President Trump's decision to put 'America First' leaves the rest of the world with a vacuum to fill

Obama pivoted to Asia. Trump pivots to Peoria

David Usborne
New York
@dusborne
Friday 20 January 2017 21:54
comments

Donald Trump wants America and everyone else to trade places. The United States – all gangs, crime and shuttered factories – had gone to Hell, he said in his big speech. Now it was time for the rest of the world to take its turn there instead.

That he would rant in such a nationalist way on inauguration day was as predictable as it was disturbing. It’s what he campaigned on. We might as well have been at one of those rallies of his. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first,” he intoned. It’s as simple a message as “Make America Great Again”, which, sadly, was always going to sell better than Hillary’s “Stronger Together”.

The world, by the way, might be tempted to say, fine, we don’t fancy having much to do with you either. You’re fired back. But the proper response is to quiver. Not just because of the tone he set up there on the West steps of the Capitol. Nor just because of the apparent implications for the modern American tradition – nurtured, by the way, by his own Republican Party – of free trade.

A truly protectionist turn would be disruptive enough. Mexico may be first in line for pain. But what does it mean when America, the last superpower, professes itself to be bored with the problems of the rest of the planet? Barack Obama promised a pivot towards Asia. Trump promises a pivot to Peoria. And who will fill the vacuum? Putin’s Russia, perhaps? Or China?

Again, a first instinct may be to say that the less Trump attempts on the world stage, the better. Lord knows what blunders he could commit. So far – even before his taking of the oath – we have seen him threaten to unravel Nato, encourage a nuclear build-up in Asia, flirt with a collapse of relations with China by accepting sycophancy from the leader of Taiwan and fairly encourage the further disintegration of the European Union. Building golf courses in Scotland does not a foreign relations (or Brexit) expert make. Nor does hosting Miss Universe pageants in Moscow.

Actually, it gets even worse. As far as we can tell, no president has been so ill-equipped to respond to whatever foreign crises might emerge in his early days than Trump. This is thanks to a huge delay in finding and appointing people ready to serve him. As of the inaugration, the National Security Council, NSC, had nobody ready to advise Mr Trump on the Middle East, for example. Or indeed on Russia or nuclear proliferation, two areas where he could use a little coaching.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” one career government official told Foreign Policy magazine. Officials in the State Department have complained that while about 250 briefing papers were written for the Trump transition team to help them get ready to tackle the world’s trickiest problems, they were unconvinced that anyone had actually read any of them.

Days before the inauguration, the Trump transition team conceded it had been forced to ask some 50 Obama appointees to remain in their posts while they still struggled to find replacements, including some at the NSC. Part of the difficulty is that so many members of the Washington foreign policy establishment were less than enthusiastic about Mr Trump when he was running for election. Because he hasn’t forgotten, they are not getting hired.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be alone in celebrating the rise of Trump

Mr Trump, meanwhile, has been taking his guidance on global matters from what The Washington Post dubs his “national security kitchen cabinet”. A motley crew made up of Steven Bannon, his far-right strategist and former CEO of Breitbart, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus, his Chief of Staff, whose previous diplomatic experience has not extended beyond settling squabbles inside the Republican National Committee, which he used to lead.

There will, of course, be no ignoring the hordes beyond America’s borders (even if some might be obscured by a soon-to-rise wall). Mr Trump will doubtless realise quickly that it’s on foreign policy that he will be able to make the biggest, loudest impact. That is especially appealing if you are an impatient sort. And anyway, he is already contradicting himself on this notion as he is on so many others. There is the re-set he intends to pull off with Vladimir Putin, for example. A summit in some third country is already on the cards. It may or may not go the way he expects it to.

He sort of conceded the point in his speech when he vowed to eradicate, “radical Islamic terrorism … completely from the face of the Earth”. That enemy, in the form of Isis or any other terror network, will attempt also to strike back.

Mr Trump’s thin skin is another cause for sleeplessness. Arguably, the most dramatic moment of Inauguration Day happened beyond the gaze of the television cameras. Probably even before he had had breakfast, Mr Trump was sat down by officers from Strategic Command, the Omaha-based joint military command that babysits America’s strategic nuclear arsenal, and given a crash course on how to start a nuclear war. Or, hopefully, how not start a nuclear war, assuming he understands the principle of mutual deterrence.

The so-called Nuclear Football, the briefcase that holds the codes with which a president can launch those warheads, whether from a ship or submarine, a bomber aircraft or from inside one of the missile silos in the Great Plains, is no longer a few paces away from Mr Obama. It is now resting close to Mr Trump, albeit cuffed to the wrist of the duty officer carrying it.

Were it Ms Clinton standing under that dull Washington sky on Friday vowing to serve the nation to the best of her ability, the world would surely be feeling a good deal more comfortable than it is now (except, possibly, for Mr Putin). Eventually, perhaps, we will be able to relax a little. Mr Trump’s promise of a selfish, inwardly obsessed America may not in fact come to pass. Ideas that seem good in the heat of campaigns lose their appeal when you actually have to govern. A ban on all Muslims entering the United States? I don’t think so.

But in the meantime we must hold our breath and pray that his crashing inexperience, tracing-paper skin and dearth of grown-up advisors doesn’t lead him and America into some conflagration the consequences of which could hurt all of the rest of us. In Hell, or wherever it is he has banished us to.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments