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31 May 2017, Gateway House

Trump: blunt to NATO, cosy with Saudis

Trump’s first foreign visit to West Asia and Europe brought home what the president means by “America First” even as he stands accused of committing two major foreign policy transgressions

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Donald Trump’s first foreign trip to West Asia and Europe has given the world a glimpse of what “America First” looks like in practice: a disdain for trading partners, skepticism of alliances, a love of deep pockets and flattery.

The nine-day foray to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium saw Trump dance with autocrats and snub the Democrats. The first half went mostly according to script, partly due to Trump strategically refusing to visit the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, but the second half in Europe was a series of unfortunate events.

Minor disasters kept Trump critics busy. He was caught on video at the NATO summit, shoving Prime Minister Dusko Markovic of Montenegro so he could barge ahead for a photo. He scolded NATO leaders for not paying enough for their own defence, leaving a sea of scowling faces. Trump’s sword dance with the Saudis appalled both liberals and conservatives. The First Lady seemed to brush off his hand in public. French President Emmanuel Macron deliberately greeted everyone else before acknowledging Trump.

More seriously, Trump stands accused of two major foreign policy crimes: weakening the Atlantic Alliance by berating NATO leaders by failing to reaffirm Article 5, the clause binding members to defend each other; and taking sides in the eternal Shia-Sunni rivalry.

At the G7 meeting, Trump undermined global cooperation on key issues which had been achieved through the overcoming of several obstacles. Countries were able to meet half way on free trade, regarding it a priority as long as it did not disrupt fair trade. This minor step forward was marred by Trump refusing to sign off on the Paris climate change agreement.

Trump’s conduct in Brussels prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for the Europeans to “really take our destiny in our hands. Of course, we need to have friendly relations with the U.S. and with the UK and with other neighbours, including Russia. But we have to fight for our own future ourselves,” Merkel told a political rally in Munich.

Pundits had a meltdown on both sides of the Atlantic. The Americans blamed Trump for rupturing an alliance that has held the peace since World War II while the Europeans fumed at Merkel for “compounding” Trump’s error by announcing Europe was alone. After all, Trump may be here today and gone tomorrow.

But what was wrong with Merkel urging a reshaping of Europe’s role in a world, ruled by uncertainty, with an impatient China closing in? If it took Brexit and Trump’s election for the German leader to argue forcefully for a stronger and more integrated European Union, so be it.

As for Trump, he was blunt where past American presidents have been polite about Europeans not carrying a fair share of NATO’s military burden. They are still some distance from spending 2% of their GDP on defence as agreed.

But Merkel’s words about self-reliance can apply to all parts of the world where American leadership is taken for granted—or anticipated. The signs are clear that U.S. presence under Trump will be sporadic at best. But to be sure, the process started under Barack Obama, who remained disengaged even as he tried to engage world leaders.

India is already adjusting to the idea. Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Germany came as Merkel’s words were echoing around the world. Her government has shown a new urgency in trying to deepen the economic relationship with India. Whether the two sides can resolve their differences on a Free Trade Agreement or a bilateral investment treaty remains to be seen.

Modi’s comment that Germany and India are “meant for each other” was noted by commentators in Washington with some chagrin. The Washington Post report said a “chummy” meeting with the Indian prime minister was one of the “obvious practical consequences” of Trump’s feud with Berlin.

It helps that Germany has come closer to India’s view on China’s Belt and Road Initiative—an initiative neither as democratic nor as transparent as Beijing claims. They understand that a dominant China at a time of a receding America demands an urgent coming together. India’s relations with Russia and China are on a downward spiral and Modi’s efforts haven’t borne fruit.

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has had a domino effect on the South Asian region. For India, it spells both relief and caution. His telling Arab leaders he was not there to “lecture” them on human rights is a source of relief for India.

The highlight of the meet was a $110 billion weapons deal, worked out by son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ahead of the trip. For foreign governments, a connection to Kushner seems important.

But Trump’s forceful endorsement of the Saudi leadership of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) and demonisation of Iran from the heart of the Sunni world, reduces the U.S.’s room to manoeuvre and strengthens the anti-Shia coalition. Blaming Iran for all West Asia’s problems flies in the face of facts—most of the jihadis are Sunni and followers of Wahabbism, an extreme school of Islam, funded and propagated by Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, General Raheel Sharif, former Pakistani army chief, heading this emboldened anti-Shia military alliance will disrupt Iran-Pakistan relations, and is likely to strain India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which Modi has attempted to cement in the last three years.

During his campaign Trump seemed to view the kingdom as the real font of jihadist philosophy and even accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the 9/11 attacks. He ridiculed Hillary Clinton for accepting $25 million for the Clinton Foundation from Saudi Arabia over the years.

The volte-face is remarkable—even by Trump’s standards. Over the past months, he has made U-turns on China, on Syria and several domestic issues, but none perhaps, as dramatic as this because of 9/11 and the Saudi connection.

It is partly driven by the desire to be different from Barack Obama—the Saudis were upset with the Obama administration for concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. The other reason is pure commerce—the Saudis spared billions for American weapons, which Trump has sold as “jobs, jobs, jobs” back home.

Significantly, Trump has not imposed sanctions on Iran, and acknowledged that Tehran is keeping its side of the bargain in the nuclear deal. For India, Trump’s rhetorical shift in favour of the Saudis is just that—rhetorical—and unlikely to create real problems. But the space needs watching.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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