Is Trump facing his own Falklands moment?

In early 1982, the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s position and her political future were under threat. She faced sharp criticism from within her government and the public following savage government spending cuts, a declining manufacturing industry and high unemployment. Then, the Argentinian military invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote and disputed UK protectorate in the South Atlantic.

Against the advice of many in her government, many of her close advisors and then US President, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher ordered a formidable military response to the Argentinian invasion of a British territory. The UK was victorious after six weeks of deadly and widely media-covered conflict that resulted in considerable casualties and large material losses on both sides but a surge in Thatcher’s popularity. Some even saw her actions as putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.

Margaret Thatcher remained UK Prime Minister until 1990, making her the UK’s longest serving prime minister in the 20th century.

US President, Donald Trump, is facing sharp criticism and loss of popularity because of many domestic issues, notably for his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the uninspiring US economic and jobs recovery from the pandemic’s initial shock. Importantly for Trump, he is a long way behind his Democrat opponent in the opinion polls with the presidential election less than four months away.

Trump is blaming many others for his domestic failings and falling popularity, and is taking pot shots at China on a number of issues, most recently the Hong Kong National Security Law, territorial disputes South China Sea, Huawei and a longstanding trade imbalance.

In recent days, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has ramped up the US rhetoric about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and (non-US) nations who, nevertheless are US allies.

Trump is vulnerable to his own Falklands moment. This time the player is mightier (militarily and economically) and the stakes for the world much higher than in 1982.

Never poke an eagle or a (panda) bear

An increasingly relevant sideshow to the effects of, fight against and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is the November US Presidential election. Donald Trump has begun his re-election campaign using many of the same themes and ‘tools’ that got him elected in 2016, mainly bluster, bullying (anyone who disagrees with or argues against him), isolationism and consistent selection and redefining of facts and the truth. As a result, the US is facing the erosion of its status as the global superpower.

China seems to be taking the opportunity presented by Trump’s bluster, poor judgement, lack of leadership and isolationist moves to fill the global leadership gap left by the US, to show the world that China is the equal of (or greater than) the US as a global superpower and to tidy up what it sees as domestic matters. The World Health Organisation is just one battlefield between the US and China.

China is quietly but assertively absorbing the Trump Administration’s anti-China vitriol. At the same time, it is escalating the addressing of longstanding domestic matters, such as the integration of Hong Kong into the People’s Republic of China, the security of shipping lanes in the South China Sea (the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat), the security of its land borders (the escalating stand off on the India-China border) and the safety of its citizens overseas (China’s actions in response to the extradition proceedings of the Huawei CFO who is also the daughter of its founder).

The US and China, in attacking each other and the other’s perceived allies, in their battle to be the world’s biggest geopolitical influencer, risk spreading their animosity throughout the world. Rising tensions between the US and China have the potential to inflame and divide the world, with serious geopolitical, economic and military consequences for everyone, more so in this fragile coronavirus period.

Be careful what you wish for, Mr Trump

US President, Donald Trump, has become another in a long line of US Presidents to push the US towards isolationism. In his Farewell Speech, the first US President, George Washington, warned against “entanglements” against other nations and permanent foreign alliances. Washington was warning against Europe. Trump has specifically targeted China although he has also roiled against Europe, Japan, Canada and Mexico, among others, which hints strongly that he desires full US isolationism from the world.

Be careful what you wish for Mr Trump. Successful US isolationism might look fine from inside the US bubble but it looks very different from the outside looking in. The US would be alone in the world. Yet, the US has never been fully self-supporting and is even less likely to be so now.

Lionel Shriver’s 2016 novel, The Mandibles, depicts the descent of the US from superpower to global pariah that results in the destruction of all the US’ social, health, fiscal, economic and financial structures. The trigger in the novel is the US’ insistence of its right for the world to eternally buy its ever-growing, massive debt at favourable interest rates to fund its ballooning budget deficits at affordable costs. There is no explicit suggestion in Shriver’s novel of the US adopting isolationist policies. It does not take much to imagine the world very quickly losing its desire to fund the US’ fiscal excesses if the US decides to go it alone.

We are seeing worrying signs of Donald Trump’s desire to put America first in the battle against COVID-19 with little or no regard for the welfare of and the US’ long term relationships (trade and fiscal) with those outside the US. Trump and the US might win some external battles in the fight against COVID-19 but Trump could lose his isolationist war that would result in the US not being “Great’ but becoming insignificant.

Leadership needed in this crisis

Governments have shown leadership by announcing or implementing strong fiscal measures, many at an unprecedented scale and speed. Almost all nations have shut borders and put arrivals in quarantine but a (brave) few have locked down a city, region or the entire country. Effective strong government leadership, which I define as setting and implementing informed fiscal and public health goals with the compliance of the general population, has generally been achieved through open communication and either imposed (China) or compassionate (New Zealand) leadership.

China is an example of an enforced leadership that imposed drastic measures on a section of its population but openly communicated its actions, progress and results locally and globally. The leadership in New Zealand, on the other hand, showed compassion and openly communicated its reasoning, priorities and actions in response to the coronavirus threat and has earned the respect and co-operation of almost all the population in locking down the entire country.

Both China and New Zealand made mistakes along the way but admitted and learned from those mistakes. Having accepted and openly communicated the strategy of accepting short term pain for long term gain, they made hard decisions and look set to be among those emerging soonest and healthiest from the social, economic and fiscal storm in which the world finds itself. Yet, the leaders of some nations refuse to admit the size of the threat or in some cases, its very existence.

Many countries’ leaders, governments, media and people are still debating what to do or are openly in denial of the inevitable breaching of their border(s) by this unprecedented health and social threat. Most of those nations (both industrialised and emerging) are run by leaders who are no more than poster boys with egos and spin doctors, who think, speak and act out of self-interest and/or for political (or personal) gains and who seek only to reinforce or retain their power. They are leaders of nations in name only. They are not true leaders of their people, which is what the world needs now. They risk their nation and people suffering not only huge health, social and economic damage during and after the coronavirus pandemic but also isolation and loss of international prestige afterwards. One, in particular falls far short of his predecessors’ self-proclaimed title of leader of the free world.

To be a leader in the world, those at the top of the power pyramid in each country must show leadership in their own country, which means that they must seek informed advice to implement social and fiscal policies, and must view and interact with the world with an open mind and an open heart. And they must do it now!

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The US Constitution gives the President the power to forgive a federal crime. The Supreme Court has ruled that the President’s authority to grant pardons is unlimited. That authority also extends to commuting the sentence for a federal crime.

In the past week, Donald Trump granted full pardons to seven people and commutations to four others, all of whom committed their federal crimes some years ago. Like Presidents before him, both Republican and Democrat, Trump has used this power to benefit supporters, friends and friends of friends/supporters but for historical crimes.

Now the US media and Donald Trump are posturing about a pardon or commuting for just convicted Roger Stone, something that Trump has the power to do.

The US Constitution defines the three separate and independent branches of government – legislative (Congress), executive (President) and judicial (Supreme Court and Federal Courts). Each branch may influence, respond to and change some of the actions of the other branches through a constitutionally defined system of checks and balances.

It would be a shame, and a kick in the guts for the Constitution and the Judiciary, if Trump crossed the Constitution’s separation of powers with regard to Roger Stone so soon after the court’s sentencing was handed down because it smacks of interference in an independent judiciary.

The realist in me expects Trump to pardon Roger Stone after the November presidential election – whether he wins or loses. It is election year, after all. But the cynic in me expects an announcement much, much sooner.

Is history repeating?

A well known American politician, according to one of his biographers, Richard H. Rovere, was:
– “an essentially destructive force
– “a chronic opportunist
– “a political speculator
– “a Republican who had started as a Democrat
– “a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity
– “a vulgarian
– “a man with an almost aesthetic preference for untruth.”

Rovere also wrote that he:
– “faked it all and could not understand anyone who didn’t
– “made sages of screwballs and accused wise men of being fools
– was “the first American ever to be actively hated and feared by foreigners in large numbers
– “favoured the third person
– was “a great sophisticate in human relationships, as every demagogue must be. He knew a good deal about people’s fears and anxieties, and he was a superb juggler of them. But he was himself numb to the sensation he produced in others. He could not comprehend true outrage, true indignation, true anything.”

In summary, Rovere wrote, “if he was anything at all in the realm of ideas, principles, doctrines, he was a species of nihilist” and “the haters rallied around him.”

At a Senate hearing, a counsel said to him “you have, I think, sir, something of a genius for creating confusion — creating a turmoil in the hearts and minds of the country.”

His closest and longstanding advisor, in a book about him, wrote that he:
– was “impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic
– acted on impulse – tended to sensationalize the evidence he had”
– “would neglect to do important homework
– had an “inattention to detail
– was “gifted with a sense of political timing” and “on balance, his sense of what made drama and headlines was uncommonly good
– was “the first important public figure to touch an exquisitely sensitive nerve in the thought leaders of our society. This small but immensely powerful group of intellectuals.”

Who is the subject of Rovere’s biography? Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Rovere met Donald Trump in the early 1970s and quickly became Trump’s trusted adviser and one of the most important people in Trump’s life at that time.

There is a significant parallel and potential here but, as with much in life and history, “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides:Who cover faults, at last shame them derides” (William Shakespeare – King Lear)