Not Trump’s throne

  • But his world!

On Nov 2, US President Donald Trump tweeted an image of himself captioned ‘Sanctions Army Coming November 5’ in an obvious, and outlandish, use of Game of Thrones imagery centered around an issue as colossal for the planet’s existence as nuclear proliferation, aimed at Iran. Fittingly, the chief of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, responded with an ‘I Will Stand Against You’ image on Twitter, which was another GoT reference.

That Trump has taken policymaking to Twitter is a reality that the world has had to come to terms with over the past two years – whether it’s issuing nuclear threats, announcing marching orders to his staffers or now underlining his strategy vis-à-vis a key player in the most volatile region in the world, and simultaneously an existential question, through memes.

What makes this particularly outrageous is the fact that not only has White House never seen anything like this before, it is also completely in character with who Donald Trump really is. This predicament, which has sprung up following Trump’s unlikeliest of unlikely triumph in the presidential elections two years ago, has resulted in literature being churned out by the second not just questioning the sanity of the US commander in chief, but also how much damage he’s exactly doing to America.

One such reaction in the foreign policy realm has been the recent release The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership written by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Vice President James M Lindsay and former Representative on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Ivo Daadler.

Lindsay and Daadler epitomise the reaction in the power corridors to Trump’s foreign policy in the self-aggrandising title of their book. And how Trump, of all the individuals in this world, seems to have unwittingly challenged this American grandeur is one of the many gigantic ironies of his reign.

The book argues that by no longer vying to lead a world formed on a ‘rules-based order’ Trump is neither helping the US nor anyone else

The title, and in turn its core argument aside, The Empty Throne, offers honest critique of what the Trump administration has been up to in the diplomatic realms.

Fittingly, the book opens with that fateful meeting in Room 2E924 of the Pentagon called “the Tank” on July 20, 2017 where everyone remotely linked with American foreign and security policies – the vice president, cabinet secretaries, White House advisers, Joint Chiefs of Staff – are gathered to lecture Trump so that he can better understand the core of American foreign policy.

After almost an hour of letting everyone else talk, Trump began rubbishing and questioning everything he heard – from American troops in South Korea, to America’s free-trade agreements, to Europe’s contribution in NATO, US building up its nuclear stockpile.

‘When the meeting ended after two hours, Trump praised his briefers to the reporters waiting outside the Tank. The discussion had been “great” and the people at the Pentagon “tremendous,” he said. “The job they do—absolutely incredible.” That didn’t mean, however, that they had dented his deep skepticism about the value of America’s military alliances and the benefits of its many trade agreements, let alone persuaded him to lead what he saw as ungrateful friends who laughed at America while stealing its jobs and wealth.’

This is the meeting in the aftermath of which the then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump is a “f**king moron”.

The meeting underscored the disparity between Trump and his advisors. The US president clearly has a fundamentally contrasting view towards US foreign policy – as opposed to the establishment’s narrative – which of course he made clear not just in his election campaigning, but for at least the past three decades.

Hence, with the system unable to change Trump’s ways, he’s now doing precisely what he said he would do.

Lindsay and Daadler, however, do concede that not all has been disastrous. Even so, the fact that US has engaged North Korea like never before is shunned by the authors as Washington succumbing to an agreement that Pyongyang had long put on the table, which is that that North Korea would freeze its nuclear assets once the US freezes its military exercise.

Similar scepticism is also showed towards the so called NAFTA 2.0, many terms for which had been agreed before Trump, and the passing of which would need the approval of the newly shaped Congress.

But the core argument of The Empty Throne is precisely that: that the US under Trump has abdicated its role as the leader of the free world, which had been a fundamental policy of all US presidents post World War II so as to avoid future world wars.

A major way the authors feel Trump has done so is through his alienation of traditional American allies. The authors claim that unlike China and Russia – who have ‘clients’ while the US has ‘allies’ – states with over 50pc of global GDP and over 60pc of global military power are American allies. Of course, as is evident the authors have taken certain liberties in defining who American ‘allies’ are.

But Trump’s alienation of these allies can be seen in his calling NATO ‘obsolete’ and demanding $1 trillion from Europe for not paying up as NATO allies – something he has asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do in personal meetings.

Trump’s distancing from traditional US allies was visible in the G7 meet in Quebec this year, or in his first ever call with the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which he dubbed the ‘worst call ever’.

‘Renewing American global leadership and deepening the partnership with friends and allies will not be easy, and they will not wait indefinitely for the United States to return to its cooperative ways.’

The authors concede that Trump did inherit challenges like a rising China, ISIS, Syria war, European political disintegration, US economic challenges, but argue that he has singlehandedly created more predicaments for the US simply by not adhering to the age old rule book.

The book argues that by no longer vying to lead a world formed on a ‘rules-based order’ Trump is neither helping the US nor anyone else. However, they are quick to critique any attempts to dub such an approach as exercising ‘isolationism’ on Trump’s part, with the authors adamant that the US president is trying to win a zero sum game.

‘Even more important than Trump’s decisions on specific issues was their cumulative effect. The rules-based order that shaped world politics created after World War II was neither inevitable nor necessarily permanent. It resulted from conscious American leadership. Trump’s abdication of that leadership raised two possible future scenarios, neither of them reassuring.’

One, there would be a 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ scramble for power or two, another country will fill the vacuum that US is creating. Hence, the question, in the book, isn’t about how whether Trump has done any damage to US foreign policy, it is about how much has been done, and how much of it’s irreversible.

Amidst the valid critique and scores of insightful observations, the authors’ penchant to give the Bill Clinton and George W Bush years not just a pass, but almost a perpetual eulogy, gives one an idea of where the narrative is coming from, and why it’s especially irked by Trump unfolding the very grandeur that the US has traditionally chosen to self-identify with.