Monday 11 December 2017

Eoin O'Malley: Enough now with Trump jokes, it's time for genuine diplomacy

We may not like it, but for the country's sake, we've all got to start acting like grown-ups

BOUNCE BACK: Rubber masks depicting US President-elect Donald Trump ready to be packaged. The Japanese manufacturer is working non-stop to catch up with a flood of orders for Trump masks since his election victory on November 9. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/AP
BOUNCE BACK: Rubber masks depicting US President-elect Donald Trump ready to be packaged. The Japanese manufacturer is working non-stop to catch up with a flood of orders for Trump masks since his election victory on November 9. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Eoin O'Malley

One of the best things to come out of Donald Trump's election victory are the imagined conversations using photos of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

In one, Biden, holding an American football, suggests to Obama that when Trump walks in, Obama should duck - and Biden, who's hiding behind Obama, will hit Trump with the ball. Obama, with increasing impatience, sternly rebukes him with a 'Joe!'

The thread running through all of these so-called 'memes' is that Biden does what many of us want to do, but Obama does what we should do. Biden behaves like a child, whereas Obama behaves like a grown-up.

But in real life too, Obama has behaved like a grown-up. He must surely dislike Trump, who propagated the notion that Obama wasn't an American citizen, but he got over that and started to work with Trump professionally, if not amicably, for the good of his country.

There's a lot of fun to be had from speaking your mind. In the Seanad, Aodhan O Riordain seemed to enjoy getting upset and shouting 'fascist' at the prospective President Trump. Also in the Seanad Michelle Mulherin was at the same business, for the other side, praising Trump and asking the Seanad to invite President Trump to speak in the chamber.

Whatever expressive pleasure they got from their outbursts, they don't yield anything for us. O Riordain and Mulherin are behaving like children.

The Government got some abuse from many for the speed with which Enda Kenny arranged a phone call to Trump. Charlie Flanagan also wants to build a "strong relationship" with the new Trump administration. Critics of Kenny and Flanagan - some of whom are within the Cabinet - complain that they should not have offered congratulations to Trump. But what should Ireland have done?

We might have felt better by refusing to take a call from Trump or by releasing a deliberatively provocative statement. Having previously called Trump's views "racist and dangerous" and suggested the American people vote for someone else, there was a good chance that Trump - who seems to takes insults personally - could have rebuked Kenny. Kenny held his nose, swallowed his pride, and spoke to Trump.

Kenny, and most of the rest of the country, would have preferred Clinton in the White House. She knows Ireland and is sympathetic to our needs. With Trump we don't know what he will do on corporation tax, the US's membership of NATO, on which we tacitly rely for our security, or the undocumented Irish.

These are what Donald Rumsfeld called "known unknowns" - things we know we don't know. We can try to influence the US in its decisions, and may even plan for them by, for instance, shifting a focus to Irish industry, or pushing for greater military co-operation in Europe.

But Trump is much more unpredictable. There are also likely to be "unknown unknowns" - possible events that we don't even know that we don't know. It's impossible to plan or prepare for these events. All we can really do is maintain good relations, and be ready to react.

The other area of foreign policy where there are more known and unknown unknowns than we are comfortable with is Brexit. Critics of the Government have complained that it seems ill-prepared. Micheal Martin wanted there to be a Brexit element to the budget.

I have no idea how much planning the Irish State had for Brexit, but we must have some sympathy for the Government in its defence of these criticisms. Brexit, or a Trump presidency is not something that can be easily planned for.

Even White House insiders have admitted they had no plan for a Trump presidency.

Kenny made mistakes in being critical of a candidate in a foreign election. It's a basic rule to not get involved (and he should know from his own ill-advised use of David Cameron in the Fine Gael election campaign), because it often backfires.

But not having a strict plan for Brexit should not be a source of criticism. It's natural enough to want plans, but clear plans are only useful if there are clear paths to choose between.

We like to have a plan, but a paradox of planning is that it often leads us to take a decision that we could have deferred until we have more information. One of the biggest sources of policy failure is premature commitment. Often decision makers take decisions too early - before the answers to the many questions they might have are known. The path we choose could turn into a swamp.

Human nature means once we make a decision we tend to commit to it, even when it becomes clear that the decision was the wrong one. For instance Lyndon B Johnson kept getting the US more deeply involved in the Vietnam War - even when early withdrawal would have been better. We find it hard to reverse decisions, so it's best not to commit to any before we have to.

The most important actor in Brexit is the UK government. That it doesn't appear to have a plan should worry us, but it also means we shouldn't commit many resources to any course of action.

One of the most notable aspects of decisions private companies in the UK have made in reaction to Brexit is the lack of decisions. Not many companies have committed any new money to the UK, but nor are there any withdrawing.

Nissan is investing but only because it received assurances that the UK state will compensate it for losses. Most are adopting a wait and see approach.

We should do the same for Brexit and Trump's presidency: continue to be friendly to all the players and gather information.

The children would have us throw Irish interests, the undocumented Irish, our economic model, under the bus to make us feel good about ourselves. Grown-ups know that acting out of pique would be self-destructive.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is senior lecturer in political science and director of Dublin City University's MSc in Public Policy

Sunday Independent

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