Tuesday 19 March 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'He might have polarised opinion, but Trump has done far less harm than had first been threatened'

US President Donald Trump has passed the halfway point in his four-year term. Photo: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
US President Donald Trump has passed the halfway point in his four-year term. Photo: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Having just passed the halfway point in Donald Trump's four-year US presidential term, now is a good time to weigh up the real impact he has had so far - on Ireland, the world and his own country.

The truth about Trump is that he has done a lot less damage than his bull-in-a-china-shop demeanour would suggest. The bouffanted narcissist may have received the unceasing media attention he craves, but on a whole range of issues - globally and in the US - this radically different president has not, for the most part, brought about radical change.

Readers of these pages will be most interested in the impact the 45th US president has had on Ireland, and in particular on the hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country that are dependent on economic links with the US. We will return to bread and butter presently. First, consider fire and fury.

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The US outguns all the world's big military powers combined. Its nuclear arsenal alone could wipe out any country in minutes.

Early in his presidency, Trump threatened to bring America's military might to bear on the dictatorship in the northern part of Korea which has acquired The Bomb. A nuclear war on that small, two-state peninsula - packed with 80 million people - could cost more lives than any conflict since World War II.

Last week saw the sort of farce that passes for diplomacy under Trump, or "diplotainment" as it has been called. The US president held his second summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator. The two oddballs created a global media circus. Trump theatrically walked out of the meeting, but he didn't go back to threats of military strikes, an option that was effectively taken off the table once he started to cosy up to Kim, a world leader only in the scale of his human rights abuses.

The broader point is that Trump, despite his erratic and aggressive personality, has not used the military power he wields any more than his predecessors have, and possibly even less - announcements that he was pulling troops out of both Afghanistan and Syria and the launching of no new campaigns show that, to date at least, he is not a warmonger.

The US president is much more vulnerable to charges that he has caused more global insecurity because he hasn't been tough enough on troublemakers like Vladimir Putin. Investigations into links between Russia and the Trump election campaign drag on. Who knows what they will dredge up.

But the US stance on Russia, when it comes to hard actions, has not been softer under Trump than Barack Obama. How threatened Ireland's fellow EU members who were once under Moscow's cosh feel about of the US position on Russia is a good gauge. Two years ago they were genuinely scared that Trump would throw them to the Russian bear. They are less concerned today.

What about Ireland and its many made-in-America jobs?

Despite fears on many of fronts, Ireland's economic relationship with the US has gone from strength to strength during the Trump administration. American investment continues to flow into the Irish economy, creating employment and generating taxes. Trade has continued to flow, too.

According to the Central Statistics Office, the value of Irish goods sold to the US soared by almost 20pc last year, extending America as Ireland's largest national export market. For every man, woman and child in Ireland, exports to the US amounted to staggering €8,000 last year.

Separate American figures published yesterday show that Ireland's trade surplus with the US was the fifth biggest in the world in 2018.

Despite Trump's hostility to countries which sell more to America than buy from it, Ireland has not received the sort of criticism others, such as Germany, have come in for. One reason might be that Trump's international trade representative is one Robert Emmet Lighthizer - a man who, as his given names might suggest, is proud of his Irish-American heritage.

None of this is to say that there is nothing to worry about. One area where Trump has been truly different from his predecessors is cross-border commerce. He was been on a trade-war path with countries from Canada and Mexico to China and the EU.

Just yesterday in Washington, Lighthizer hosted Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU's (and therefore Ireland's) de facto trade minister. She was trying to persuade the Trump administration not to escalate a major transatlantic trade dispute. If she fails, and the EU and US begin a full-blown trade war, the Irish economy could be clobbered.

What of American democracy? Despite claims by more excitable souls that the US is on the brink of becoming a fascist dictatorship, courts across that vast country continue to uphold the rule of law. Last November's mid-term election cycle went ahead, as it has done for centuries. Since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in that election, parliament has been pushing back harder against the president.

Even Republicans in the Senate are rebelling against his declaration of a national state of emergency as a means of finding the funding to build his much-cherished wall on the Mexican border. America's strong democratic system of checks and balances has largely worked as expected.

That is not to say that Trump hasn't further polarised American politics, done enormous damage to the country's credibility in the world and its reliability as an ally: he has pulled out of the Paris climate accords; undermined the international trading system and its structures; and is trying to scupper a deal to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Trump could do a lot more damage over the next two years. He could do even more if he wins a second term in 20 months' time. But he has done less real harm than he threatened two years ago when inaugurated.

Irish Independent

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