By Prabasi Nepali
Trump Questions EU Relevance
It may sound strange, but in Europe there is now a threat perception emanating from Trump’s America. So much so that in the latest issue of the most popular German news magazine Der Spiegel, US President Donald Trump is depicted beheading the Statue of Liberty on the cover — sparking lively controversy at home and abroad. It shows a cartoon figure of Trump with a bloodied knife in the left hand and the statue’s head, dripping with blood, in the right hand. The Cuban artist who designed the cover told The Washington Post: “It’s a beheading of democracy, a beheading of a sacred symbol”. The cover has set off a debate in the German and international social and mainstream media.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (Liberals) and Vice President of the European Parliament described it as ‘tasteless’. For most, it just reflects the current reality of American politics.The cover was the culminationof a series of attacks on Berlin’s policies by Trump and his official aides, marking a rapid deterioration in German relations with the US. Chancellor Angela Merkel was the preferred ally of choice for former US president Barack Obama, who praised her as “an outstanding partner”. In contrast, last month Trump said Merkel had made a “catastrophic mistake” with her open-door migration policy, and this week his top trade adviser said Germany was using a “grossly undervalued” Euro to gain advantage over the United States and even its European partners — leveling a similar accusation as with China.
None of the leaders of the 28-nation European Union (EU) had expected such a crisis in US-EU relations. With the possible exception of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where his newly-confirmed defence secretary (minister), Gen. Mattis has softened Trump’s bombastic tone, Trump has spoken disparagingly of other multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the EU. Last Thursday, he couldn’t exaggerate more: “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually . . . It’s not going to happen anymore.” Against this ominous background, European leaders have come to the reluctant conclusion that Trump is now challenging, what no other US president has done before, namely not only the 70-year European project of integration, security and unprecedented economic prosperity, but also liberal democracy.
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is the president of the European Council, wrote a letter to 27 leaders of the EU’s 28 member states (leaving out the UK’s PM Theresa May who had rushed to Trump for special treatment), suggesting that the Trump administration now presented a threat on the same scale as a newly assertive China, an aggressive Russia and “wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and Africa.” It was not lost on European leaders that Trump had extolled UK’s withdrawal from the EU, or Brexit, saying “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.” Tusk wrote of “worrying declarations” from the Trump team, including: “Particularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation, with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.”
According to Mark Leonhard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Tusk was reacting clear-sighted to a series of new dangers posed by the new administration in Washington: “Trump is the first American presidentsince the EU was created not to be in favour of deeper European integration,” but “Not only that, but he’s against it and sees the destruction of the European Union as in America’s interest.” The European perception of Trump is not commendatory at all. They see “Trump as the biggest threat to global order and the European ideal of how the world should be organized.” Unfortunately, Trump sees his confrontational diplomatic style as a necessity. Leonhard said Trump “seems to be linking up with the scariest and darkest forces within European societies,” which all want the European Union to fail. According to Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, the French are the most disconcerted by Trump (and have taken an uncompromising stand on Brexit) and see him as a major threat to European cohesion. The French “see the three great world powers — Russia, China and now the U.S. — wanting to destroy the EU.”
Unnecessary American Bluster on Iran
Last week in an unusual approach, Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt.Gen. Michael T. Flynn unnecessarily issued a brusque warning to Iran. He first denounced Iran’s latest ballistic missile test and a recent attack on a Saudi naval vessel by Yemini Houthi militants supported by Iran, and went on to (out of context) accuse the previous Obama administration of failing to respond adequately to previous provocations, he extravagantly sought to up the ante vis-à-vis Iran: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice” [!] A case can, of course, be made for an energetic response to Iran’s own confrontational behaviour in the region at large. Tests of ballistic missiles — especially those that can carry nuclear warheads — can be destabilizing, and Iran continues to interfere in an unwarranted manner in its neighbours’ domestic affairs. Iran’s neighbouring countries are deeply concerned, and the Obama administration had put in place certain measures to restrict Iran.
It was not the warning per se, but the national security adviser’s posturing that was out of place and gravely hazardous. According to the New York Times: “By issuing a warning so imprecise — in such a dramatic, public fashion — he has set himself and the United States up for either an embarrassing retreat or a risky confrontation.” The relevant point is that the Trump administration does not have the “large range” of options that it claims. It could abandon the nuclear deal (ofwhich the other four permanent UN Security Council members and Germany are also signatories), and thus allowing Iran to resume its nuclear weapons programme — therefore not a very wise decision. If Trump contemplates more vigorous measures, he is unlikely to find any meaningful international partners. In addition, Flynn announced his bluster without considering the possible reaction of his Iranian adversary.
According to Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Iran has its own range of response options, including (sponsored) terrorist attacks against the US, attacks by Shiite militias against American forces in Iraq, or various kinds of pressure on the Iraqi government against the US. Any of these reactions may in turn trigger an American retaliation, including the direct use of force, considering the administration’s uncompromising talk. To contain the Iranian threat, Gordon proposes clear and credible private warnings, durable cooperation with the Gulf states and Israel, financial and diplomatic measures to greatly augment the price for Iran’s engagement in the region, the efficacious use of intelligence and covert action, and the maintenance of superior military capabilities. The former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region under President Obama maintains that such measures “are more advisable than bluster and ambiguous public red lines that would be hard to enforce.”
Possible US-China Tensions in East & South-East Asia
China’s foreign ministry has warned that the US is putting regional stability in East Asia at risk following remarks by Defence Secretary Gen.(retd.) Jim Mattis that a US commitment to defend Japanese territory also applies to the tiny uninhabited Senkaku islands. The ministry called on the US to avoid discussion of the issue and reasserted China’s claim of sovereignty over the island chain that it calls the Diaoyu.
China also registered its displeasure with Mattis’ remarks last Friday in South Korea that the new US administration was committed to fulfilling the agreement that the Obama administration reached with South Korea to deploy a high-end US missile defence system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, to improve protection of South Korea, Japan and US troops stationed in both countries against a North Korean missile attack. China objects to the system because its powerful radar would also allow it to penetrate deep into northeastern China, allowing it to observe Chinese military installations and movements. The Chinese Foreign Ministry further said the deployment would “jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region.”
Chinese officials and scholars anticipate further turbulence in bilateral relations with the US. Trump had already sparked anger in China following his election when he broke with decades of diplomatic protocol by talking on the phone with the president of Taiwan and violating the ‘One China’ policy. He has also raised concerns with criticism of China’s military buildup on disputed islands in the South China Sea, accusations of currency manipulation and unfair trade policies, as well as allegations that China was doing too little to restrain North Korea in developing nuclear armaments.
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By Prabasi Nepali