A spectacle of amazing resilience
From the Indian perspective, judging the merits of Donald Trump's foreign policy is problematic, as it has elements that favour our interests (such as recognizing China's challenge to American power and steps to curb its ambitions) but also expose us to unwelcome consequences. Trump takes bold initiatives, such as opening dialogues with North Korea and Russia. These make good sense but also raise questions because they are highly personalized, lack adequate preparation and are prematurely pronounced by the president as hugely successful contrary to any realistic appraisal. The stakes in both cases for the United States of America are high, but if the initiatives fail, Trump's options are unclear. Given his volatile nature, would he revert to war threats against North Korea and impose additional sanctions against Russia?
Trump has blown hot and cold over Russia. In spite of repeatedly stating that he wanted to engage Russia positively, he imposed stringent sanctions on it in March this year, using the Skripal poisoning case as a peg, and in August signed the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act under pressure from the US Congress. This targets Russia's core economic sector and powerful oligarchs supposedly close to Vladimir Putin, with consequences even for India as our defence relations with Russia are targeted by this legislation. He has advocated the re-inclusion of Russia in G-7 and even conceded Crimea's Russian identity, only to oppose the second gas pipeline from Russia to Germany by claiming that it makes Germany a captive of Russia. More recently, on returning after his summit with Putin where he gave more credence to Putin's denial of any interference in the US presidential elections than to the reports of his own intelligence agencies, he used semantic acrobatics to disavow what he said in Moscow after strong criticism at home.
Normally, before meeting his Russian counterpart, any US president would want to show solidarity with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to strengthen his political hand. But Trump brought US-Europe divisions on politics, security and trade out in the open. He bullied the Europeans at the Nato summit prior to his Moscow visit, threatening to "go it alone" if Europe failed to share the defence burden in line with his demands. Later, during his United Kingdom visit, he advocated a hard Brexit to Theresa May's discomfiture. For critics, any rupture of transatlantic solidarity serves Russia's strategic interest, and Trump's conduct at Brussels raised alarms back home and in Europe.
Domestic political opinion in the US is highly polarized and voices in the Congress, even Republican, are vehemently critical of Trump's policies. The US intelligence and security agencies are seemingly involved in subverting the Trump presidency. The president has got embroiled in investigations by a special prosecutor in the wake of charges that his team colluded with Russia during the election campaign. Mainstream media constantly lash out at Trump, and he, in return, is unsparing in denouncing them for purveying fake news. No president can survive by falling afoul of intelligence agencies and the media, but here is Trump revelling in questioning the probity of one and the falsity of the other without collapsing yet.
Trump's resilience is remarkable. The mid-West or the so-called Rust Belt states that constitute Trump's electoral base do not represent the whole of the US. How is it that the US that is more educated, entrepreneurial, exposed to the world and linked with it, anti-racist, ethnically diverse, which could elect a black president, is unable to deflect the Trump team from following policies that are destabilizing the international system without guaranteeing favourable outcomes for the US? If the interests of American corporations are key to the US's foreign policy, how is it that Trump's antipathy towards globalization has not been resisted by these corporations which were the prime force behind the propagation of the virtues of the market economy worldwide? Trump's quest to restore America's traditional manufacturing sector is seen as unrealistic by many. Would American corporations be prepared to invest in reviving manpower-intensive traditional industries that are unlikely to be globally competitive? It is proclaimed that the US aims to maintain its economic lead through advances in innovative technologies, for which the ecosystem does not exist in the Rust Belt.
If Trump is riding on the sentiment against globalization pervading US society because of loss of jobs, rising inequalities, the rapaciousness of US corporations, he, the billionaire businessman, is hardly the person to represent these frustrations. 'America First' and 'Make America Great Again' may be populist credos for his political base, but they lack substance. All US presidents have given primacy to US national interest in their foreign policies, and so it has always been 'America First', except that the methods to pursue that goal has differed from that of Trump.
The Trump phenomenon represents, in sum, a crisis of democracy in America.