15 February 2017

Has Trump been tamed?


Remember the end of the West? That was what many commentators (including me) foretold when Donald Trump won the American presidency in November.

Causes for alarm abounded. The candidate’s own heedless and contemptuous remarks about allies and alliances; the exotic and eccentric characters at the top of his campaign; the stench of Russian penetration – all of them suggested that America’s role as the leader of the free world was over.

Two months later, those fears are abating. Though bizarre and risky behaviour still crops up with alarming regularity – such as discussing the North Korean missile test by the light of smartphones in a public restaurant – there are more and more signs of normalcy.

Shinzo Abe’s visit, for example, was notably friendly. Barack Obama liked his golf, but rarely shared his weekends with visitors. Mr Trump showered the Japanese prime minister with compliments, including a carefully worded pledge of American support in Japan’s tense relations with China.

A joint communique after the meeting pointedly noted that the US-Japanese security pact also included contested islands in the East China Sea. The White House wordsmiths, masters of their art, are back in business, forging policy with careful use of commas and subordinate clauses.

A visit from the Canadian leader, Justin Trudeau, also passed off smoothly. Earlier, James Mattis, the secretary of defence, toured America’s Asian allies to reassure them of continuing military support. And the administration is sending a galaxy of senior figures to Europe this week, to the meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bonn and the Munich Security Conference at the weekend, to underline America’s commitment to European defence.

Mr Trump is also backing away from the extravagant promises he made to Israel – the only foreign country to be mentioned favourably during the campaign. He is edging away from his pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and has said that building settlements on Palestinian territory is unhelpful.

He will get on well with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, when the two men meet today – but he is no longer taking the positions advocated by the most hawkish Israelis and their allies in Washington, DC.

As well as dealing more sensibly with allies, Mr Trump has also sharply reversed course in his confrontation with American adversaries. He has explicitly backed the “One China” policy, which he seemed so carelessly to have abandoned in his unprecedented presidential chinwag with the Taiwanese president in December.

He also, belatedly, sent a message to Xi Jinping congratulating him on the start of the Chinese lunar New Year. That was more than 10 days late, but the message was clear: the Trump administration has no interest in picking a fight with the Chinese Communist leadership.

That may be seen in Beijing as a sign of weakness. But it is also a recognition that normal diplomatic and political rules apply. That is the big story of the past two months, epitomised by (apparently forced) resignation of Michael Flynn.

This former general and spymaster was a prime example of the Trump administration’s precedent-busting approach. His intense focus on the threat from militant Islam coupled with an uncompromising management style and unwillingness to listen to contrary points of view made him, in most eyes, a dreadful choice as National Security Adviser.

In that job, subtlety, wisdom, discretion and mental agility are needed – providing the advice that can turn a crisis into defeat, victory or nuclear conflagration. Even Mr Flynn’s friends would not say that those qualities are his forte.

His standing was weakened by astonishing lapses of judgment. He seemed to discount the threat from Russia altogether, appearing on a Kremlin propaganda channel and hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin dinner. Worse, he made phone calls to the Russian ambassador in which he discussed how to lift the sanctions which Barack Obama’s administration imposed in its final days in office.

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of sanctions, but America’s Logan act specifically prohibits private negotiations with foreign governments that are at odds with the United States. If Mr Flynn didn’t know that, he should have done.

Perhaps worse was his carelessness. He phoned the Russian embassy in Washington on an open phone line – which he must have known was listened to by American (and other) spy agencies. Then he lied about it to Vice President Pence, saying that he had not discussed sanctions, when readily available transcripts showed that he had done just that.

Few will mourn Mr Flynn’s downfall. Few think he will be the last to leave the White House. Plenty more rocky weeks lie ahead. Reince Priebus looks out of his depth as chief of staff. Though sacking underperforming employees has been Mr Trump’s hallmark in his reality-TV career, firing people whom you yourself have hired, and to senior positions, inevitably casts a shadow over the boss’s judgment.

Mr Trump has made a career out of bombast and hyperbole, and his record is in many respects flimsy and dodgy. But his skyscrapers stay up. So, if the past two weeks are any guide, will his increasingly normal White House.

Edward Lucas writes for the Economist