Trump: Business as Usual?
Febrile times. Did Israel really threaten New Zealand with war? And is Russia planning to blackmail a Trump-led US? Well, maybe.
On December 23rd, the UN Security Council voted by 14 votes to nil, with the US abstaining, to condemn Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestine as “a flagrant violation of international law” and called for an immediate freeze.
Israel panicked at the prospect of the resolution’s passage. Sanctions were imposed on Senegal, one of the sponsors of the resolution, with all aid programmes cancelled. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister received a telephone call from the Israeli Prime Minister, saying: “If you continue to promote this resolution, from our point of view it will be a declaration of war.”
Despite such unprecedented threats, the resolution passed - for once with no US veto, although Obama three months earlier promised Israel a record $38 billion in military assistance over the next ten years. This UN vote now needs to be backed up with a renewed campaign for separate labelling of goods produced in these illegal territories, the breaking of financial links with companies that trade with them, and a case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
Instead, things look set to go backwards following the inauguration of President Trump, who has pledged to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing the policy of all western governments of refusing to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel until there is a peace settlement.
Trump has also made a personal donation of $10,000 to the illegal Israeli settlement of Beit El and his nominee as the new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is president of the American Friends of Beit El.
These gestures are a green light by the Israeli government to accelerate the pace of settlement building in the West Bank. Current plans to annex rural areas would see Palestine reduced to just 8% of its historic territory, an archipelago of 220 islands surrounded by Israeli territory. Overall, the Israeli government will be greatly cheered by the new presidency, even if Trump’s top advisor ran a website that was a magnet for anti-Semitism and one of his senior transition team boycotted a briefing by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in solidarity with a far right MEP who had been excluded.
Beyond Israel/Palestine, what can we expect from a Trump presidency in foreign policy? The ruthless promotion of US business interests, certainly, and escalating tensions with China, given his recent insensitivity on Taiwan and his campaign pledge to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports.
The unusual closeness of Trump to Putin’s Russia needs to be weighed in this context. It may reflect Trump’s business interests or his personal admiration for authoritarians. Perhaps Putin has intelligence that could destroy Trump. Or it may represent the desire of a significant section of the US ruling elite to come to a new accommodation with Russia, the better to isolate China, increasingly a rival to US global economic domination.
Markets are booming at the prospect of a big-spending Trump presidency, apparently relaxed at the prospect of more record budget deficits, just like those run up by Reagan and Bush Jr and similarly fuelled by big increases in military spending and corporate tax cuts. It’s all fine - as long as it’s only Republican presidents who do this, not Democrats. Equally Republican presidents face fewer constraints on military action - Bush Senior invaded Panama and attacked Iraq and his son conducted barbarous military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, prepare for war: Trump’s appointment of a Defense Secretary whose nickname is “Mad Dog” inspires little confidence that one will be avoided.
Yet there will be some continuity with Obama, particularly in the war on Isis. Despite insinuations from Trump that Obama was lacklustre about this, the number of civilian casualties inflicted by US-led forces in Iraq is now higher than any time since the earliest years of the 2003 invasion. Some sources estimate that civilian fatalities resulting from US bombardment in Mosul alone are now running at nearly 100 a week, although there has been virtually no media coverage of this.
For some, Trump constitutes a fundamental break with all that has gone before. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer apocalyptically wrote, “The Western world as virtually everyone alive today has known it will almost certainly perish before our eyes.”
Most commentators emphasise the maverick character of the new President, but this is as much a Republican takeover as a Trump one. His wilder Cabinet appointments could be rejected by Senators, who have the constitutional power to do so - they blocked two of Obama’s eight years ago - but in most cases they won’t bother. Countless opportunities to hem in Trump will not be taken - just as there was no significant rebellion within the Electoral College, despite Hillary Clinton winning nearly three million more votes than him.
Internationally, Trump represents a contradiction. On one hand, he has criticised the US’s expensive wars in the Middle East and he appeals to an electoral base that supports greater isolationism and an ‘America first’ approach. On the other hand, falling economic competitiveness means that the US military remains the surest guarantor of US global economic domination - hence Trump‘s promise to increase defence spending. With the Republicans as a whole back in power, we can expect a more aggressive foreign policy, as advocated by neocons who see the end of the Cold War as a huge opportunity for the US to reshape the world as it wishes.
So Trump’s own stated desire to disentangle from conflicts overseas is at odds with his most hawkish appointees, many of whom want, for example, not only to overturn Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran but to overthrow the regime there too. But as Russia increasingly sees Iran as its client in the region, such an aspiration would come up against Trump’s own alleged closeness to Putin, although again his new Cabinet is full of anti-Russia sentiment.
The tendency for the US to assert its global power will probably win out. This threatens greater international lawlessness, an approach reinforced by Trump’s own behaviour, including his appointment to high office of people who peddled outright lies about his presidential opponent being a child molester, not to mention his pre-election boast that he might not respect the result of the US election if he lost.
If that’s permissible for the world’s largest superpower, why not Gambia, where the outgoing President, encouraged by this example, refused to step down for several weeks after losing an election several weeks ago - or the Congo, where President Kabila continues in office despite the expiry of his mandate. Nobody now expects US policy towards these regimes to be motivated by concerns about international law, any more than they do in relation to the Philippines, where President Duterte has unleashed a wave of extra-judicial killings against the urban poor - over 5,600 killed in the last six months - and brags about his personal involvement in them when he was a city mayor. The US State Department, even under Obama, sent millions of dollars of “aid” to the same police departments responsible for the killings and Trump allegedly phoned Duterte to praise his efforts.
Likewise, Trump’s election promise to reinstate the kind of torture routinely used under the Bush Administration will be an incentive to countries with poor human rights records to do the same. The UN’s Special rapporteur on torture warned recently that if Trump revived the use of torture, the consequences around the world “would be catastrophic”.
But those who look to the United Nations to uphold international law should not expect any less contempt from Trump for that institution than previous Republican presidents. He recently dismissed it as a “club” for people “to have a good time” and said it caused, rather than solved problems. Republican Representatives meanwhile are working on proposals to slash US funding to the UN in the wake of the vote on Israeli settlements - as Israel itself will.
The vast majority of Trump appointees so far to Cabinet and other top posts dismiss the idea of global warming. As under previous Republican presidents, the Environmental Protection Agency, whose transition is being overseen by a prominent climate change denier, is being neutered. Four years ago, Trump himself called climate change a Chinese-created hoax. Here again, there is widespread pessimism that if Trump walks away from the Paris climate change agreement, other countries will not feel bound by it.
On US election day, 200 countries met in Marrakech to put some teeth into the Paris negotiations on climate change. As the results came in, stunned participants at the conference virtually abandoned the proceedings, seeing little point in continuing without the world’s most powerful country on board.
So the US won’t be isolationist in the old sense of withdrawing from global affairs. But it could well be isolated - at odds with much of the world on issues as diverse as Palestine, human rights and climate justice - and all the more dangerous as a result.