Trump stumps: World nations struggle to deal with new US President
The question of how to handle Donald Trump is proving to be a major headache for governments around the world, and there is no agreement on how best to do it. The shared fear, reflected across the international community, is that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.world Updated: Feb 02, 2017 15:00 IST
The question of how to handle Donald Trump is proving to be a major headache for governments around the world, and there is no agreement on how best to do it. The shared fear, reflected across the international community, is that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
After braving the White House last week the UK prime minister, Theresa May, was castigated for her allegedly fawning behaviour towards the new US president. But the UK government believes, pragmatically, that Trump’s objectionable views and actions, such as his support for torture and his travel ban on seven mainly Muslim countries, must not be allowed to undermine the “special relationship”.
Saudi Arabia, which was not on Trump’s hit list, is also taking a practical approach. King Salman did not raise the travel ban when he spoke to Trump on Sunday, according to official accounts. Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi oil minister, emphasised the positive instead, welcoming Trump’s policy on fossil fuels and ignoring the rest. Pakistan, also exempted, is keeping its head down too.
Acquiescence, or what critics call appeasement, has not found favour in some European capitals. The French approach, typified by François Hollande, the country’s outgoing president, has been visceral and emotional. When they spoke last weekend, Hollande lectured Trump on democratic principles and the dangers of protectionism. “Withdrawal into oneself is a dead-end response,” he said.
In contrast, Germany’s official reaction to a week of unpleasant, Trump-related shocks was cool and rational, if not a little patronising. Unlike May, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was quick to signal her opposition to Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees.
But she has not retaliated over his insulting description of her open-door policy as “catastrophic”. Instead, Merkel talked down to him when they spoke last weekend. “The [1951 UN] refugee convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do so. The German government explained this policy in their call,” Merkel’s spokesman said.
Some countries may feel they have little to lose. Iran is one. It described Trump’s ban on Iranian travellers as “a shameful act”. Tehran suspects the new administration is looking for reasons to abrogate the 2015 nuclear deal. The US complaint at the UN on Monday about an allegedly illegal Iranian ballistic missile test was a “politically motivated” sign of things to come, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, suggested.
Suspicions in Iran and so-called “rogue” states such as North Korea or Sudan that Trump may deliberately try to provoke them has been strengthened by his brutal treatment of Mexico, ostensibly a close US friend and ally. North Korea has been behaving itself, waiting perhaps to see what happens. But the fact that this week’s first overseas visit by the new US defence secretary, James Mattis, is to South Korea and Japan will not have gone unnoticed in Pyongyang. The danger is that the targets of Trump’s ire may decide to get their retaliation in first.
There is another way to handle Trump, and it is the most worrying for the western allies. It is based entirely on one-sided calculations of national advantage. Governments ask themselves, how can the arrival of an impulsive, inexperienced and self-important American president be exploited for our benefit? Russia, Israel and potentially China exemplify this approach. In his talks with Trump last week, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, purposefully laid the ground for a cost-free deal (to him) on Ukraine and sanctions. For Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, the prize includes unconstrained expansion of settlements. Thousands of new homes in the Occupied Territories have been announced since Trump’s inauguration. Xi Jinping, China’s no-nonsense president, is also holding his fire, looking for weakness.
For these hard-headed leaders, the question of how best to handle Trump comes down to how best to flatter, manipulate and then hoodwink him. Some conservative leaders, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, have been welcoming, applauding Trump’s America First nationalism and the “end of multilateralism”. They doubtless hope for a political and economic pay-off.
Far-right European parties seeking power in elections this year, such as France’s Front National and the Alternative for Germany, hope to profit by his example. Marine Le Pen, the FN leader, will look for a Trumpist endorsement, tacit or otherwise.
Donald Tusk, the European council president, is so alarmed about what he calls the Trump threat that he has issued an urgent call to EU leaders, who meet in Malta on Friday. The Europeans are not quite at panic stations – yet. But Tusk’s message is plain: “We need to talk about Donald.”