US President Donald Trump’s readiness to use unilateral military force is undoubted, as his missile barrage on Syria and threats to North Korea and Iran attest. Alongside this militarism, however, is another, seemingly different side of Trump; one that appears to embrace talks and diplomacy with foreign leaders.
Over the past week, the US president held his third phone call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, reportedly promising to work together on bringing about a peaceful settlement in Syria. That avowed pragmatism marks a pleasant change from his predecessor Barack Obama whose attitude toward Moscow seemed imbued with Cold War-style ideological antagonism.
We also saw Trump hosting the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the White House this past week, reiterating his public commitment to brokering Middle East talks with Israel. Trump’s attitude is leavened by an affable «why can’t we all just get along» posture. He seems willing to be a friend to all whom he greets in the Rose Garden. His vocabulary is laced with complimentary superlatives: «Wonderful guy», «fantastic», «beautiful people», «super-duper», and so on.
Even foreign leaders who might have expected a sharp word from Trump end up being complimented. Recall how Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto was lavishly praised despite earlier harsh disparaging talk by Trump towards the US’ southern neighbor. China’s Xi Jinping, too, was greeted with bonhomie Trump charm despite earlier scathing accusations against Beijing as a currency manipulator and «raping American workers».
Then another jack-in-the-box over the past week was Trump’s comment that he would be «honored» to have face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This is the same Kim Jong-un that Washington has for weeks been projecting as a «nut-job with nukes» threatening to turn the US into radioactive ashes. Well, turnaround Trump was even complimenting his Asian adversary as a «smart cookie».
So, the question is: what to make of Trump’s apparent willingness, indeed zeal, to talk and to do business with foreign leaders? Is it sincere, or all just cheap talk from Trump?
Certainly, in the world of practical US conduct and facts, Trump’s image of extending camaraderie and dialogue is flatly contradicted by reality.
Take the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Two months ago, when diplomats from that country attempted to make an initial contact with the new Trump administration, the US State Department reportedly cancelled their entry visas. That’s hardly a gesture of openness to dialogue, as Trump would have us believe.
In recent days, just as Trump was saying he would be «honored» to meet Kim Jong-un, the United States stepped up its military provocations. The USS Carl Vinson battle group was conducting war maneuvers off the Korean Peninsula, along with Japanese and South Korea allies. At the same time, the US flew nuclear-capable B1 bombers over the Peninsula.
CIA chief Mike Pompeo also made an unannounced trip to South Korea where he reportedly held private meetings with top military brass and special forces. His visit comes after several other senior Trump administration officials have also toured South Korea and Japan, including Pentagon chief James Mattis. All these officials have openly threatened North Korea with a pre-emptive military strike if it pursues its controversial nuclear weapons program.
Another provocative move by the Trump administration in the past week was the operational go-ahead in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. The system can be seen as augmenting US first-strike capability against not just North Korea, but against China and Russia as well.
Therefore, as far as North Korea is concerned, Trump’s words expressing a desire for dialogue are rendered rather hollow when they are set against the foreboding background of impending military threat.
If we pan out from the Korean Peninsula, we can see other real-world developments that speak of US military aggression in contradiction to President Trump’s seemingly cordial words offering dialogue.
In the restive Balkans region, Montenegro has been accepted into the NATO military alliance as the 29th member. It was the Trump administration’s approval last month which confirmed Montenegro’s accession. This was in spite of stern objections from Russia over what it sees as another provocative eastwards expansion by NATO on its borders.
In Ukraine, more American military trainers have arrived in recent weeks to sharpen combat readiness of the Ukrainian Armed Forces along the contact line with the breakaway self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In Afghanistan, the Trump administration is planning to send 5,000 more troops into that war-torn country, reversing the supposed withdrawal that the Obama administration had implemented. The US move comes at a delicate time when Russia is trying to oversee a peaceful resolution to years of conflict in Afghanistan. A cynic might say, Washington’s intent is to undermine Russian diplomatic efforts.
In Syria, the US has reportedly begun deploying heavy-armor units along the border with Turkey, on top of the dispatch of hundreds of troops already by Trump.
Finally, Trump’s first overseas trip as president later this month is to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. The White House said the tour was an «effort to unite three of the world’s leading religious faiths in the common cause of fighting terrorism, reining in Iran and unifying the world against intolerance».
The White House statement amounts to gobbledegook, given the real role of Saudi Arabia and Israel in fomenting terrorism in Syria and beyond.
But it clearly shows that the Trump administration is more a projection of empty rhetoric and illusory image than anything substantive. Trump may talk plenty about talking, but in reality US conduct of increasing military aggression around the world is the proof that matters.
A further question is: why is President Trump talking up so much the prospects of talking with other leaders if US practice is evidently at odds with his words?
American political analyst Randy Martin reckons that contradiction has to do with two factors. Firstly, there is the need to maintain the vainglorious myth that the US is a law-abiding upholder of international order and diplomacy. Washington has to continually shore up its image as a paragon of diplomacy and peace-making to cover up the brutal reality that is actually a rogue state, using military force and gunboat diplomacy whenever it desires.
A second factor is that Trump has gutted the US diplomatic corps. Under his watch, the State Department’s operating budget is to be axed by nearly 30 per cent. Since he took up the White House, Trump has seen the wholesale retrenchment of diplomacy departments.
According to analyst Randy Martin, this void in American diplomacy under Trump is being «compensated» by Trump using words that give a veneer of active US diplomacy, when in reality there is none. In short, it’s all hype.
And what better person to hype up US diplomatic assets than a real estate mogul, whose very existence is all about selling over-priced dodgy commodities and ripping off others?
Forget the sales spiel coming out of Trump about talk, dialogue and peaceful diplomacy. Never mind the glossy brochure. Check what’s going down, on the ground. US militarism and aggression is the reality-check to Trump’s patina of peace-talks.
FINIAN CUNNINGHAM | SCF