Pins are out for the Trump balloon

General view of west side of US Capitol prior to the inauguration to swear in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
General view of west side of US Capitol prior to the inauguration to swear in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 20, 2017

Even as the inaugural party hangovers still throb in Washington, leaders in other capitals are dreaming up ways to discover what kind of blow-hard Donald Trump is.

He has given them plenty to work with over the last couple of years with his ignorant and intemperate outbursts. But it matters to everyone whether there is any substance behind Trump’s rabid self-promotion: his opiate of choice.

President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania depart from services at St. John's Church during his inauguration in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania depart from services at St. John’s Church during his inauguration in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The core question is whether the century of the United States imperium is at an end.

It was in the winter of 1918-1919 during the peace talks in Paris to conclude the First World War that Washington took over from London as the capital of the world’s super power. British leaders realized the era of their empire was spent and willingly handed the torch to the U.S., which shared Britain’s civic values.

With super power status goes the responsibility to act as a global arbiter. One can argue about how effectively and morally the U.S. has performed that task. What is beyond argument, however, is that the U.S. created the existing structure of international human discourse. By and large, those institutions were designed and created with a generous spirit and the aim of improving human security and wellbeing. Institutions like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, and all these organizations’ many spin-offs, undoubtedly are marked by the culture of their creators in Washington. But it is hard to sustain a credible argument that they are agencies of U.S. imperialism, though many try to do so.

Trump’s disdain and contempt for much of this structure does not bode well. He has called NATO “obsolete.” He has dismissed the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” He threatens to tear up trade agreements and warned allies in Asia such as Japan and South Korea not to count on Washington in a crisis.

He applauded the looming break-up of the European Union and got unnecessarily personal in his criticism of European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Trump threatens an all-out trade war with China, which he accuses of currency manipulation and “stealing” U.S. jobs, and to jettison the policy over the status of Taiwan that has governed Washington-Beijing relations since the late 1970s.

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has gone further with the chest thumping and told Beijing its activities in the South China Sea are unacceptable. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing.

North Korean leader Kim Jung-un said in his New Year Day’s address that his country is close to being able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear warhead. Trump responded with a Tweet saying: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

Even the rogue regime of former President George W. Bush, as mad and bad as it was, realised that pre-emptive strikes against countries with nuclear weapons was a step too far.

Trump will prefer to concentrate on domestic issues in his first months as president. He has set out an impressive agenda of rules, regulations, programs and agencies earmarked for destruction. And in his picks for departmental bosses and cabinet members Trump has assembled a wrecking crew of awesome credentials. (It is impossible to lampoon an administration whose choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, says guns should be allowed in schools to protect children from grizzly bears.)

But the rest of the world can’t and won’t give Trump a breathing space. He will be tested soon.

He has lined up an impressive array of world leaders who have reason to push back against Trump’s Elmer Gantry, bully pulpit methods. Of course, there is one who has no desire to test what Trump is made of. No doubt it will eventually become clear whether Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ardent groupie, the Kremlin’s Manchurian Candidate — brainwashed by oligarchs’ investments in his wobbly property empire — or something in between. But for the moment, Putin is in the unprecedented situation for a Russian leader of having in the White House a man who admires his murderous and autocratic leadership style, and who wants to be his BBF.

Putin’s test of Trump’s sincerity will be to do nothing. Trump has indicated he wants to remove sanctions imposed on Putin by outgoing President Barack Obama for interfering in the presidental election, for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. If Trump follows through, that will play into Putin’s timetable nicely. Putin is due to be re-elected President next year, and although this piece of theatre is meaningless by any true definition of democracy, he likes the performance to give him the appearance of political legitimacy.

But Russia these days is basically Zimbabwe with nuclear weapons and bad winters. International sanctions have eaten into a misconceived economy, overly dependent on energy exports, and gnawed to the bone by Putin’s kleptocratic stable of oligarchs. Putin needs a little economic fillip to lessen the prospect of public demonstrations of protest at his re-election next year. Trump could be his trump.

It is also unlikely that the ayatollahs who rule Iran will want to push back against Trump, despite his having threatened to junk the 2015 agreement regulating Tehran’s nuclear development program, which he called “the worst deal ever negotiated” and a “disaster.” Trump does not appear to have grasped that this was not an agreement between Washington and Tehran. It is an agreement negotiated with Iran by the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and endorsed by the UN Security Council. Trump could perhaps back the U.S. out of the agreement, but it would make no substantial difference to the international contract with Iran or the resultant lifting of international sanctions on the Tehran government.

China has more reason than most countries to try to discover quickly what sort of flimflam man inhabits the Oval Office. Beijing has a huge range of options to choose from. There are U.S. businesses and non-governmental organizations operating in China. There’s actions that can be taken against Taiwan, which China claims to own, but which Trump seems to have singled out for friendship. There’s the possibility of taking a swipe at Washington allies Japan or South Korea. And, of course, there’s lots of opportunity for mischief in the South China Sea. Beijing’s forces have in the past buzzed U.S. military aircraft over the sea, harassed hydrographic research vessels, and chivvied U.S. oil company exploration ships.

What can be said for certain is that the Communist Party regime is a master at presenting no target. If China chooses to take a poke at Trump it’s a fair bet it will be in a way that leaves him blustering with fury and impotent to respond.

Beijing might well feel the task of prodding Trump can be best left to the Malevolent Teletubby Kim Jung-un in North Korea.

As Trump was going through the inauguration process on Friday, media in South Korea was reporting speculation from Seoul’s intelligence services that North Korea would soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S.

Kim, and his father Kim Jung-il before him, has put great effort into developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of presenting a credible deterrent. After five nuclear tests since 2006, Pyongyang appears to have atomic bombs that blow up with some reliability. What remains uncertain is whether it has mastered the miniaturization necessary to make a nuclear weapon that can be put on top of a missile.

Hand in hand with this program has gone the development of missiles. Pyongyang has managed to build a rocket that put some sort of satellite in orbit, but it has had great difficulty in developing reliable missiles. At the end of last year, for example, it had seven failures out of eight test launches of its Musudan intermediate-range missile.

Developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a significant leap beyond that, not least because it requires the ability to bring the missile warhead back down from space on the target and with some accuracy. There is no clear evidence North Korea has yet achieved that skill.

So what could Kim Jung-un do to get Trump’s goat? North Korea Watchers are suggesting three options. One is that Kim’s scientists might fire another of its space rockets, called the Unha, but fit it with a re-entry vehicle emulating a warhead. If it worked, that would demonstrate having mastered the technology to deliver a nuclear weapon in theory if not yet in practice.

Another option would be to test fire an ICBM. Pyongyang has displayed mock-ups of its KN-14 would-be ICBM in a military parade in 2015, but has not test fired it. It is designed for a mobile launcher, and thus far less vulnerable to counter measures than the Unha space rockets fired from fixed bases. But the first tests of the KN-14 are almost certain to fail. Thus any attempt by Kim to fire a KN-14 as a show of strength is most likely to be an embarrassing damp squib.

A third option – and the most disquieting – is for Kim to refrain from trying to thumb his nose at Trump and instead to pursue a quiet and measured ICBM development program. This means taking the time to fully learn the lessons of failed tests and designing remedies. It means cool relentlessness rather than bravado.

The only certainty, of course, is that there is no certainty where the test of Trump as an international player will come from. It is a moment to remember that remark attributed to former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. He was asked by a journalist what might knock his government’s program off course and is said to have replied: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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