As the United States President Donald Trump returned to Washington late Saturday, the question that arises is whether the world has become a better place through his week-long journey overseas, which began in the Middle East and led to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, with an audience with the Pope in the Vatican thrown in, and wound up at the Sicilian coast for the G7 summit.
Everything about Trump has to be with hindsight. We have to wait for the weekend to know the answer to the most consequential question for mankind and the planet stemming from Trump’s foreign tour. Trump has promised that he might «make his final decision on the Paris Accord next week».
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the G7 that the climate talks in particular were «very unsatisfactory». What if the US leaves the Paris climate change agreement? A US retreat will constitute severe setback since that could drive up global warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius by the turn of the century. Worse still, other countries might follow suit.
Meanwhile, great expectations have been raised regarding three other issues – terrorism, the Middle East crisis and Eurasian tensions. But Trump’s approach to terrorism and Islam turned out to be rather opportunistic. Candidate Trump followed President Trump like alter-ego throughout his stay in Saudi Arabia.
Here was someone who explicitly linked terrorism with Islam and vowed to fight the ISIS and the extremist groups in Syria as top priority. And he was seen revelling in the hospitality lavished on him in Riyadh by the godfather of terrorist groups.
The fight against terrorism will remain incomplete without addressing the root cause, which is the Saudi regime’s patronage of extremist groups as deliberate state policy to keep them away from threatening the House of Saud. Terrorism in the Middle East cannot be separated from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist establishment. The ISIS’ roots lie in Wahhabism.
But Trump’s choice of Riyadh for his first visit abroad as president had little to do with terrorism or Islam. It was largely about ‘America First’. He wrapped up $380 billion dollar worth business and, quite possibly, positioned Wall Street to secure a big chunk of Saudi Arabia’s sale of Aramco shares, estimated to be worth $2 trillion.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia will not help settlement in Syria. On the other hand, by transferring advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, he is only encouraging Saudi bellicosity, fuelling the tragic war in Yemen. Trump openly promoted the idea of an «Arab NATO» comprising Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East which would collaborate with Israel and confront Iran.
Again, notwithstanding his pretensions as deal maker, Trump actually glossed over the Arab-Israeli conflict while on Israeli soil. And yet, unresolved Palestinian problem is at the core of the Middle East crisis.
The good part may be Trump administration’s doublespeak regarding Iran. The New York Times reported recently, «The Trump administration appears to have grasped an important point about Iran: The very thing that the administration complains and worries about — Iran’s expanding influence in the region — makes it imperative that the two countries maintain at least a working relationship… On the American side, the private sector experience of many in the new administration in Washington may make them more amenable to the idea of negotiations».
To be sure, the real political earthquake occurred when Trump engaged with the NATO allies and the G7 partners in the latter half of his tour. Succinctly put, Trump showed no interest in exacerbating the West’s tensions with Russia. Trump’s cogitations in Brussels may even have scattered the remnants of New Cold War clouds carried over from the Barack Obama administration.
Of course, Trump didn’t repeat that NATO is «obsolete», but he underscored that the alliance must regain its sense of direction, implicitly suggesting that Russia is not the enemy and terrorism is. Quite obviously, NATO pronouncements have lost their earlier tone of belligerence toward Russia, as evident since the alliance’s summit in Wales in 2014. In particular, the intrusive outlook toward the Ukraine crisis is conspicuously absent too.
Trump has shaken up the NATO – even mocking at its billion-dollar brand new building in Brussels – by neglecting to say what his audience was waiting for regarding Washington’s commitment to collective defence. He openly called the Germans «very bad» for selling millions of cars to Americans.
Clearly, the ground beneath the feet of the trans-Atlantic alliance is shifting. Trump has trampled upon Germany’s geopolitical ambitions. From this point, Germany may defer less and less to the US – and charter more and more its own path. Back in Germany, Merkel hit out:
«The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days. And so, all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands… Of course we need to have friendly relations with the US, and with the UK, and with other neighbours, including Russia. We have to fight for our own future ourselves, for our destiny as Europeans».
Merkel has given virtual notice that Germany will wander away from the American alliance. Equally, French President Emmanuel Macron also called his high profile handshake with Trump a «moment of truth». He said, «My handshake with him, it wasn't innocent. One must show that you won't make small concessions, even symbolic ones… I don't believe in diplomacy through public criticism but in my bilateral dialogues I don't let anything pass. That is how you get respect».
But how far can Merkel or Macron plough defiant paths in the contemporary world situation and the disarray within Europe itself? Suffice to say that the three days that Trump spent in Europe mark an inflection point. How this pans out could impact several templates – trans-Atlantic partnership (and Germany’s commitment to Atlanticism), European integration, Eurasian geopolitics (especially Ukraine), China-EU relations and of course Russia’s own relations with the US and Europe.
For sure, all this poses an acute identity crisis for the «New Europeans» in the Baltics, Central Europe and the Balkans. Again, «Trump effect» comes on top of the Brexit, and brings West Europe under compulsion to manage the European order. While Europe benefited from globalization, it didn’t build security assets overseas, and had the best of both worlds. Therefore, Trump’s corporate-style approach in effect means telling the NATO allies that there’s nothing like free lunch.
However, his forceful demand on sharing of budgetary burdens cannot be taken to mean that the US is about to give up its absolute control over NATO. In sum, Trump’s baseline is that he will continue to choose the allies’ dishes at the lunch, although they will be going Dutch.