Trump and the new world (dis)order

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What are the effects of having a US president who is diminished in stature and yet not facing imminent job loss? I try to think this through in my latest column for The CEO Magazine.

One likely result: less stability in US foreign policy, as Trump spends more time on it. Foreign policy is what presidents do when they become less important, because that’s where Congress plays the smallest role and a president has greatest freedom.

This will mean more departure from past patterns and from the US State Department’s preferred policies. Mainstream western understanding of the international order is based to a large extent on shared values, acknowledged rules and mutually beneficial long-term alliances. Trump is not by instinct a long-term alliance guy. He’s transactional. He asks the question “what have you done for me lately?”. He is also impetuous and uninclined to develop a shared leadership position before speaking or tweeting.

All of this is now pretty widely accepted. It was evident in Trump’s delay in backing Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

Perhaps Trump’s strangest foreign policy excursion so far is happening in the tiny, gas-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar. If there was some sort of diplomatic award for mixed messages, the US would have it in the bag already.

Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia to ease its newly-imposed blockade of Qatar. An hour later, Trump supported the Saudi line because the country was “funding … radical ideology”.

Then this week, it turned out the US is selling the same country F-15 tactical fighters. That’s James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence and the least obsequious member of Trump’s Cabinet, shaking on the deal.

We’re probably in for a bunch more of this sort of thing. Trump will say one thing, which nobody expected, and his Secretary of Defence and Secretary of State will say something else entirely. Then a bunch of people will spend some time wondering what’s happening, figuring out who’s in charge, keeping frigate commanders’ fingers off the buttons, etc etc.

As it happens, just after the column came out, Hilary Clinton’s former foreign affairs adviser, Jake Sullivan, gave a speech at the Lowy Institute on how all this will play out in the Asia-Pacific. It explores these issues in a lot more detail, particularly on China. Lowy’s Michael Fullilove asked his usual penetrating questions at the end. It’s well worth a read.

So this is the latest new world order, and it has significantly less order.

And it’s not shaping up too well for Australia. Donald Trump already seems to take a dim view of Malcolm Turnbull. And he hates few things more than being mocked. There are those who say that Barack Obama’s mockery of him at a similar US event was what drove a seething Trump to run for the presidency in the first place.

On this view, Malcolm Turnbull’s recent excursion into Trump mockery was not so much a misjudgment as a foreign affairs disaster. It’s tempting and easy to rubbish Trump. But it would be better not to stir things up. We’ve already going to have all the disorder we can handle.

P.S. Helpful summary of the Qatar situation here. To somewhat adapt Tom Lehrer, if any background articles are going to come out of World War III, you’d better start reading them now.

David on Twitter: @shorewalker1

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About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. Newsletter: . Among other roles, David has edited the award-winning Acuity and INTHEBLACK magazines, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held senior policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He is a former economics writer for The Age and News Ltd. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance.
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