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Global ambivalence about Trump’s foreign policies sends clear message to the White House

Global ambivalence about Trump’s foreign policies sends clear message to the White House
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President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE’s style of governing is widely and aptly described as a radical departure from that of all U.S. Presidents in recent memory. In addition to taking considerable heat for it in the U.S., he has courted controversy and severe criticism elsewhere, particularly Europe.

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But as someone who shuttles between Africa, Europe, and the U.S. to meet with people in government and the private sector, I find a recurring trend in conversations about Trump. When people talk about his policy in isolation from his personal style, a more charitable view of this White House suddenly emerges. It’s a school of thought one might call “not bad but if and only if.” And underlying their ambivalence lies some sound advice. Consider a few examples:

 

  • Among Americans who follow the ongoing Gulf standoff between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other, there is quiet appreciation for this White House for having somehow managed to maintain accord with both opposing sides. As all Gulf players do their utmost to ingratiate the President, he has been pressing each of them to expand their investments in the U.S. and ink major deals with American industry. He has also, on the one hand, strengthened Saudi cooperation in the struggle against terrorism and pressed them to lean toward Israel; while on the other hand pressing Qatar to stop supporting terrorism and make its client, Hamas, soften its stance toward Israel. “Not bad,” observers say, “but if and only if …” That is — the policy will be validated only if the White House builds on its relations to resolve the Gulf standoff and extract robust, public support from all Gulf states for a regional settlement with Israel. Informed observers are aware that the Trump Administration rightly regards UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed as a key player in the future of the Gulf. Striking the balance of nurturing the U.S.-UAE relationship on the one hand and brokering a Gulf standoff resolution on the other is a crucial consideration.
  • Among Europeans who have been following the aftermath of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, some quietly marvel at the ambiguity of White House policies toward Russia. On the one hand, Trump has been more indulgent and ingratiating of Putin than any of his predecessors has ever been toward a Russian leader. On the other, his administration has just committed $200 million to Ukraine to fight back against Russian-backed separatists and killed scores of Russian soldiers through military operations in Syria, among other staunch measures. “Not bad,” these observers say, “but if and only if …” That is, if this political duality is intentional, it could be an impressively dizzying game of good cop-bad cop for the Russian leader. But such a game would yield concessions from Russia only if the administration continues to ratchet up the pressure: Coax European countries and their companies to resist financial accommodations with Russia. Maintain a military presence to check the Syrian regime, ensuring that American and regional demands Iran withdraw from the country have real teeth.
  • Among Africans and Arabs, for most of whom the Iranian nuclear deal was a tragic shift in American policy that only emboldened Iranian expansionism, the new White House policy of confronting and sanctioning the Tehran regime is a breath of fresh air. It appears to be yielding concrete results, moreover, as Iranian protests continue country-wide: The Iranian people themselves, in demanding that the Mullahs stop funding terror groups and start creating jobs, are proving to be excellent emissaries of the will of the international community to their own regime. “Not bad,” observers say, “but if and only if …” They wonder, that is, whether this White House has the focus to deter European, Russian, Indian, and Chinese companies from breaking secondary sanctions; the resolve to deter Iran and its proxies militarily; and the vigilance to clamp down on Iran’s terror tentacles around the world.
  • For elite observers on all continents, meanwhile, the issue of North Korea looms large. After June’s audacious summit between the President and Kim Jong-Un, critics warned that Trump had given in too much just by meeting him, and faulted him for looking the other way as nuclear testing appeared to resume. And yet, this past Friday, it emerged that in the wake of the Administration’s crippling sanctions on the hermit kingdom, North Korea had had its worst economic year in two decades, and might well be on its way to collapse. The White House, showing no sign of willingness to ease the economic pressure, has shifted the burden on North Korea to give the U.S. a reason to ease off. “Not bad,” observers say, “but if and only if …” White House resolve to keep the international community on board its sanctions plan must remain unflinching. In negotiations, it must offer the regime a tiny carrot while continually wielding a big stick. It must also play a delicate diplomatic game with Russia and especially China. Through these powers’ deep history of engagement with Pyongyang, they have the power to throw it a lifeline, throw it under the bus, or, in the best of circumstances, work painstakingly with the United States to negotiate an outcome that denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula.

What all this adds up to is a reminder that America wins in the world by showing leadership. Donald Trump has come a long way from the rhetoric of his presidential campaign built around the slogan “America first.” He is engaged in some of the world’s most pressing conflicts, but the staying power of his involvement is continually questioned across the globe. If the President can build on the unexpected promise of some of his foreign policy initiatives and forge real solutions, critiques about his style will seem less and less important. But if the he fails to follow through, no personality makeover will win him the world’s esteem.

Ahmed Charai is on the board directors at the Atlantic Council and an international counselor at the Center for the National Interest, which is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank. Center for the National Interest was established by former U.S. President Richard Nixon.