality. It’s difficult to get volunteers to commit to what looks like a sinking ship.
In two years, the entire House of Representatives will be up for re-election, and unless Trump can stabilize his administration and show that he can run an effective government, it’s likely that he will either be isolated, or impeached. The country will most likely survive Trump, but the United States that the rest of the world used to know may need to drop out of the international scene for a few years. That could serve as a wake-up call for others to assume their responsibilities and to build a more equal international community that no longer depends on a single hyper power. In the meantime, Americans are in for a bumpy ride. They will need all the help they can get.