Donald Trump

Trump’ comedy of errors does little for US leadership role

As seen at the G20 summit, American president is behind the curve of international relations and needs to close the gap quickly to salvage his country’s credibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 2:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 2:26am

On the eve of US President Donald Trump’s first appearance at a Group of 20 summit of major economies, he delivered a speech in Warsaw in defence of Western civilisation. It is difficult to reconcile that rousing rhetoric with his manifest failure of leadership at the summit, dubbed the G19 after he snubbed a joint communique in which world leaders united in the fight against climate change. As a result, it is widely seen as a setback for the United States – one that has put its global leadership role under scrutiny.

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Despite tough talk from Trump on America’s interests ahead of the summit and sideline meetings with President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the US has been left looking isolated and alone. Media analysis variously portrayed Trump as awkward, ineffectual and lacking in authority, and leading America into a decline that would see the superpower ultimately replaced by Russia and China. That is a matter of opinion, but schoolboy factual errors are not. American hegemony and leadership arguably are built partly on the trust of allies and even the trust of adversaries in US capability. That trust is not easily undermined by the odd diplomatic or social blunder. But a rash of excruciating errors in Asian leaders’ titles and countries, tweeted by Trump or circulated by officials, has, undeniably, dented it. It seems not to be a case of officials simply having a bad day. Rather, it seems another issue of failure of leadership to resolve a power struggle that has left the US State Department under-resourced, its budget under siege and key vacancies at the under-secretary level unfilled.

Disunity in politics can be lethal. When it originates at the level of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House adviser Stephen Bannon it can filter through the bureaucracy as dysfunction . When it surfaces as ineptitude and elementary errors at an international forum it can convey alarming signals about foreign policy.

There is no evidence Trump made progress at the summit on North Korea, trade or even on cybersecurity, given the hostile, bipartisan ridicule at home of his proposed pact on cybersecurity with Putin. If anything, the events at the G20 proved that after six months in office, Trump is still behind the curve of international relations. He needs to close the gap quickly to salvage US credibility and leadership.

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Hopefully, reports that the US is ready to go it alone with tighter sanctions on Pyongyang flag welcome relief from talk of an impractical military option. It also buys time to reflect on how to reclaim its leadership role, for example by easing preconditions for negotiations with North Korea and removing obstacles to Chinese support, such as military manoeuvres with South Korea and a missile defence system seen as a security threat by Beijing.