World Leaders Weary of Trump’s Foreign Policy Mood Swings

G7 Summit, Biarritz, France. Source:AFP

This op-ed first appeared on the SCMP website 9/2/19.


First he says he will, then he says he won’t, though in the end he might. Welcome to another dizzying episode of Trumplandia, featuring an array of contradictory policy announcements from the mercurial US president.First he raised China tariffs, then had second thoughts which morphed into wishing he’d raised them even more, all the while calling Chinese President Xi Jinping an “enemy”, and then wanting a deal.

After 2½ difficult years, world leaders appear increasingly weary of Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again approach, which poses significant problems for US foreign policy and global affairs, as countries increasingly avoid the US in pursuit of their own short-term gains.

First he says he will, then he says he won’t, though in the end he might. Welcome to another dizzying episode of Trumplandia, featuring an array of contradictory policy announcements from the mercurial US president.First he raised China tariffs, then had second thoughts which morphed into wishing he’d raised them even more, all the while calling Chinese President Xi Jinping an “enemy”, and then wanting a deal.

After 2½ difficult years, world leaders appear increasingly weary of Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again approach, which poses significant problems for US foreign policy and global affairs, as countries increasingly avoid the US in pursuit of their own short-term gains.

US companies face an increasingly difficult business environment in China. European firms stand to gain from their lost market share.

As world leaders adapt to Trump’s confusion-as-negotiating tactic, three broad strategies have emerged to deal with the chaos he creates – ambivalence, confrontation and appeasement. Each has worked to varying degrees, yet none will lead to lasting agreements.Strategic patience may give way to greater policy volatility, which will do nothing to help calm jitters over a possible global recession, avoid potential military conflict, or stem a rising nationalistic tide that threatens peace and prosperity.

Beijing, at one end of the spectrum, is going toe-to-toe with Washington in escalating tensions – tariffs for tariffs, entity list for entity list.

Add a savvy public affairs campaign to counter every appearance of a Trump gain with one of their own, and the trade war shows no signs of ending soon.Negotiations have reached the point where there is not even agreement on whether a phone call was made. Trump said China called US officials, citing Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He’s remarks, and China said it had no idea what he was talking about.


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The strong resistance from President Xi and his team appears to have surprised Trump, who has resorted to often nonsensical, self-defeating policy changes.

He continues to strike with a closed fist and then quickly offer up a welcoming hand. This signals neither strength nor strategy to China, which seems increasingly content to wait out the short-term pain for brighter days ahead without Trump.

Japan, at the other extreme, has gone to great lengths to avoid any affronts to Trump, giving him the full palace treatment during his May visit and studiously avoiding any negative comments about the US prevaricator-in-chief. This has certainly paid short-term dividends.

Japan, along with Britain, which showered Trump with similar royal treatment during his London visit last month, has largely avoided his most acidic ire, usually expressed first through schoolyard taunts and name-calling, and then, if he does not get his way, threats.

Still, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approach has not solved any of the thorny bilateral issues that plague the relationship.Even the recent announcement of a highly anticipated trade deal that will offer tariff reductions does not include the one main Tokyo ask – a firm commitment that Washington will not impose or increase sanctions on Japanese cars. Not much of a win for Abe to take home.

Europe has trod down the middle, at times facing off with Trump, and so drawing barbed comments in return, targeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on defence spending and threatening French wine with tariffs.At other times, they have seemed to just ignore him, with relatively little public condemnation of Trump’s unilateral approach to everything from Nato spending to a resurgence of Russian aggression.

At the recently concluded G7 summit in Biarritz, France, the big chillbetween the US and its strongest allies was on full display. When Trump failed to show up at a meeting with his counterparts on environmental crises no one batted an eyelid, not even at the glaring insult of sending a staff member in his place.

Similarly, Europe has not joined Trump’s trade war with China, which focuses on Beijing’s egregious violations of World Trade Organisation norms.

In fact, as US companies face an increasingly difficult business environment, European firms stand to gain from their lost market share. Beijing, too, would have a much harder time waiting Trump out if Europe and Japan were pressing equally hard on the trade front as the US.

Nothing in Trump’s hot-and-cold approach is going to change. Responding to questions post-summit, he said this is his negotiating style and it has served him well in the past. Whatever charms he thinks helped build his businesses with so many bankruptcies, they have won him few fans around the world and close to zero diplomatic victories.

In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, Trump’s desperation to rack up political wins will force him to press countries even harder. His rhetoric will become sharper, his inconsistencies more prevalent, and a fading sense of control more dangerous.

Since none of the strategies for dealing with Trump’s impulsiveness have worked particularly well, the attraction of mirroring his policy mood swings may increase. That could easily lead to disastrous results.

If that were to happen, Trump will have everyone where he wants them to be, at the centre of a storm of his creation that he can nuke at will, damn the fallout.


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