Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
For a President who has become more famous for his poor choice of words than reassuring sense of calm, Donald Trump reacted to the horrific events in Manchester in a refreshingly measured way.
“Murdered by evil losers”, the president said, unwilling to gratify those responsible for bringing barbarism to innocent people who simply headed out to have a good time. “I will call them, from now on, losers because that’s what they are. They’re losers. And we’ll have more of them but they’re losers, just remember that”. He had a point.
President Trump in effect conceded that the events that unfolded in Manchester have now become an horrific but present part of our lives. This represented considerable progress form a man who, in his campaign for the presidency, promised he had a secret plan to wipe out ISIS from the face of the earth.
Trump’s remarks came during the second leg of the world tour that the White House hopes resets the conversation at home. Domestic issues will follow Trump around the world, but bilateral summits at least give us the opportunity to take a first look at Trump the world statesman.
The first leg of Trump’s trip was Saudi Arabia, a bold choice for a new president’s inaugural international destination – the last five US presidents have all visited either Canada or Mexico on their first trip abroad, after President Carter came to London in 1977.
Trump was scheduled to deliver a speech on Islam and with Steve Bannon close by, the adults in the White House were worried. But in the meeting of more than 50 Arab leaders, Trump outlined a new course for America’s role in the world’s most complex region. The focus was to be on rooting out terrorism and not spreading democracy or promoting human rights.
In a clear diversion from his campaign rhetoric, Trump’s language became much more fitting for his local audience. No mentions of the “radical Islamic terrorism” he abhorred in the campaign, but instead a shift to “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds”.
It is difficult to view all that Trump does outside of the globalist versus nationalist prism and this was another example of a victory for the sensible globalists.
Foreign policy leadership within the Government has struggled to make its voice heard of late, with the State Department losing $28.2bn (-29 per cent from current spending) in Trump’s latest budget proposal. Despite a regression in State’s prowess, on his first foreign policy trip Trump displayed an understanding of America’s role in global affairs, placing his faith in son-in-law Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Meanwhile, no one looked more uncomfortable to be in the Middle East than Steve Bannon, who was reduced to a ‘seen but not heard’ role in Riyadh.
So, did we learn anything about Trump this week that we didn’t already know? In ideological and political terms, no. The root of Trump’s core views on Islam probably remain in flux, changing as he realises solving global issues requires international coalitions across geographies and religions.
Long before officially seeking the Republican nomination for president, Trump pilloried President Obama for failing to acknowledge or even use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”. In a strategic sense, an ability to adjust his political approach according to a new setting revealed Trump’s increasing willingness to listen to those around him who are best qualified to advise on the matter in hand.
At home, he remains distracted by an ongoing game of Russian roulette that he insists on playing with his own future at stake. With a packed schedule abroad, he appeared more focused and without the everyday distractions of the White House. His Twitter feed was affable, bereft of the controversial remarks that create new avenues for trouble on an almost daily basis in Washington.
Whilst looking busy on the world stage, the real policy implications remain to be seen. More important than grand speeches are how they are enacted at home, in the corridors of power in the White House and State Department. With the likes of Kushner and Tillerson close by, and Bannon kept at arm’s length, Trump is at least equipping himself with the external influence needed to address some of the world’s most intricate issues.
With domestic difficulties threatening to suck up almost all the oxygen in Washington, Trump may soon find that foreign policy is a welcome reprieve.
That is not to say international victories are any easier to come by. For a man driven by the art of winning, President Trump will find it infuriating that the compromise required to do international deals mean they rely on the art of the possible. Further, a new willingness to be the peace broker in the Middle East on Israel/Palestine and global terror would be a total departure from the “America First” policy on which Trump was elected.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s first international trip is a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come. For now, at least, America has a president who is beginning to learn the art of being presidential.