By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: ‘World Order’ is the title of Henry Kissinger’s latest and eminently enriching magnum opus. As one surveys the geopolitical landscape on the eve of Donald Trump’s installation as the next US president, however, one notes that global disorder would seem to constitute its leit motif.
Although one has become inured to diplomatic and political surprises, the sustainability of long-established American policies has been seriously questioned as his chief cabinet picks have adopted stances that contradict many of Trump’s signature policy innovations and seem to guarantee a period of global uncertainty and turbulence.
Rex Tillerson, chosen for Secretary of State and retired General James Mattis his pick for Defense Secretary, in their hearings, have challenged Trump’s oft-proclaimed desire for improved relations with Moscow; both directing their fusillades squarely at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Specifically, Mattis accused the Russian president of “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance “, while Tillerson averred: “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at resurgent Russia”, then going on to claim that Russia “poses a danger” to US and European interests. Such comments clearly are at odds with Trump’s repeated praise for Putin’s “intelligence” when viewed against the backdrop of the strained relationship between the US and Russia since 2012 and following Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, not to mention sharp differences over Syria.
Against the backcloth of the swirling accusations of Russian interference in the American presidential election process, the patent differences of assessments between the two cabinet nominees and Trump have befuddled mavens of chancelleries the world over.
Whom should they believe as providing a reliable guide to future actions/policies, post-January 20, 2017? Is such a game plan an integral component of Trump’s playbook, given that he had repeatedly highlighted the virtue of unpredictability? Or, could it be that while Trump is the supreme boss he wishes to hear all possible points of view on issues before finally deciding on any specific policy position? A world in disarray would, in any case, seem imminent given that America is the prime mover and shaker of the international order today.
It is tempting to speculate whether the incoming Trump administration would rescind the recent US troop deployment in Poland and other eastern NATO allies, executed in the dying days of the Obama administration and described as a “threat” by Russia. Similarly suggestive of disorder and incoherence is whether Trump will make good on his hint to the Wall Street Journal that he may scrap US sanctions against Russia that are in place.
No less so is disconcerting prospect of Middle East mayhem if Trump makes good on his plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a conclusion reinforced by the consensus of the just-concluded Paris conference on a two-state settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.The consequences – intended or otherwise – of his utterances against the Iran nuclear deal and those connected to his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim postures may be unclear in their entirety; they can be no doubts that they will vastly complicate America’s dealing with Latin America and the Islamic world.
As it is, ramifications of jaw-dropping changes are manifest across Europe where Trump’s calling into question of America’s security guarantee has spawned deep anxiety, as underscored in former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer’s proposal that France and Germany should lead the EU in preparing for a future without the US security umbrella.
Moving on to China – whom both Tillerson and Mattis have traduced – there is not a little confusion whether they see Moscow or Beijing as the greater threat to the US. Continuation of a hard-line approach towards both Russia and China could further Sino-Russian relations, which may not be in America’s long-term national interest.
Tillerson’s comparison of China’s island-building in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea is bound to infuriate Beijing, so, too, his threat that the US could block access to those islands. Indeed, as much is reflected in China Daily’s warning that such a move “would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US.”
American academic and historian Jeffery N. Wasserstrom puts the issue more diplomatically: “Just as a weak China was not able to count of (President Woodrow) Wilson’s protection (in 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conference), a strong China will not be able to count on Trump to get out of the way – at least, not without throwing a few elbows.”
Would such apparent recklessness serve America’s strategic interests? Let’s not forget that many experts have expressed grave doubts whether the US would successfully take on China militarily there – not least, when many Asia-Pacific countries seem to have acquiesced to China’s dominance of the South China Sea, not far from the Chinese mainland.
Leaving aside the vital question of whether the US will be able to take military actions – simultaneously – in several hotspots in the world, there is bound to be a great upheaval in the international system if Trump actually recognises Taiwan’s independence. The kindest interpretation is that all the noise and bluster coming out of Trump Tower in New York represents the first moves in a negotiation process by the consummate practitioner of ‘the art of the deal’.
The alternate explanation is that Trump is psychologically twisting Beijing’s arm to exert pressure on North Korea to give up on its nuclear weapons programme. That is an extremely tall order given the nature of the Pyongyang regime and dictator Kim Jong Un’s fierce commitment to that goal, which, in his view, is inextricably linked to what he perceives as an existentialist threat from the United States and her allies.
Mao Zedong famously spoke of ‘great turbulence under the heavens’; it would seem an apt description of the world scene, as Trump readies to take his oath of office as the world, in the meanwhile, keeps its fingers firmly crossed.
World ‘disorder’ as Trump assumes power
By MR Josse