As we wait for the summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to unfold on Sentosa Island in Singapore, everyone is in waiting mode and there are few takers for the challenge of forecasting the outcome. There is a widespread sense of a precarious balance between the epoch-shaping risks and opportunities available, uncertainty about what two unpredictable leaders would achieve together or, indeed, wreck. The uncertainty was only deepened by the US President’s rejection of the agreed communiqué at the G7 summit in a Quebec village three days earlier.
There is a consistent pattern here. The Trump administration recently passed its 500th day – ‘500 Days of Winning on the World Stage’ as a breathless White House ‘Fact’ sheet put it, or ‘500 Days of American Greatness’ as another one preferred. Leave all the arguments about how much has been achieved and how wisely to one side. After almost a year and a half of this US administration, part of what is so striking about it, and what might be its eventual hallmark and legacy, is the dose of disruption it has injected into world politics.
From climate change to Iran to …
Whether announcing withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement or from the Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action – Trump as President has shown he sets no store by commitments others entered into on behalf of the United States. Agreements, his actions have made clear, do not necessarily survive a change of administration.
Once that precedent is set, it could become a toxin for international cooperation. It casts a reciprocating doubt on any agreement that Trump himself signs. In the increasingly partisan, divided landscape of US politics, which is a wave Trump has surfed on but did not himself generate, how reliable henceforth will be the word of the President on the international stage?
The trade grenade
That doubt is deepened by what The Economist, a magazine, called the grenade the President lobbed at the G7 summit as he left. The mess in which the G7 now sits is reflected in four dimensions.
- Trump rejected the summit communiqué, after apparently agreeing to it, because of remarks made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference. A little while ago, differences of interpretation of compromise text cobbled together in late night session by experienced diplomats were simply par for the course. But, it seems, you don’t differ with the President.
- The US President and senior officials have aimed extraordinarily vicious language at Trudeau, calling him meek and dishonest, back-stabbing, treacherous and deserving a special place in hell.
- Trump said just before the summit that Russia should be invited to join the G7, making it back into the G8 (Russia was pushed out in 2014 in response to its actions in Crimea), a suggestion that Russian President Vladimir Putin predictably welcomed.
- And then there’s the picture, uploaded to the internet by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s social media team. As they say, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. And the action of uploading it also seems to speak rather loudly.
Trump and most of the other G7 leaders disagree about a lot of things. Not least, there is no common ground on the Iran nuclear deal and climate change. But the vicious spat following the G7 summit was sparked by trade, over which Trump has unleashed an offensive against the world’s other major trading powers and biggest US trading partners – China and the EU – with Canada also a target for selective tariff impositions.
Consider the background. Well aware he had dismissed NATO as obsolete, the European allies of the US evinced early consternation oabout a Trump Presidency. There was the lack of unity at his first NATO summit in May 2017, not to mention the impact of him cavorting with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and French President Emmanuel Macron,
And there was Angela Merkel’s comment shortly after that Europe could no longer rely on the US. Against that background, the trade war and the President’s actions on the way out of the G7 summit look like just one swing of the wrecking ball against the edifice of the western alliance.
If on Iran and climate change, Trump’s actions seem to threaten the fabric of global multilateralism and a rules-based international order, on NATO and trade, Trump’s words seem to threaten the durability of the system of US-led alliances.
And also North Korea
And on DPRK, Trump has also gone outside the lines of how things are usually done. First there were the “rocket man” insults. When Kim Jong-un retaliated, calling Trump “an old lunatic, mean trickster and human reject” who deserves the death penalty, Trump came back with the sarcastic remark that he would never call Kim Jong-un short and fat. After the insults came the sudden acceptance of Kim’s surprise invitation to a summit meeting, followed by the off-on sequence even once the date and place had been set. And now we have Trump saying that he will steer by instinct and know within the first minute or so whether the summit will be productive.
With all that, we who often think we know something about how these things are done can be forgiven for stepping back this time and say we have absolutely no idea how things will turn out. In the lead-up to the summit, there were both reasons to hope and reasons to worry. The narratives on each side about why and how the summit came about – which one of them came to the summit in a position of strength, basically – were mutually contradictory. Did international sanctions and US strength force DPRK to the table? Or did the DPRK win the right to be treated on equal terms by successfully going nuclear despite international sanctions and US strength? Would Trump emerge as the genuine master negotiator he and his supporters claim he is? Or not?
Nothing is certain about the summit’s outcome or, indeed, what will happen in trade relations between the US and the rest. There is no guarantee that it will be the disaster many fear, shocked, as they are, by recognising Trump as the purveyor of the unprecedented. And, of course, there is no guarantee either of success for Trump’s “America First” approach or for the common good. Instead of focussing on the merits of the arguments over climate, Iran, trade and even the prospects and outcome of the Kim-Trump summit, let us just ponder the extent of disruption that Trump has brought onto the international stage.
We should, frankly, be no longer surprised by the unexpected. His signature initiatives deliberately attempt to break up previous consensus, norms, implicit understandings and accepted ways of doing things. He is not simply an innovator in world politics but, for good or for ill, a disruptor.
In the economy, disruption is a force that displaces what was there before. It doesn’t just get a jump on the competition within an existing market; it might do away with that market altogether. Or a whole industry or technology. The parallel with what Trump is starting to do in international politics does not seem to me to be far-fetched though there is a long, long way to go before the international rules-based order and the western alliance are dead in the water.
However, it is worth noting something further about disruption. It is creative as well as destructive. It produces or creates the conditions in which there can be produced something else that is new, stronger and more effective.
If that something emerges, the process of disruption is nonetheless painful, costly for many and, in the real world of international politics and rivalries, dangerous. But if that new and more effective something does not emerge, then the process won’t have been disruption, just destruction.
As to whether Trump is a disruptor in the productive sense or merely a destructor, the jury is still out. It will be a long time before it is back with a verdict. In the meantime, expect the unexpected. And recognise that whatever the destination, this journey is not going to be comfortable.