Tuesday 11 December 2018

Dan O'Brien: 'Why Ireland and world is a far less secure place with Trump in power'

Two years on from the election of US President Donald Trump, Dan O'Brien assesses the impact he's had on the world

Donald Trump. Photo: AP
Donald Trump. Photo: AP
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The US has not invaded another country since Donald Trump won the White House. The American economy has not slumped as a result of the acute political uncertainty generated by an erratic and unpredictable leader (on the contrary, it is booming). America remains a democracy - last week's elections were not cancelled, postponed or rigged by agents of the state as happens in countries that are not democracies.

Over the past week, there has been much focus on US politics and on Trump in particular. As usual, much of what is reported in relation to the US president is irrelevant in the grander, global scheme of things - his intention to tweak the US asylum application process topped news bulletins but it's very unlikely even to make a footnote in the history books.

There are, however, good reasons to believe that the quality of democracy in the US is being degraded. The president's constant stressing of divisions among Americans as a political tactic and his strident attacks on the press are unprecedented in recent decades. But while the quality of American democracy is being undermined, it is not about to become a dictatorship, never mind a totalitarian fascist state.

Power is widely diffused in the US political system. Both federal and state-level institutions are strong and in many cases have functioned continuously since the American republic's founding almost 250 years ago. Last week the Democrats won control of one of the two houses of congress in Washington DC. That will constrain the executive branch of government in multiple ways and there is nothing Trump can do about it short of shutting down congress, something that even his most ardent critics are not anticipating.

The president is far less constrained by congress in its conduct of international affairs than it is in domestic matters. That is why we in Ireland and others in the rest of the world have, in many ways, more to worry about than Americans.

Coming up to the half way point in Trump's first term have the risks for Ireland, Europe and the world of his presidency materialised?

As mentioned above, the US has not gone to war or even changed the way it has deployed its enormous military might in any significant way over the past two years. Despite some extremely belligerent rhetoric towards North Korea and the despot who runs the world's most totalitarian regime, the threat of conflict breaking out on the peninsula is lower now than at the beginning of Trump's presidency (even if the truce that was agreed is phoney and the denuclearisation issues could re-erupt at any time).

But the absence of war does not mean the world is as secure as it was before Trump took office. Government leaders in many countries in central and eastern Europe live in fear of a tweet from the White House ending the US commitment to protect them from attack. More widely across the continent, the strategic calculus has been transformed by a US president who is ambivalent about Nato, the rock upon which the European democracies have anchored their defence for seven decades. This was to be seen just last week when the French president Emmanuel Macron explicitly called for the creation of a European army to guarantee the continent's security against external threats.

Another security issue that has divided Europe from the US has been Iran. The US withdrawal from the 2015 deal agreed between the leading western powers and Iran on Isil's nuclear programme has infuriated European foreign policy makers arguably more than anything else Trump has done. US withdrawal has effectively collapsed a deal that was years in the making and that Europeans view as one of their great collective diplomatic achievements.

Their impotency to do anything about the US decision angers Europeans as much as the decision itself, and perhaps even more, from the tone of some officials when they talk about the matter. Big European companies, despite the urging of European politicians and diplomats, have cut ties with Iran because they cannot afford to risk their access to the US market.

Another source of US power - and one that so frustrates Europeans - is the mighty dollar. All big international companies make payments in the US currency. Under the new US sanctions regimes, any company using the dollar to make payments to Iran will be targeted. That aspect of the US sanctions regime alone has European companies off-loading Iranian interests, despite cajoling and pleading from Brussels.

Also of great importance for the world's long-term security was Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords. Joseph Curtin, my colleague at the Institute of International and European Affairs who specialises in climate issues, argues that the US decision has already shifted billions of dollars of investment from clean energy to fossil fuels. He also believes that the decision has been a contributory factor in the decisions of other countries - including Australia, Russia and Turkey - to pull back from their earlier emissions commitments.

Yet another issue - and one of direct and immediate relevance for tens of thousands of Irish households - is the US position on economic ties with the rest of the world. After World War II, successive American presidents championed globalisation and the imperfect rules-based system that has underpinned it. That stance was based not only on the view that international commerce was good for the prosperity of the US and its people, but that it was good for others too. In other words, trade was viewed a global win-win.

No other aspect of America's foreign policy stance has been so thoroughly changed as trade. Trump has a record, going all the way back to the 1980s, of viewing commerce as a zero-sum gain - what one side wins, the other side loses, and he has acted on this again and again. This has manifested in an unusually consistent way in policy decisions.

One of Trump's first acts was to pull the US out of a trade deal with countries around the Pacific; then he demanded the renegotiation of a two-decade old deal with Mexico and Canada; and, more recently, he has launched a trade war with China which has escalated rapidly and widened to other matters, fuelling a debate among scholars of international relations about the prospect of war between the two superpowers.

Because Ireland sells more goods to the US than vice versa, it is one of the countries that Trump has specifically mentioned as having an unfair trade advantage. He has also expressed a desire for US companies based here to move jobs across the Atlantic. Given these comments, and the fact that the US is Ireland's largest source of direct investment and our largest single export market, warning lights have been flashing here since the moment he was elected.

Concerns grew earlier this year when Trump announced he would hit some European goods entering the US with additional taxes. The European Commission, which has responsibility for the common commercial policy of the EU's 28 members, took counter-measures against US goods imported into Europe.

A transatlantic trade ceasefire was agreed in June and now the two sides are talking about a possible freeing up of trade. It is possible that EU-US trade barriers will be lower by the end of Trump's (first) term, but it is also possible that relations will go the way of those with China. A full-blown transatlantic trade war, which would be disastrous for Ireland, continues to be a material risk.

Ireland and the rest of the world will remain on tenterhooks for as long as Trump is president. It will be a long wait until November 2020 to find out exactly when he departs the White House.

Sunday Independent

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