Since Donald Trump was sworn into office a year ago as president of the United States with his “America First” agenda, friends and allies have been lamenting the lack of world leadership by the United States.
That is, until December 6th. In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, Trump stood the world on its head by reversing 70 years of American policy in the Middle East. Despite entreaties from everyone including NATO Allies, Arab governments throughout the area and even the Pope, Trump announced he was moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Like Trump, other politicians in the heat of an election campaign have promised to move their country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 1979, Conservative Leader Joe Clark made that promise. It helped him win a minority government. But once in office, he realized his mistake and enlisted former Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield to help him abandon his pledge. Stanfield led a commission which “studied” the question and recommended against the move.
That’s because the ultimate fate of Jerusalem is an intricate part of any future Middle East solution. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim the historic city as their capital. Now, by siding with the Israeli claim, the most important outside participant in any future settlement has picked a side in the dispute. Trump has made an already intractable problem almost impossible to solve.
However, no longer can it be said that, under Trump, the United States has abdicated its role in the world. The lesson going forward is that as long as Trump is president, the United States will play the role internationally that he is playing in domestic politics.
More than anything else, Donald Trump is a disruptor. He is in domestic politics and he is in international affairs. Untutored in history, world affairs or diplomacy, he responds to situations on an individual basis, unable to see connective linkages between different problems.
For instance, if he wanted to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, why did he not first demand something from the Israelis.
A firm pledge to stop building more settlements in the West Bank as a quid pro quo for the Jerusalem recognition would have gone at least some way to mitigating the reaction to the move. And it would have removed a real impediment to a future final settlement.
Such an arrangement would have been less disruptive than what we now have. But Trump doesn’t seem to care. As a disruptor he thrives on disruption, on throwing adversaries and allies off balance, seeking from their confusion an advantage for America and for himself.
Close to home, Canadians can see that strategy in the current negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement. The United States has proposed several changes to the treaty that are complete non-starters for both Canada and Mexico. Soon Trump will inform the U.S. Congress that he is giving six months notice that he is terminating the deal. Then, in that half-year when NAFTA is in limbo, American negotiators will apply the pressure. Ultimately, Canada will have to decide if a bad NAFTA is better than no NAFTA at all.
In the wider world, North Korea, China and Iran are areas of intense Trump interest and concern. He alternately threatens and then hints at negotiations with them. How they respond at any given time seems to affect both his mood and his approach. Chinese President Xi Jinping alternates between being an ally trying to contain North Korea and a competitor out to destroy American power.
Even with Kim Jong-Un, the erratic North Korean president who is developing nuclear missiles to hit North America, Trump has vacillated between threatening to obliterate his country and negotiating.
When Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017, many people hoped his fiery, uninformed rhetoric of the presidential campaign would be tempered once in power. That he would become more “presidential” in the traditional American way.
That has not happened. One year on, he is as unstable and unpredictable as ever. He dominates the domestic politics of his country. By his actions in the Middle East in December he has shown he will dominate international affairs as well.
America has not abandoned its international role. Under Donald Trump it is just playing it a different way.
Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, Chair of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.