Come late November, and the British and European media customarily feature that all-American picture of the US President, and his happy family, sparing the Thanksgiving turkey. Perhaps it was just the press of other news – the non-coup coup that pushed a tenacious 93-year-old from his perch in Zimbabwe; the first intimations of Angela Merkel’s political mortality; the latest spasms of Brexit; (parochially) the UK Budget. Perhaps it also reflected the unpopularity of the current White House incumbent on the European side of the Atlantic Ocean. Whatever the reason, those turkey pictures seemed fewer and further between this year, and the bird, while luxuriantly feathered as always, that bit trimmer.
On the size of the turkey, my impression may not be wrong. The first turkey to be spared by a US President (George H W Bush) weighed a whopping 50lb. This year’s bird tipped the scales at just 36lb. And it might be tempting to regard the comparative size of the bird, along with the lesser prominence of that Thanksgiving ceremony in Europe this year as somehow indicative of the much-forecast decline of the United States over the long term and its sharp loss of international prestige under this President.
The reality, as so often, is more complicated, though not necessarily more consoling to those Britons and Europeans of an Atlanticist disposition.
Turn the globe towards the east, and Donald Trump is by no means the one-man foreign policy catastrophe he is widely seen as in Europe. He has just completed a 13-day trip around Asia, with stops, speeches and meetings in five countries, and it went pretty much without a hitch – which may be why we have heard so little about it. Worse, for those who wish Donald Trump and his tribe ill, he left with his reputation in the region enhanced. Thanks – perhaps to an experienced foreign service, perhaps to his own nous – he avoided some of the bear-traps that awaited.
At a time of heightened tension with North Korea, he resisted the temptation to make things worse by staging a photo-op at Panmunjom, as other US Presidents have done. Indeed, he wisely avoided the flashpoint De-Militarised Zone altogether, and he waited until he was safely back in the US to announce new sanctions against North Korea. He chose not to annoy his many enemies in Washington further by sitting down for a one-on-one with Vladimir Putin during the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam. He saved whatever he wanted to say for a 90-minute phone conversation after his return.
Earlier get-to-know-you meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister and the Chinese President seemed to have paid off. On home turf now, they took his known views on trade in their stride. In general, his plain-speaking seems to go down better outside Old Europe, as does his unapologetically transactional approach. Non-Europeans also appreciate that he always qualifies his “America First” theme by saying that he expects “you to put your country first, too”. It was Putin’s defence of Russia’s national interest that drew Trump’s first compliments (at what political cost is now all too clear), but the same non-judgmental approach is serving him well with people who resent what they see as preaching and double standards from other Western leaders.
So, although it is early days yet, Trump’s standing as an American abroad is already a lot higher than it looks from Europe. And his bombast, his populist language and his flamboyant manner is less off-putting in countries with newer economies where the pursuit of wealth and the coupling of wealth and politics is less frowned upon than it is among Old European elites.
None of this means, however, that the United States in the time of Donald Trump will either enhance, or even retain, its status as unchallenged global leader – or even that Trump (as opposed to the Washington establishment) regards this as his central goal. The mistake here is to persist in the idea that US foreign policy success necessarily equates to the preservation of its status as the world’s single superpower and its view of itself as the essential and exceptional power. “America First” does not mean “Amerika ueber // umlaut on u, pls// Alles”, as it is sometimes – apprehensively interpreted abroad – but the duty of any American administration to defend the country’s national interests. The two are not necessarily the same thing.
So what is Trump doing or not doing in the world? Aside from his decision to keep US troops in Afghanistan – like Obama, another novice US President steamrolled by his generals – Trump is generally honouring his campaign pitch to scale back the projection of US military power. To speak, as some have done disparagingly, of the dangers of allowing others to fill the “vacuum” the US has left, is to persist in an already outdated view of the world.
In essence, Trump is doing little more than adjust to realities beyond his control: the US public’s aversion to more foreign wars and the growing power of others. Under Trump, the US has, in part, at least, delegated policy on North Korea to China and a backchannel at the UN. The Trans-Pacific trade agreement lives on as a regional pact without the US. And Trump’s misgivings on Nato have translated into a European awareness that the EU should take more responsibility for defence – a task only simplified by the departure of the UK with its Atlanticist illusions.
In the Middle East, the US may still be engaged in some mischief-making on behalf of local allies, but it has mostly left the region to its own devices. The peace-making pole has moved to Russia, where Putin this week convened a three-nation summit, with the presidents of Iran and Turkey. He had earlier met Syria’s President Assad, and before that hosted the Saudi King, with an enormous entourage, at the Kremlin. Is Russia the rising regional power? To the United States, now almost self-sufficient in energy, it hardly matters. Its prime interests are in its own security – of its borders and the international sea routes it needs for its trade. This is where any forward-looking President would be focusing US power and influence, not only “America First!” Trump.
It was Bill Clinton, presiding over the United States arguably at the height of its 20th century power, who set out the long-term choice facing his country: whether to try by every means possible to stay top dog on the block in perpetuity or…. “to do everything in our power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog.” He strongly supported the second option. Barack Obama accepted the premise, but found himself condemned – unjustly - for weakness. It now falls to Donald Trump, a foreign policy realist par excellence, to prepare the US for a world where the US is no longer top dog, and there may even be no top dog at all. The difficulties he faces in Washington illustrate just how hard that adjustment will be.