Donald Trump has incited disarray both at home and abroad during his first seven months as president. His unilateral tweeting is a total innovation in US politics and shocking for the diplomatic world. If, on the domestic stage, Trump is constrained by Congress, in foreign affairs he operates unchecked.
The media storm swirling perpetually around Trump – mainly registering his many violations of political etiquette as they and grandees in his own party judge – has obscured his achievements in changing global perceptions of US policy. The contrast with Barack Obama’s foreign policy is striking.
The biggest gain for Trump, unacknowledged thus far, may turn out to be his containment of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. The unpredictable Kim may have met his match in the undiplomatic Trump. After the latest provocation, the firing of a ballistic missile over northern Japan on 29 August, it is too early to say how the confrontation will end. This was only the second time (the first was nearly 20 years ago) a North Korean missile has flown over Japan. Yet there are strong reasons for believing the US may be winning the struggle.
Kim has threatened to launch a missile which could reach the Pacific island of Guam, the US territory and strategic military base. Trump has warned the US could bring down ‘fire and fury’ on the errant state, reminiscent of President John Kennedy’s threatened strike during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
At the same time, the United Nations has tightened sanctions on North Korea, with Chinese acquiescence. Obama’s policy of strategic patience did not stop Kim developing his weapons. Now Trump is testing stylised anger to try to achieve the same goal, perhaps with better results.
Tension has clearly risen, with financial markets suffering from Kim’s move and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling it ‘outrageous’ and ‘unprecedented’. Yet North Korean action so far has been just a firecracker compared to what Kim claims could come next. The North Korean leader may have wished to counter recent US statements that Trump’s policy is starting to produce results. A provocative Kim move was expected in the light of current joint US-South Korea military exercises.
The US media has been reluctant to pay too much attention to North Korea because of Trump’s constant domestic distractions. These include his provocations after the violent mid-August demonstrations in Charlottesville, when he breached all norms by pronouncing even-handedness between extreme-right white supremacists and civil society protesters.
While congressional hearings are proceeding on claims of Russian hacking and relations between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin, new sanctions on Moscow have changed the dynamics of US-Russia relations. When Trump was elected there were fears he was trying to curry favour with Putin; now the criticism is he risks renewal of the cold war.
Trump’s bombing of Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons is the third decisive foreign policy move. Here, again, the contrast with Obama is striking. Trump is escalating, too, the Afghanistan campaign which his predecessor let drift. If you add to this Trump’s sensible intervention in the Qatar-Saudi Arabia dispute and a reasonably calm visit to Israel, one can see it is in foreign relations that the Trump style will work.
Trump has disappointed the European Union and says he is abandoning the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. But his eyes are on his domestic support. Whether mainstream opinion likes it or not, Trump’s popular supporters in the US love such actions, as well as views such as those in his Charlottesville statement.
Trump is looking to his 2020 re-election campaign. There is no evidence the Democrats are capitalising on Trump’s domestic tribulations.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Network.