Trump may have gone to Davos because Obama didn't – but the two presidents' foreign policies are unexpectedly similar

On balance, it could be argued that, one year in, Trump has continued large swathes of Obama’s foreign policy, with more purpose, a lot more noise, but also – to a limited degree – more success

Mary Dejevksy
Thursday 25 January 2018 18:44
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In many respects the World Economic Forum is somewhere Donald Trump should feel quite at home
In many respects the World Economic Forum is somewhere Donald Trump should feel quite at home

You can understand why Donald Trump might have baulked at flying halfway around the world to attend the World Economic Forum. The Swiss Alps – indeed, alps anywhere – are probably not his bag. His preferred form of recreation is golf in the sunshine, not mountain walks à la Angela Merkel and Theresa May. He is said to dislike Camp David, where walking and rustic hill cabins are very much the order of the day.

Then there is the whole Davos, world-cooperation, global-governance thing. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”. Again, this hardly sounds like Trump’s natural thought habitat. No wonder he apparently decided only at the last minute that he would go – and then only for 24 hours.

Was he swayed, as some say, by the argument that his predecessor had always scorned Davos, given that he likes to present himself to the world as the non-Obama? Perhaps.

But perhaps not. There are ways in which the World Economic Forum, if not the Swiss Alpine vastness, is somewhere Donald Trump could feel quite at home. For the point of the gathering, as it has evolved, is not only the vague, slightly passé theme it adopts every year, but the opportunities to meet and greet, to mingle with the powerful, to “network” (in the jargon), and to do business of the commercial as well as the political kind. It is viciously hierarchical and stratified and caters as much to the habits of “big men” – mostly men, for all the attempt to diversify a little this year – as to the proponents of airy-fairy internationalist do-goodery.

This is the world as Trump knows it: the world in which he has operated with more or less success for more than four decades. He may be a novice at the White House, but he is no novice in the world of international wheeler-dealing.

And this is something that has shone through his presidency so far. His personal diplomacy, whether face to face or amplified by the Twitter megaphone, has actually been more successful – with the “big men”, especially of Asia – than his many detractors allow.

Donald Trump threatens to stop aid to Palestine in Davos meeting

So why not put in an appearance at a gathering where you believe, with inimitable self-assurance, that you and your country are – for the time being at least – top dog? It is worth observing that the last US president to go to Davos was Bill Clinton, at a time when the US really was global top dog, though with a premonition that competition lay just beyond the horizon. Clinton, too, at the outset at least, was both an “accidental” president, and one of the most successful personal diplomats of the past 30 or so years.

The notion that Trump decided to go to Davos in part to differentiate his presidency from that of Obama (yet again) also deserves to be questioned. Or, at least, even if that was a factor, the substance of that claim leaves something to be desired. Because a truth rarely acknowledged is that there is a lot more continuity between his foreign policy and that of Barack Obama than either would probably care to admit.

Strip out the bombast and the “America First” rhetoric (heard less, by the way, recently), strip out the Washington frenzy over Russia that has drowned so much else out, and what you have is a large measure of agreement on US foreign policy priorities in the world as it is today. The first would be that the only serious strategic rival to the US in the not-too-distant future is China, so that reinforcing existing alliances with others in Asia, from Australia to Japan via Indonesia and South Korea is crucial to the objective of keeping shipping lanes open, if not directly “containing” China.

Staying in Asia, both Obama and Trump identified the potential threat from North Korea. Their rhetoric and manner of approach may be very different, but their actual response – to scale back US moves that could be seen as aggressive and trigger panic in Pyongyang – while holding out the prospect of talks has been similar.

In fact, Trump might be seen as both the more conciliatory, in deed if not in word – he passed up the standard presidential visit to the Demilitarised Zone and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, offered talks without preconditions – and the more successful. Not only did he delegate some of the diplomatic responsibility to China, but the two Koreas are now talking, after a fashion, and fielding a joint team to the Winter Olympics.

In the Middle East and South Asia, Obama began with high ambitions, as set out in his Cairo speech soon after his inauguration – only to find them thwarted by the Arab Spring. Trump harboured no such ambitions, but the trajectory looks very similar. Like Obama, Trump regards terrorism as the biggest threat to the US and the region, and current US engagements, from Syria to Afghanistan via Iraq, are predicated on that.

Obama’s signal success was to track down and kill Osama bin Laden (for which he never really gained the credit he deserved). But he was as unenthusiastic as Trump about involvement in foreign wars – like Trump, he campaigned on a non-interventionist platform. Like Trump, he was bamboozled by the top brass into keeping US forces in Afghanistan and, like Trump, he regarded Pakistan as a major problem – but unlike Trump, chose not to do much about it.

An oft-voiced criticism of Obama was that he was weak and reluctant to use US power, with his “red line” in Syria cited – in my view unjustly – as evidence. Trump might be seen as having “corrected” that, ordering a missile strike in response to an alleged Syrian government chemical attack, and Tillerson recently insisting that the US would remain involved in Syria. But the fact is that, thanks to some highly selective action, Trump has given an appearance of strength, even though US forces are less engaged in the region than they were during the Obama administration.

Something similar could be said about Middle East peace and relations with Europe. Obama disappointed, because expectations were high on both counts, whereas Trump seemed indifferent at the outset, so there was less ground to be lost.

Even where Trump has appeared to diverge significantly from Obama – Iran, Nato, climate change – the sharp policy turns have so far stayed in the realm of rhetoric. It can also be argued that, even with congressional pressure calling for a tougher response to Russia, Trump has – behind the scenes – managed to keep relations on an even keel.

On balance, it could be argued that, one year in, Trump has continued large swathes of Obama’s foreign policy, with more purpose, a lot more noise, but also – to a limited degree – more success. The Europeans, among others, are also, it seems, learning when and when not to tweet back.

There should also be a footnote to “America First”. In his address to the UN General Assembly, Trump qualified this – as he has done since – by saying that he expected every country to place its interests first. Those who stand up for their interests gain respect; those seen as supine do not.

This is why it is wrong to see him as an outright isolationist, and wrong to anticipate that he will be out of place at Davos. As a “big man”, a status-conscious braggart and a sharp-eyed businessman, he should fit right in.

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