Monday, January 23, 2017

Business Recorder Column Jan 23, 2017

A divided house Rashed Rahman US President Donald Trump’s inauguration was apiece with his election campaign and underlined how divided American society is in its aftermath. The President’s inauguration speech, for example, instead of following the tradition of assuring the American people, especially those who voted against the winner, that the incoming incumbent was leaving the differences of electoral rivalry behind and reaching out in an inclusive way to all Americans, sounded like a rerun of his election campaign rhetoric and thereby served to harden the divisions he had authored in his bid for the White House. On inauguration day, violent protests broke out in Washington DC, leading to the use of pepper spray and worse by the police and ending up with some 200 arrests. But the remarkable mobilisation of over one million people, led by and mostly composed of women, all over the US and a similar number in the rest of the world was notable not only for the numbers but the discipline, peaceful assembly and incredible organisation on show. The women’s march organisers had wisely broadened their appeal beyond women’s rights feared to face a reversal under Trump to include immigrant rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression and environmental protection. The women’s march therefore led a rainbow coalition of all the potential victims of Donald Trump the erstwhile candidate, now holding the most powerful office in the world. For those hoping that Trump the combative, aggressive and arrogant candidate would give way pragmatically to the demands of leading the country, and arguably the world, Trump the president disappointed them. His inaugural speech, whose leit motif was “America first!”, translated out as “Me first!” Having delivered an address that hardened the divisions thrown up during the election campaign, Trump then journeyed to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Speaking before the wall that honours CIA agents who lost their lives in the line of duty, Trump talked less about the CIA, briefly tried to mend fences with the intelligence community he had roundly attacked during the election, and predictably soon moved on to his own priorities, amongst which, apart from boasting about his victory, speculating on how many members of the military and CIA voted for him and continuing his attacks on the media took pride of place. Welcome to a self-obsessed so-called leader of the ‘free world’. The women’s march organisers and the broader coalition they have succeeded in forging hope to continue their momentum to build a sustained protest campaign in a polarised society riven by an election that raised questions about American values, out-of-touch-elites and barriers to women’s advancement. On successive days, inauguration day on January 20 and the day after, two parallel, separate United States of America were on display in virtually the same physical space. That indicates the shape of things to come at home in the US. What of the rest of the world? What can it expect or look forward to? First and foremost, Trump’s arguments about globalisation damaging US economic interests, taking away manufacturing, jobs, etc, to other countries indicate a return to economic and general nationalism, reversing the role the US assumed in world affairs since the Second World War. That means not only reviving the ‘rust belts’ of abandoned factories in the US and theoretically restoring lost jobs in manufacturing, but also a declared intent to reverse the decades old trend towards multilateralism, trade cooperation and forging coalitions of countries with similar interests. The ground realities, however, if and when Trump wraps his head around them, reflect the truth that job losses in the US are owed as much to automation as free global trade. US industrial output has increased because of the former factor even as manufacturing jobs have shrunk. The western alliance may come under strain, particularly if Trump carries through his promise to stop financing the militaries of other countries while the US military is deprived of resources. Free trade agreements are likely to receive the chop or be renegotiated in the US’s favour (if possible, though unlikely). Washington’s confrontation/s with Russia during the Obama years are likely to abate, while anti-China rhetoric and actions on the one China policy, Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and China’s alleged trade and investment advantages at the US's cost could ratchet up tensions with the new emerging superpower. Trump is very clear on eliminating ‘Islamic terrorism’ off the face of the earth. That could mean backing (despite Washington’s absence from the Kazakhstan talks) Russian attempts to negotiate a political settlement in Syria that leaves Bashar al-Assad in power. Trump is on record as regretting the chaos and destabilisation in the Middle East and North Africa caused by the overthrow through direct invasion or by backing proxies of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. US interventionism may therefore be scaled down, if not abandoned. Under Trump, in the name of reviving the US, the country may call a pause, if not a halt, to Washington's policing the world in its own interests. That would be a policy change that would go unmourned in large parts of the world. On Afghanistan, Trump bemoans the longest US war ever and the cost ($ 100 billion plus) by asserting that Washington did not succeed because it did not use the full panoply of its undoubted power. The idea sounds seductive on the surface, but betrays Trump’s lack of knowledge regarding the kind of war the US is fighting there. A Taliban insurgency with safe havens on Pakistani soil cannot just be blasted out of existence, as Trump seems to be implying. Guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare is a different ballgame. However, the threat of far more intrusive and open strikes against the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan cannot be ruled out. If that transpires the US-Pakistan relationship is headed further south. Islamabad may be weighing its options by substituting China and Russia for a reluctant US ally, but the implications of Washington turning more hostile cannot be lost on Islamabad’s political, economic and strategic managers.

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