By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for American Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs
The current American president is like a black hole, extending an irresistible gravitational field that shapes and pulls almost the totality of our thoughts, attention and discourse. Part of this is the nature of the office, a kind of elected executive monarchy that combines immense power and immense symbolic representation to attract, even in normal times, inordinate attention, such that American history is sometimes understood and taught in arguably distorted fashion as presidential history. There is a danger of missing the contour of global events because of imagining that they all flow through the Oval Office.
But Donald Trump is so extraordinary a president that the flow is more like a thousand-car train wreck, unending, from which we cannot avert our eyes. The past 36 hours are a perfect example. With London and the UK responding in shock, but also grim competence and dignity, to the latest terror attack, the president of the United States hurled, of all things, a grudge tweet against the Mayor of London. The mayor, Sadiq Khan, a human rights lawyer, and a Muslim, had aroused Trump’s ire during the US campaign by criticising his promise to ban all Muslims from entering the US. So Sunday, as London treated its wounded and removed its dead from London Bridge and the adjacent south bank of the Thames, Trump took it upon himself to attack the mayor in an unmistakable distortion of a statement from Khan. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” But Khan had said no such thing, and Trump, however his mind may work, had to know it: the mayor’s actual message was that Londoners should not be alarmed by the visibly high levels of extra police who would be deployed to protect them.
A few hours later, the US embassy responded to the attack with three tweets in the name of Lewis Lukens, charge d’affaires in the absence of a yet-to-be-appointed Trump ambassador. First, ‘it is with a heavy heart I offer my condolences and support to the people of the United Kingdom. America grieves with you.’ Second, ‘the response from emergency services, law enforcement & officials in Ldn–as well as ordinary Londoners–has been extraordinary.’ Finally, ‘I commend the strong leadership of the @MayorofLondon as he leads the city forward after this heinous attack.’
Who then, is the authentic voice of America – its president, or this little-known (albeit distinguished) diplomat, who was expressing the natural and, one would think, standard words of solidarity with a close ally? Similar questions were front and centre at this past weekend’s IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. On Saturday morning, for example, the new French defence minister, Silvie Goulard, both criticised Trump’s decision to renege on his predecessor’s commitment of the US to the Paris climate change agreement, and appealed to an arguably ‘real America’ (with apologies to Sarah Palin), reaching out to ‘a number of local authorities and representatives of American civil society’ who, she said, ‘have made the same commitment to continue the fight’ against climate change.
Right before Goulard spoke, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered his expected words of reassurance that the Trumpian fugue does not override longstanding US commitments to uphold security and stability in the Asia-Pacific. But it was clear that many in the room, while grateful for Mattis’ effort, did not really believe that his was the last word. In the first intervention from the floor, Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of Australia’s Lowy Institute (and an IISS Council member), issued a lengthy lament: ‘But I would like to ask you about the rules-based global order, which you mentioned at the outset of your remarks and in which President Trump appears to be an unbeliever. Secretary Acheson wrote 70 years ago that he was present at the creation of a US-led order that has served all of us well. General, given everything over the past four months, including NATO and the Trans‑Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order?’
Mattis’ reply was a clearly heart-felt, if not altogether convincing plea for patience, reminding his audience of some words attributed to Churchill: ‘once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.’
So, while there is a case for restraining the collective fascination with the Trump train wreck, and looking elsewhere for the truer forces driving international history, it would also be a mistake to pretend that none of this is happening. The president of the United States is immensely powerful, he is picking a fight with the mayor of London as that mayor tries to protect the lives of his citizens, and he did pull the US out of the Paris climate accord on Thursday. There are deeper resources of affinity between American, Brits and other Europeans that will no doubt survive this period. There are also scenarios whereby the damage from an effort to sabotage climate action might be containable. But there are also scenarios whereby, through a domino effect and fatal delay, the effort could be catastrophic on a scale of human history.
This post is part of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Voices blog. It will provide a lively mix of news and views from the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, taking place in Singapore from 2–4 June.