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How the world’s rulers have learned to exploit Trump

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 14: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) meets with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office at the White House, March 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

As global dangers increase, former diplomat PAUL KNOTT reports on how the world’s tyrants learned to play the president like a fool.

BEIJING, CHINA – NOVEMBER 9, 2017: China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump (L-R front) shake hands during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Artyom Ivanov/TASS (Photo by Artyom IvanovTASS via Getty Images) – Credit: TASS via Getty Images

Donald Trump conducts his foreign policy with a combination of vanity, impulsiveness and ignorance of detail. Many of the most unscrupulous world leaders have identified his weaknesses and are exploiting them in order to advance their own interests.

This free-for-all is creating some daunting peace and security threats that will persist for as long as the chaotic Trump administration remains in office.

Some despots were particularly quick to seize upon Trump’s vulnerabilities. Ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin has, in effect, operated Trump as a ventriloquist’s dummy ever since the tycoon arrived in the White House.

Trump frequently spouts statements that seem to have sprung from Russian disinformation campaigns. For patriotic Americans, his public appearance alongside Putin at their July 2018 summit in Helsinki was a pitiful low point.

PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA – JUNE 30: (SOUTH KOREA OUT): A handout photo provided by Dong-A Ilbo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un briefly met at the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Sunday, with an intention to revitalize stalled nuclear talks and demonstrate the friendship between both countries. The encounter was the third time Trump and Kim have gotten together in person as both leaders have said they are committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. (Photo by Handout/Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images) – Credit: Getty Images

On that occasion, Trump parroted Putin’s claims that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 US election and dismissed the copious evidence from the US’s own intelligence services to the contrary. As the late Republican senator and decorated war hero John McCain put it, “no prior American President has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant”.

At other times, Trump appears to be working his way through a Russian foreign policy wish list; from undermining NATO and soft-pedalling on Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine to eliminating arms control treaties and pushing for Russia’s readmission to the G7.

The reasons for Trump’s obsequiousness towards Putin are yet to be fully revealed. Several in-depth investigations, such as that by James S. Henry published in the highly respected The American Interest journal in 2016, allege that Trump’s businesses rely on dubious funds from Kremlin-connected Russian oligarchs and organised crime figures. If proven, these allegations could lead to serious legal difficulties for Trump when he leaves office.

The consequences of Trump emboldening a corrupt and aggressive autocrat are an even more urgent concern to those who value freedom and democracy. Since sparking nationalist fervour and a spike in domestic support by invading Ukraine, Putin’s popularity in Russia has been falling because of his long-term mismanagement of his country.

Trump’s behaviour risks being read as a green light by Putin to launch a repeat performance. His next target could well be a Nato member state such as Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.

Collective defence is the key pillar of Nato. Article 5 of its founding Treaty commits its members to viewing an attack on one ally as an attack on all of them.

The deterrence and security provided by this clause has made Nato the most successful military alliance in history. The unreliable current occupant of the White House has regularly called Article 5 into question. As a result, an assault by Russia on the Baltic States or another Nato member would severely test this collective defence commitment. A failure to live up to it would destroy the Nato alliance.

Kim Jong-un of North Korea is another brutal dictator who has exploited Trump’s vulnerabilities to extract US concessions for little in return. For decades, the Kim family dynasty sought summits with successive US presidents in order to boost its prestige.

The US always refused to hold such meetings until North Korea showed a genuine intent to engage on halting its nuclear weapons programme. Trump’s decision to break with this longstanding policy and hold two high-profile get-togethers with Kim has dramatically enhanced the dictator’s domestic and international credibility, helping him to secure his hold on power. Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear programme continues unabated.

While Kim and Putin can be considered early adopters, plenty of other rulers have learned how to profit from Trump’s inadequacies. In the eternal tinderbox of the Middle East, flattery and financial largesse has secured Trump’s unswerving support for Saudi Arabian ruler Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS).

This has survived MBS’s instigation of a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and his vicious crackdown on internal opponents, including the murder and dismemberment of the US-resident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been adept in leveraging the links between the hard right in Israel and the US to obtain American policy changes at no reciprocal cost. By moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem and acquiescing to illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, Trump has banged the final nails into the coffin of the peace process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is now threatening to formally annex large parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel, should he survive in office after the coalition negotiations that are likely to follow the Israeli elections this week. While his opponents, if elected, may not go that far, they will not reverse the earlier provocative actions cooked up by Trump and Netanyahu. These steps may advance the short-term political interests of Israeli politicians but will increase Arab resentments in a way that will surely explode again in future.

The Saudis and Netanyahu were both instrumental in encouraging Trump to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. This agreement had been painstakingly reached after a decade of complex negotiations. It was successfully preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The consequences of recklessly ripping up the deal are to free Iran to develop atomic bombs and perhaps spark a nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region. The Trump administration’s related policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran through heavy-handed sanctions is aimed at sparking regime change in Tehran. This confrontational approach risks causing a full-blown war between the two countries and their regional allies.

Having put themselves in this perilous position, the US government will need to deploy immense diplomatic subtlety and skills to avoid a military conflict with Iran. The sacking of notorious warmonger John Bolton as the National Security Advisor will help. But the US foreign policy leadership team remains alarmingly weak, with the back-up to the erratic and ill-informed president largely consisting of other hawks and yes-men such as secretary of state Mike Pompeo and a whole host of unfilled senior posts.

Simultaneously, Trump has started an ill-considered trade war with rising superpower China. This ‘war’ risks tipping the global economy into recession. Chinese president Xi Jinping appears to have concluded that China has the upper hand. Beijing believes it can afford to wait for Trump to climb down – as he is wont to do in the face of firm resistance – or for the growing economic pain to prompt the US electorate to vote Trump out of office in 2020.

While Trump is aggressive towards China on trade, he is feeble on political issues. Preventing China from carrying out human rights abuses has always been beyond the power of American presidents. But the behaviour of Chinese leaders can be inhibited by external pressure.

This time, the absence of any serious censure from Washington has allowed Xi to proceed unrestrained with a massive crackdown in Xinjiang province, where more than a million ethnic-minority Uighur people have been herded into concentration camps for ‘re-education’.

This unprecedented abdication of the US’s role in supporting freedom does not bode well for the people of Hong Kong. Their brave protests to preserve the rights China promised them when the autonomous territory was returned to it by Britain are continuing. But Beijing’s threats to put down the mass demonstrations by force are growing more ominous by the day and Trump shows no sign of speaking up in support of Hong Kong’s citizens.

Instead, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Xi. Trump has echoed Beijing’s characterisation of the mainly peaceful protests as “riots” that China “might want to stop”. He has signalled clearly to Xi that there would be few international consequences of a crackdown by saying that the issue is one to be resolved solely “between Hong Kong and China”.

French president Emmanuel Macron – a very different leader to the others – has also learnt to play Trump well, and with less malign outcomes. By judiciously blending firmness and flattery, Macron has limited some of the damage Trump can do, not least with his handling of the recent G7 meeting in France.

Despite his domestic difficulties with the gilets jaunes, Macron has generally performed expertly on the world stage to elevate France’s influence. Given Germany’s ongoing reluctance to lead on political and security issues and Britain’s Brexit-induced implosion as a world power, Macron has grasped both the opportunity and necessity to provide a strong and sensible European voice.

While Macron’s audacious attempt to prompt progress on the Iran crisis by inviting Iranian foreign minister Javad Sharif to the G7 meeting in Biarritz in August did not instantly come off, his continuing efforts to draw Trump into talks with president Rouhani do at least offer a glimmer of hope on that front. An eventual Trump-Rouhani meeting still cannot be ruled out, despite the serious setback caused by the attack on Saudi oil installations by Yemeni Houthi rebels, which the US administration sees as having been aided and abetted by Iran.

Sadly, Trump’s capricious and malevolent nature, and the sheer range of escalating flashpoints, curtail the influence even a smart and energetic operator like Macron can have on the US president.

To a large extent, the world faces a race against time. We are mostly reduced to watching on in the hope that Trump is removed from office before he causes, or is manipulated into creating, a catastrophic crisis.

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