It took only six days into Donald Trump’s presidency for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to give the incoming American premier his first lesson in regional and global politics. As first lessons tend to be, it was very simple. By bluntly telling him that Mexico will not pay for the wall, Pena Nieto was teaching Trump that even though the US is still the world’s dominant super power, the world does not simply bow down to every whim of its president – that’s just not the way the world works.
Trump’s earliest and most consistent campaign promise to build a wall that Mexico will pay for, seemed to fall flat on its face. Oddly, the beginning of Trump’s presidency has been an all-too palpable demonstration (performance?) of a new president with no true diplomatic experience, who is now learning the true nuances of making decisions with global implications – and that it takes more than campaign slogans to fundamentally policy.
His first 100 days in office were almost as entertaining as they were busy. In the realm of foreign affairs, the world was treated to the live-tweeting of Trump’s education on diplomacy. Whether or not he will heed the lessons and translate it into policy has yet to be seen. Trump has shown us his continually dogged adherence to some of the more outlandish claims he has made as president, and his ability to be pragmatic as his U-turn with China seems to have demonstrated.
Trump’s shift-shaping positions on China suggest that he may not be ready to offer a clear policy vis-a-vis US relations to China just yet. Bizarrely, one his most notable statements on his vision of bilateral relations with the country has come in the form of culinary metaphors.
During his campaign, he claimed that rather than offer the Chinese premier a state dinner, he would treat him to a McDonald’s hamburger. However, when describing their meeting in April, Trump fawned over the beauty of the chocolate cake they were consuming at his luxury retreat in Florida. What we can surmise is that Trump will sometimes employ a pragmatic approach, even if it veers from the “politics as usual” paradigm. One hundred days into such an unorthodox presidency, just beginning to understand his approach to policy is all one could realistically expect in this short period of time.
In the world of political analysis there are few exercises that are more arbitrary and ultimately meaningless than the concept of dissecting "the first 100 days”. Modern work places have wired us to believe that three months is an adequate probationary period for any job. However, unlike run of the mill employment, the job of the President of the United States allows little recourse, in case the employee fails to impress or displays worrying traits in this initial period.
It’s a favoured milestone for the media, by virtue of it merely sounding significant. Politicians love it because it allows them to put a time frame on short-term promises that is both short enough to convey urgency, but long enough to leave some distance between them and their promises, in the event that they cannot follow through. Remember Obama and Guantamo?
As one of the most media savvy candidates of an American election, Donald Trump made promises, a lot of promises, for his first 100 days in office. Despite his lack of experience, history of bankruptcy, alleged fraud, embarrassing gaffes and allegations of harassment, Trump used his experience as a reality TV ratings machine to control his campaign messaging – and was able to convince his constituency that his first three months will be prolific. He may even believe in his overly ambitious plans, perhaps thinking that government worked like his businesses did – catering to the boss's every whim. His excessive emphasis on immediacy and the famous 100-day contract, have made this milestone a significant marker worthy of discussion.
Trump most consistently spoke of “America first,” and derided the performances of his closest predecessors, especially Obama, as having weakened America’s hand in trade and diplomacy.
His soft stance on Russia and allegations that Russia tampered with the elections in his favour left many detractors wondering how he would be able to fulfil his populist and nationalist agenda after making an ally of a country that has been constantly seen either as an enemy, or a potential threat.
However, his reluctance to truly stand up for staffers charged with being on Russian payrolls, along with Secretary of State – a former winner of the Russian Order of Friendship – Rex Tillerson’s seemingly cold meeting with the Russians has cast doubt on this relationship. The Trump administration actually claims that the current relationship with Russia is at an “all time low.” The decision to launch aerial strikes on military bases run by Russia’s ally, the Syrian regime, seemed to have put away the notion of Trump-Putin collusion on the international level.
The strike in Syria helped him address a major campaign talking point – that Obama was too passive on what was happening in Syria. As a result, he gained some recognition as a strong president who is always ready to take action, unilaterally, affirming American supremacy on the global arena.
Aside from Syria, Trump has successfully restored relationships with some countries in the Middle East, especially those that seemed to have been on uneasy terms with the previous administration. Like many of those to come before him, he is a believer in upholding the status quo in the Middle East, and has fully taken to heart that the alternative to the monarchies and quasi-democracies in the region is violent religious extremism.
In President Abdel-Fattah al Sisi of Egypt, Trump has found a kindred spirit insofar as they both use terrorism as a justification to expand their mandate to implement illegal or unpopular security policies. One of Trump's first executive orders was one that singled out seven Muslim-majority countries for a travel ban, and it was ultimately unsuccessful.
The future of the Trump-Sisi relationship could be in jeopardy. Despite Trump’s glowing praise for Sisi, the US Senate just hosted a hearing discussing human rights abuse and US foreign aid to Egypt – which has been a cornerstone of this relationship.
Trump had also been recently warming up to Chinese President Xi Jinping over their mutual unease with the situation in North Korea. This seemed a sensible about-face on this relationship, especially after he worryingly and unequivocally stated on the campaign trail that he would label China a “currency manipulator” and harshly insist they scale back on some of their activities. Although their interests may come at a head in some instances, it would definitely be in the US government’s best interest to befriend the world’s fastest growing economic superpower.
It is likely too early to come to a verdict on many of these issues, and the 100 days, despite being very active, do not provide an adequate litmus test. There were no bridges burnt with Russia, and there could very well be a “cold war” of sorts with the Chinese if they continue to grow in trade competitiveness vis-a-vis the US.
Trump has proven that he can be pragmatic, but can he continue to be so?
The gusto and intent shown by this presidency to change the face of US politics is evident. Unfortunately for many, judging by his allies and his own words, much of this outlook is based on an isolationist, combative, and (in some cases) xenophobic view of the world. The realities of the world have tempered some of the more extreme right-wing tendencies of the administration. But judging from his initial overall performance, it is very likely that within two years a “Trump doctrine” will have emerged that would be the combined result of both practise and ideology.
In the meantime, the reactionary nature of Trump’s foreign policy approach is worrying. The world is watching apprehensively as the situation unfolds in North Korea with Kim Jong Un regularly testing ballistic missiles. While Trump has repeatedly stated that he will not disclose his plans, in order to not expose himself to his “enemies”, it seems more likely that he does not have long term plans to disclose. This is not exactly a reassuring feeling when the prospect of conflict with a nuclear power is involved.