On 20 January 2017 Trump was sworn in as president. With the midterm vote approaching, it’s time to assess whether he’s kept his promises.
After two years of Donald Trump presidency, the electoral mantra that propelled him to the White House seems to be fading fast. America First, the United States top of the pile, isn’t working out. Or at least, it’s not working out as the New York billionaire was hoping. And with mid-term elections on the horizon, America’s foreign policy scenarios are becoming increasingly unclear.
What was supposed to be a fiery programme, capable of upending everything achieved by Barack Obama, has in fact, so far, turned out to be a major, pyrotechnical flop. The United States were supposed to reposition themselves on the international stage as the guiding light of the free world, a concept that is very dear to White House incumbents, but the truth is that Washington seems to be up against it like never before. Russia, North Korea, Iran, Europe, China, plus the chapter concerning its neighbours in Canada. These are the main dossiers, still to be solved, piling up on Trump’s desk. And after ousting Rex Tillerson from the State Department, there’s little room for optimism. Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, is known as a rather controversial and not very obliging figure. Certainly not Trump’s best appointment, but it’s all part of an attempt to regain lost consent before the judicial storm, which appears to be drawing closer every day, breaks over his head.
Russia is the president’s most irksome issue. According to diplomatic sources, the circle around Moscow’s interference in the American electoral campaign that led to outsider Trumps victory is gradually closing in. What’s missing, according to the reports circulating around the US capital, is the smoking gun. That is to say the proof not only of the interference in the campaign, but that funds and financial resources were also passed on to the team managing Trump’s campaign. Acting opportunistically, as so often in the past, Russia is still working on its plan to reposition itself on the world stage. And Trump is still playing a very two-sided game. On the one hand he would have us believe Russia is the enemy, while on the other he’s well aware that without a strong Russia by his side, re-election will be a very complicated affair. All this dilly-dallying is still believed to be a smoke screen by the world’s liberal diplomacies, but they also trust that sooner or later the New York billionaire will have to own up to his relations with Vladimir Putin.
The other issue he has to solve is North Korea. Once again, after a year and a half living on a tightrope, with a on-going war of words and not so veiled threats, the mood between Seoul and Pyongyang has now mellowed. Thanks to Trump? In part yes, but primarily thanks to South Korea, which shrewdly chose the right time to offer a peace which, if confirmed, will be remembered as one of the great diplomatic successes of the 21st century. However, there are still mountains to climb. When Pyongyang accelerates, Washington seems to pull back. There’s never been such a level of uncertainty hanging over the Korean peninsula.
What is instead very unclear is the relationship between the US and Iran. Not so much because Tehran is playing with fire, but rather owing to Washington’s very entrenched position. As Karim Sadjadpour pointed out in The Atlantic, it could be that Trump’s moves end up setting up a situation that would be paradoxical and exactly the opposite to what everyone’s been trying to achieve during the last decades. In other words, Trump risks reviving the radical Iranian regime, driving a wedge between the country and the rest of the world. This would be a very dangerous radicalization, according to the geopolitical analysts of the Brookings Institution, because it could trigger an internal conflict within Iran which everyone has been trying to avoid for years.
Relations with Europe are also ambiguous, particularly after the recent imposition of sanctions on steel and aluminum. “If Washington attacks, Europe is ready to respond”. This sentence ois one we’ve heard all to often recently from both the French and German chancelleries, which have no intention of losing competitive advantages and reference markets. Although there have been many attempts at mediation to avoid a trade war between the two sides of the Atlantic, the Trump administration insists on playing hard ball. “Relations have never been so low in the last 30 years” a top European Commission explains under promise of anonymity. “In such a globalized world, no one in their right mind would think to attack their main trade partners. Therefore we don’t understand Trump’s decisions. And we will most certainly respond in kind”, he adds. Translation: if Washington doesn’t lift the tariffs, then Brussels will act accordingly, limiting imports of US goods. A factor, this latter one, which will have a sure impact on the American economy, and could ultimately affect Trump’s popularity at home.
And then there’s China, America’s great rival, according to Trump. Relations are getting worse by the minute. In Beijing however, they haven’t stood still watching the schizophrenic convolutions going on in Washington. Didier Saint-Georges, managing director at Carmignac, is convinced the worst is yet to come: “The fact that Donald Trump loves to negotiate by forcing his opponent into a corner is nothing new, just as it’s well known that China has many and very powerful means of retaliation”. To say the least. “What is taking shape is a period of posturing, threats and retaliations that could undermine investor trust, and even put a damper on the future of free market dynamics within the World Trade Organisation”, Saint-Georges adds. But there’s more. Once again, Trump’s electoral campaign dreams have overstepped the mark. “Hoping to reduce the United States’ trade deficit with China by 100 billion dollars in one year is an illusion as well as absurdity, given the integration of the global distribution chains which makes this whole matter even more complex”, are the economist’s final words. And this is another variable which could stifle domestic growth in the United States and worsen the economic situation for millions of citizens, who were slowly recovering after the collapse of the real estate market which started in 2006/2007 and peaked with the crash of the country’s fourth largest bank, Lehman Brothers, in 2008.
The truce on a geopolitical level has been all too brief. As Olivier De Berranger, Chief Investment Officer at La Financière de l’Echiquier explains, the trade war has only been shelved briefly thanks to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, one of the more moderate elements in the Trump administration. “Overall, we are seeing geopolitical tensions kicking in once more which, following the strong market rebound after the drop which saw it reach its lowest levels levels in March, have generated stress and greater volatility”, De Berranger notes. And the reason for all this is one thing, and one thing alone: political consensus. “Donald Trump is in full electoral campaign mode in the run up to the mid-term elections and the “trade war” rhetoric is one of his signature policies he hopes will get his electorate to back him once more”, according to De Berranger. And this is where the real crux of the matter lies. Being completely devoid of any long term strategy, partly as a result of the hopelessness of his government team, Trump’s only goal right now is not to lose his electoral base. A base that is starting to falter very dangerously. At a stage now where Trump has lost almost all the key figures that carried him into the White House, with Stephen Bannon top of the list, re-election is looking a very tough ask. Partly because in 2020 it will be difficult to rely on any external backing, the kind Russia apparently provided in 2016. And the same can be said of the entire America First project, which could then go down in history as nothing more than an electoral slogan.