Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 23 October 2017

Trump’s words and actions affecting US image

US President Donald Trump seems to regularly attract newsworthy controversy.  This might be entertaining, but his words and actions have serious consequences. 


Controversies galore continue to be generated by the US President, Donald Trump, from apparently small to huge issues.

Much of the political elite, the intellectuals and media in the US itself seems to be fed up, so too the US allies in Europe.

Watching Trump has become a favourite pastime.  It would be high entertainment, except that what he says and does can have such a big impact, ranging from starting a trade war or a nuclear war that can kill millions.     

Last week’s “small incident” saw Trump phoning the widow of an American soldier who had just been killed in Niger.  His choice of words was unfortunate: “I’m sure he knew what he was signing up for but it still hurts.”

This part of what the President said was reported by a Congresswoman who heard the call, but Trump tweeted that she “totally fabricated what I said.” 

But the soldier’s mother told the media she agreed with the Congresswoman’s account, and said that Trump “did disrespect my son and daughter and also me and my husband.”     

Perhaps this is not a big matter in the larger scheme of things, but the President’s behaviour and choice of words when he speaks to ordinary people, especially  families who have suffered tragedy on behalf of the country, will affect his popularity perhaps as much as the big issues.

Top of the latter last week was the President’s refusal to re-certify the agreement that the US and several other major powers signed with Iran at the end of 2015 to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Trump’s move shifted the responsibility to Congress whether the US would renew its commitment to the deal.  But he called on Congress and US allies to correct the deal’s many serious flaws or terminate it.

The President is being criticised for acting in the interests not of the US but of Israel, whose Prime Minister Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu had unsuccessfully lobbied President Obama not to sign a deal with Iran, and who now praised Trump for his decision.

But Europe gave what was tantamount to a slap to Trump when the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany and France issued a joint declaration that they stood committed to the agreement "and its full implementation by all sides."

They added that "the nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy and was a major step toward ensuring that Iran's nuclear (programme) is not diverted for military purposes.”

Read MoreThe EU’s foreign policy head Federica Mogherini added:  "It is not a bilateral agreement, it does not belong to any single country, and it is not up to any single country to terminate it….We cannot afford to dismantle it."

Trump claimed that Iran had committed "multiple violations of the agreement."  But there is no evidence of this. The International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring Iran’s performance, has reported that Iran is complying with the deal.

The three European leaders also declared Iran had not been found in breach of the deal, and they asked the US not to undermine the deal by re-imposing sanctions.

Congress has 60 days from the day of Trump’s announcement to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. If it does, then the consequences would be extremely serious, with stability in the already volatile Middle East being threatened.  

Equally problematic is the relations between the US and North Korea.  Trump has threatened to take military action against North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons programme.  But that has not deterred its maverick leader Kim Jong-un from carrying out one nuclear test after another.

Trump’s threats of “totally destroying” North Korea are very risky when made against a nuclear state. Kim has responded with threats of his own. 

Many people are worried that the two countries may stumble into nuclear war through rhetoric and accident.  Experts have estimated that millions may perish if that happens, given that South Korea and Japan are also so nearby.

In another area, the US is also frustrating members of the World Trade Organisation by blocking the appointments of new members to its Appellate Body, which hears trade disputes among countries. 

One of the seven seats is now vacant, with a new vacancy in December.  The US has rejected attempts by other members on a process to select new members.  The US is unhappy with some decisions and procedures of the body, and its blocking game is partially paralysing the WTO.

Besides this, the US is also blocking proposals put forward by developing countries for decisions to be made at the WTO’s Ministerial Conference this December.   The US is also reviving the use of its unilateral trade weapon, the Super 301, which can seriously disrupt not only the WTO but world trade.

Finally, the US recently also announced it was exiting from UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, together with Israel.  Both countries are peeved that Palestine has been recognised as a member of UNESCO.  This may spell the withdrawal of the US from other international agencies in which Palestine has membership. 

If the rest of the world is upset with what is happening in the US, so too are many Americans.  In a recent hard hitting editorial, the New York Times surveyed the damage to its international image that Trump and his administration has done to the US.  “America First, Mr. Trump says. America last is more like it,” concluded the editorial.