Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Donald Trump Proves True The Old Vulcan Proverb

According to the venerable Ambassador Spock, there's an old Vulcan proverb about the least suitable people succeeding where more traditional candidates failed: 'Only Nixon could go to China'. In the movie, Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, Spock is referring to his decision that the man to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth to negotiate a peace treaty should be Jim Kirk, who has a profound hatred of the Klingons following the murder of his son. Spock knows that if the peace is to succeed, enmity must be overcome on both sides. Kirk is a legendary figure at Starfleet, having saved the Earth countless times over his long career. Spock is gambling that if Kirk can rise above his prejudice, it will be a powerful symbol for others to follow.

The Earth equivalent of the Vulcan proverb operates on a similar principle. President Richard Nixon's image among his supporters was so strong that nobody but he could have made a diplomatic visit to meet Chairman Mao in the People's Republic of China in 1972 without being damaged by it. Nixon's visit ended a twenty-five year communications shutdown between the two countries, leading to full diplomatic relations being opened seven years later. By any rational measure, the staunch anti-communist Nixon was a wildly unlikely candidate to achieve this breakthrough. Ironically, that such a man would even try is what gave his efforts credibility. Contrary to his detractors, Donald Trump's success in brokering an historic peace deal between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain shows him operating from a similar position.

Comparisons between Nixon and Trump are common practice among opinion pieces, which I won't go into here. If one is to instead differentiate between the two, it is that Nixon, allied with Henry Kissinger, was a strategist, whereas Trump, often seeming to make decision unilaterally, is an opportunist. Kissinger laid the foundations of warming diplomatic relations between China and the US ahead of Nixon's visit. Trump's successes do not show the same signs of long-term planning, but rather a businessman trusting his gut and seizing opportunities on a moment-by-moment basis.

Trump is less cunning and more shrewd. His historic win at the 2016 Presidential election, achieved by inverting every accepted rule about campaigning, looks unlikely to have been the brilliantly devised strategy some have attributed to him, but rather an acute reading of the national temperature combined with a television personality's flair for showmanship. Trust in the US' patronising political class was at an all-time low and social media and 24-hour news had created an environment where escalating shock value was the most powerful form of exposure. Trump raised his finger to the air and followed the wind.

This seems to have been the strategy stuck with throughout his first term in office. His Presidency has not been defined by long-term goals in the same way Obama worked towards passing the Affordable Care Act, for instance. There have been trends, such as a lust for dismantling his predecessor's legacy, a vocal desire to extricate Chinese influence from American industry and a traditional conservative position of bolstering the economy through corporate tax cuts, but beyond the powerfully evocative 'Make America Great Again' slogan, it is difficult to nail down exactly what 'Trumpism' is in policy terms.

Trump's opportunism has on occasion led him astray. His desire for validation has led to him pandering to an insalubrious mix of racists and conspiracy theorists on the far right. An early attempt at a foreign policy coup, conducting talks with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, led nowhere and resulted in him looking easily manipulated and combined with rumours of his close association with Vladmir Putin, in thrall to authoritarian leaders. His short-sighted eagerness to tear apart everything put in place by President Obama has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in Syria and greatly damaged the US' standing on the global stage.

However, he has enjoyed some successes. His denunciation of China and its soft-power encroachment into the West has been vindicated over time, even if his policies, such as withdrawing from the Obama-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, arguably strengthened China's global influence. The US' assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was predicated on a belief that Iran would not be willing to commit to a full-scale war in the region and proven correct. His establishing of a US Space Force was widely mocked, yet has been recognised as a prescient and essential step towards protecting the US' satellites and orbital technology.

The peace accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain appear the latest triumph of Trump opportunism. His opponents are correct in pointing out that diplomatic relations between the countries had been thawing for some time, particularly over concerns regarding a hostile Iran, yet it is inconceivable that any other Presidential administration in recent history could have pulled it off. Where previous administrations have favoured diplomacy and appeasement, Trump has gone for the jugular. 

Withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and assassinating Soleimani were widely criticised by Trump's opponents at the time, yet established a willingness to confront and isolate Iranian belligerence. Trump's consistently forceful pro-Israel position, including the highly controversial decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, demonstrated a commitment to the US' key ally in the region. It is unthinkable that the Obama administration's appeasement strategy towards Iran and reticence towards Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel would have put it in a position to broker a deal which has effectively shifted hostility in the Arab world away from Israel and towards Iran.

The deal represents a face-saving coup for Trump and Netanyahu alike, both presiding over nationalist governments fighting accusations of endemic corruption. The degree to which any of Trump's decisions was planned with peace as a long-term goal is debatable at best. However, it is precisely Trump's mercurial expediency, his instinctive readiness to bolster allies and attack enemies without thought for the long-term consequences which diplomats obsess over, that put him in the unique position to take the first meaningful step in years towards rebalancing power in the region in America and Israel's favour.

Domestically, Trump's showmanship and bluster has earned him a level of devotion among his Republican supporter base that is quasi-religious. That his opponents loathe him with such pathological vehemence has both reinforced that devotion and inoculated him from any real criticism. When he is attacked in the left-leaning press for everything he does, deservedly or not, adding one more drop to the flood barely registers. Even had Obama or Bush or Clinton worked themselves into a position to broker a peace treaty of this kind, they would have been doing so from a position of far greater vulnerability to outraged opponents and suspicious supporters alike.

The peace may not last and the consequences for the Palestinians remains up in the air: it could be another serious blow to their push for national autonomy, or be the beginning of a long-term process whereby Bahrain and the UAE are able to use their new diplomatic ties to Israel to apply a softer form of pressure in support of the Palestinian cause. What the deal does represent is further evidence against those who believe in a mechanistic world where there is always a concrete 'right way' and 'wrong way' of doing things.

Politically, temperamentally and intellectually, Trump should have been the last person able to complete this deal. Where diplomats have been trying to untangle the knot of Middle Eastern power politics for decades, Trump brought a sword. Like Nixon in China or Kirk with the Klingons, it is the nature of his outward unsuitability for the task and his office which was key to his success. It is not a vindication of him as a man or a politician, or a suggestion that his often cynical opportunism be an approach worth continuing once he departs or is removed from office, but a reminder that we must resist the urge to limit our thinking to only the perceived 'correct' way of doing things. In a world as complex as ours, sometimes the wrong answer can find the right question.


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