Putin, Xi Jinping and … Trump, the new Masters of the Universe

We’ll have to deal with it : by becoming President of the United States on January 20, Donald Trump will join the very exclusive club of the “Masters of the Universe”. For many years, following the end of the Cold War, the US, and the rest of the world with them, thought they were the only members of the club… Then, a new concept emerged, that of a “G2”, US and China, the emerging power of the 21st Century.

But this was counting without the cold and unlimited determination of a “third man”, Vladimir Putin, who helped take Russia out of its growing marginalization to bring it back to the center stage, through a combination of domestic authoritarianism and military ventures outside its borders, despite an economy made fragile by its dependency on oil and gas prices.

Whether we like or not, these three men are going to shape our world in the coming years. Europeans missed the train of History : collectively, they don’t carry enough weight in the global geopolitical game that has started, and individually, the continent’s Nation-States, starting with France and Germany, but also the soon-to-Brexit United Kingdom, are declining middle-sized powers.

Europe’s absence

The “Masters of the Universe” club is rather worrying, and Europe’s model should have been the ideal counterweight to the authoritarian tendency, with little interest for the individual, represented by each pole of this increasingly chaotic multipolar world. Neither the schock of Brexit nor Trump’s election seem to be able to generate the much-needed awakening of Europe, leaving it to bump from one crisis to the other.

Donald Trump will therefore have to establish with China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin both human and political relationships that will be determining in the years to come. They have time ahead of them : Trump has been elected for four renewable years; Xi Jinping is guaranteed a second mandate at the helm of the Chinese Commmunist Party after next year’s 19th Congress, and is said to be trying to stay beyond 2021, despite the rules of the game since Mao’s death; As for Putin, he’s already been in power for sixteen years, and having decimated any serious opposition, he holds all the cards to be reelected in 2018 for four more years. So, until 2021, and possibly beyond, Trump, Xi and Putin will be leading the three main world powers.

The real unknown quantity of this trio is obviously Donald Trump. Who could be smart enough to describe his future Foreign Policy, based on his erratic statements made during the campaign ? A first indication will come from his choice for the two key diplomatic jobs, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. But his lack of exeperience as well as unpredictable temper run the risk of weighing heavily at first on the interaction between the US and the rest of the World, as well as on ongoing crisis, starting with the war in Syria and turmoil in the Middle East.

Trump’s rare serious supporters before the election sometimes draw a parallel with Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, a former B series actor who drew the same kind of derogatory comments as Trump. He was described as more interested in his Texas boots collection than by the state of the world, and had limited concentration time on complex issues. “Reagan had common sense, but didn’t necessarily master far-away issues”, writes French journalist Guillaume Sérina in a recent book, “Reagan-Gorbatchev”, devoted to the 1986 Reykjavik summit between the leaders of the two superpowers of the cold war era; a strange meeting that remains important in nuclear disarmament history.

But Reagan was surrounded by a solid team of old-timers of diplomatic and security issues, such as Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Robert McFarlane, names that are still references today. A “close guard”, as Sérina calls them, who, despite their sometimes violent disagreements, could advise professionally this atypical President.

First Circle

For the moment, Donald Trump doesn’t have around him any Foreign Policy heavyweight of that caliber : strategic issues Republican professionals carefully stayed away from the candidate after his unorthodox comments on nuclear weapons or on Nato. Some of them went as far as giving their vote to Hillary Clinton. No doubt many will try to return to a Republican administration that need arms and brains, but how much influence will they have, compared to the first circle of the Trump entourage and the President himself ?

Once the Foreign and Security Policy team will be constituted, at least for the first two years, the question will really arise of the type of relationship the Trump White House will have with Moscow and Beijing. Will the pro-Putin comments of the campaign survive as soon as the US will be confronted to tough choices and their consequences in conflicts such as Ukraine and Syria ?

Once informed of issues he knows very little about, to say the least, will President Trump decide for example to stop aid to non-jihadist rebels that the US are currently helping in Syria, therefore giving the go-ahead to Russia to destroy them to help Bashar el-Assad regime ? What message will he send to Central and Eastern Europe who worry about the rebirth of a russian sphere of influence where the Soviet Union existed ?

Same with China, who was the target of many attacks by candidate Trump for “stealing” US jobs, and who is certainly worried by the economic consequences of the kind of american protectionism that was promised. But at the same time, Beijing could only rejoice to see the US President fragilise the US alliances in Asia as he did during the campaign with Japan and South Korea. Beijing can hope to see other asian nations follow the path of the Philippines and Malaysia which have come closer to China in an attempt to rebalance their fragile alliance with the US.

What Governance ?

In an ideal world -which doesn’t exist-, one could imagine that a US President who renounces neo-conservative “messianism” and attempts to impose western-style democracy to the rest of the world, could lower tensions in an increasingly unstable world. But this could only work if all the “Masters of the Universe” had the same vision of pacifying international relations and establishing a more consensual governance… We’re far from it, both because of cold geopolitical realism, and because of the authoritarian nature of those regimes.

That’s where Europe’s absence is really being felt. Europe could have been, not only a model for democratic values, social and environmental norms, but also a force for proposal. But today’s Europe is far from the exemplarity it claims, as shown for example by the way it adressed the refugees issue, but it’s also heavily divided and poisoned by the rise of populism fed by its failures.

European leaders were taken by surprise by Donald Trump’s victory, after making jokes and derogatory comments about the Republican candidate during the campaign. They’ll now have to deal with him. Once again Europe is at a historical crossroads, but as with previous ones, one fears it will not be up to the challenge. It will therefore leave the world to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who are not necessarily Europe’s best friends.