The world may not be against the United States but three countries – Turkey, Russia and Iran – have good reason to be. Add Donald Trump’s $717 billion defence bill aimed at China, bickering over trade with the European Union, and the grim challenge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and one gets some idea of the formidable isolation in which the Lone Superpower finds itself.
That should worry Americans who want their country to be integrated with the global community in the leadership position to which its economic and military prowess entitles it. What worries others is the likely fall-out of the US action in far-flung parts of the world. West Asia is still suffering from the reckless regime change of one American president. Now, the folie de grandeur bordering on megalomania of another threatens to create unrest and instability in wider regions. Turkey’s economic collapse or Iran’s nuclear adventurism would have dire consequences for wide swathes of Europe and Asia.
This is the handiwork of one man. President Trump seems to revel in turning friends into foes, allies into adversaries. He has alienated even the leader of America’s closest neighbour, Justin Trudeau, Canadian prime minister and, by all accounts, a personable young politician of considerable charm. Little of the rapport that Barack Obama achieved with an ancient enemy – Cuba – survives. What Iraqis, Yemenis and Afghans think of President Trump probably doesn’t bear discussing. Even loyal Britain, once jeered as the 50th (later 51st) state of the United States, found it necessary to downscale and shorten President Trump’s visit.
The irony is that he started off with extravagant overtures to the rulers of countries that previous White House incumbents didn’t look on too kindly. There was almost what is nowadays called a “bromance” with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. China’s Xi Jinping was complimented on helping the US more than any of his predecessors. To the world’s astonishment, President Trump not only said he would be “honoured” to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un but has sung his praises ever since the Singapore summit, ignoring reports that Pyongyang is continuing to develop nuclear weapons.
Despite thundering threats against the peril of Islamic extremism, his first foreign stop was Saudi Arabia, heartland of Wahhabism, home of most of the 9/11 hijackers, and arch enemy of all those liberal values that the “Leader of the Free World” is supposed to preserve and protect. There he met not only the Saudi ruler but the autocratic heads of all the Gulf states, lapping up the lavish palatial setting, regal treatment and flamboyant sword-dance. This ostentatious support for the Sunni powers only further aggravated tension with Shia Iran. Nor can it be justified on grounds of fighting ISIL which cannot be defeated without the support of Russia, Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia is at odds with all three.
This journey into the heart of Islamic conservatism could not be justified on economic grounds either. President Trump honours countries with which the US has a trade surplus but this is virtually irrelevant in the case of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Despite fluctuations, the US-Saudi trade deficit was the sixth largest with any country in the world only three years ago. In Europe, President Trump walked out of the hard-fought Paris agreement on climate change at the G-7 summit in Italy, and scolded America’s partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Governments that have stood by the US in its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya even though they didn’t concern European security found the experience humiliating.
His comments to and on Nato leaders may also have weakened the collective security organisation politically. While Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, thinks the time has come for Europe to increase its foreign policy partners, another Nato leader, who is also a European Union candidate, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more explicitly seeks “new friends and allies” in his war with the US. Germany’s chancellor probably sympathises with President Erdogan since she has offered cash-strapped Turkey Germany’s credibility to help halt the country’s economic chaos. Blaming the crisis — the falling lira is expected to push inflation up to 21 per cent this month — on the “economic war” waged against Turkey, President Erdogan might rope Russia, China and Iran into an anti-US alliance.
In a probably unprecedented demonstration of belligerence, President Trump took action against all four countries in the space of a single week. Iran was the first victim as he ordered the first tranche of sanctions since the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The US State department followed it up by imposing sanctions on Russia over the March poisoning in the English town of Salisbury of a former Soviet double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. The first round of sanctions against Russia is expected to have a severe impact on its arms and energy industries, and a potential second tranche will target Russian banking. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, says they amount to a declaration of “economic war.”
The US has also cancelled its invitation to the People’s Liberation Army to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises unless China halts island-building in the South China Sea, removes its weapons (suspected cruise missiles) from the area, and demonstrates a four-year record of steps to stabilise the region. The $17 billion increase in US defence spending ($700 billion last year) reflects a determination to resist the expansion of Chinese military activity in cyberspace. The bill also calls for more arms to Taiwan and joint military exercises with the island’s Nationalist regime.
No policy is involved in the tiff with President Erdogan. In a way it’s even commendable for it concerns the fate of an ordinary American citizen under house arrest in the Turkish town of Izmir where he and his wife have lived since 1993. The Turks accused Andrew Brunson, a missionary of the Associated Reform Presbyterian Church, of preaching on behalf of the Gulenists – followers of Fethullah Gulen who lives in Pennsylvania – who are charged with attempting to oust President Erdogan in July 2016. About 70,000 people have been jailed (as were Mr Brunson and his wife to start with) in that context.
Mr Brunson is accused of “committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organisation” and “political and military espionage”. If convicted, he could face 35 years in prison. President Trump wants him released unconditionally. President Erdogan is prepared to exchange him for Mr Gulen. Mr Brunson’s Associated Reform Presbyterian Church probably doesn’t have more than 8,000 members among 81 million Turks. But the evangelical group is strong among Trump voters at home, and the president can’t afford not to keep them happy. For all his bluster, President Trump is a shrewd operator, and this factor may weigh more with him than the humanitarian aspect of the Brunson case.
Sunanda K Datta – Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.