US President Donald Trump might be struggling to get things done at home, but in other parts of the world he is proving a changemaker.
The US president has made two foreign visits of his own choosing in the first six months of his presidency — to the Middle East and Poland. Both had rapid and major consequences, leading his hosts to believe they had US backing for high-stakes moves they had previously hesitated to make.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier this week confirmed that Trump’s “very, very successful” trip to the Persian Gulf in May had helped trigger the decision by his country — together with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain — to launch a political and economic assault on Qatar.
The June 5 move to cut diplomatic, trade and transportation ties with Qatar, closing its only land border, came little more than two weeks after Trump’s departure from the region.
The president backed the decision in a tweet, saying that the Arab leaders he had met there had “pointed to Qatar” when he told them that funding of radical ideologies had to stop.
Poland waited just a week after Trump’s July 6 visit to pass legislation giving politicians more control over the judiciary, transferring to parliament the right to appoint the body that promotes judges.
The government also proposed to terminate the mandates of Polish Supreme Court judges and let the Polish Ministry of Justice decide which ones get to stay on and which are replaced.
Ruling party lawmakers said they had found an ally in the US president, who depicted Poland as a model European nation.
“In both cases, what we saw was an attempt to manipulate Trump, to take advantage of his lack of knowledge and foreign policy infrastructure,” said Thomas Wright, director of the center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Trump has yet to impose his foreign policy priorities on long-standing global problems, many of which also defeated his predecessors.
North Korea’s missile testing program has, if anything, accelerated since Trump entered office. The Israel-Palestinian question looks no closer to resolution. Syria’s civil war rages into its seventh year.
For many allies, the biggest worry has been that the new administration, with “America first” as its watchword, would destroy the liberal economic and security order constructed under US auspices since World War II. Trump did lead his country out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, but no others have yet followed.
Still, evidence is growing of a concrete, if unpredictable Trump effect. Some NATO nations are accelerating plans to meet the alliance’s defense spending target — encouraged to do so by Trump, but also looking toward a post-US era.
The new president might also have contributed to a slump in support for fellow populists in Europe, who received sharp boosts from his election last year, only to see their electoral prospects recede again since he took office.
In Poland, officials have not attributed their bid to assert control over the judiciary to Trump’s visit, yet there is little doubt they were emboldened by his support and the opinion poll boost that it produced.
Stopping in Warsaw on his way to a G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump made a foreign policy speech arguing that Western civilization, defined by faith and culture, was in peril. He singled out Poland, the subject of an unprecedented investigation by the EU for allegedly abusing the rule of law, as a beacon of freedom.
“He should have said: ‘We are your friend, but we need you to uphold democratic institutions like the free press,’” Wright said. “Instead he said: ‘I hate the press too.’”
The governing party seized on Trump’s comments, even adopting one of his favorite terms.
Political opponents have been spreading a false image of Poland as a totalitarian country, said Dominik Tarczynski, a Law and Justice party legislator. “Slowly but surely we are managing to convince many countries that we’re dealing with fake news here, something President Trump spoke about during his visit.”
It remains to be seen whether the initiatives that Trump catalyzed in Poland and the Persian Gulf work out as planned.
In Poland, the judicial reforms are proving controversial amid warnings they could damage the nation’s young democracy, deter foreign investors or prompt the EU to escalate verbal warnings into punitive action.
Poland has received about US$285 billion of EU aid, almost two-thirds of its current annual GDP, since joining in 2004. The government on Tuesday backtracked on elements of its legislative proposals, although the ruling party sought to rush the measures through.
Lawmakers reconvened on Wednesday, after a heated debate that had featured scuffles and ran past midnight.
Opposition legislators proposed more than 1,000 amendments in an attempt to delay passage of the law, while protesters outside the parliament building chanted: “Freedom, equality, democracy.”
The Persian Gulf nations leading the isolation of Qatar have further to go to achieve their goals. Having delivered an ultimatum with 13 supposedly nonnegotiable demands, the United Arab Emirates and its allies let their deadline expire. They then pared their list to six demands.
Even those are just a starting point for talks, Gargash said on Monday.
Meanwhile, Qatar — which hosts a key US military base — has strengthened ties with Iran and Turkey as it maneuvers to survive the embargo, potentially realigning the region in a way that would not suit its Arab neighbors, or the US.
Despite Trump’s tweets in support of the Saudi Arabian-Emirati campaign, the rest of his administration has refused to take sides.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been actively seeking to mediate.
Two weeks into the dispute, the US Department of State said it was “mystified” by the failure of the Persian Gulf allies to back up their claims against Qatar with evidence, and questioned whether the dispute was really about terrorism at all.
That kind of ambiguity has led to trouble before, Wright said.
He said mixed signals from the US contributed to the outbreak of wars on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 and in the Persian Gulf four decades later — two regions that remain top of the list of the world’s trouble spots in the age of Trump.
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