Slash and burn: Trump’s pyromaniac foreign policy moves on his way out

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 20, 2021

Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

Until the end, Donald Trump has remained true to himself (as well as the most churlish portrait of him). On his way out of the Oval Office, he’s lit wildfires of various sorts in the foreign policy sphere. It’s obvious that he wants to make life even harder for incoming President Joe Biden. (‘Take that. How dare you occupy my White House?’)

Consider the Trump administration’s bold (un-)diplomatic decisions in its last couple of weeks:

On his last full day in office, Mr Trump announced the lifting of travel restrictions for travellers from Brazil and Europe. Mr Biden’s administration pushed back – the Trumpian decision was meant to take effect six days after Mr Trump left office, anyway!

And then there was a clutch of other recent decisions:

** Designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels a foreign terrorist organization

** Lifting restrictions on contacts between American officials and representatives from the self-governing island of Taiwan

** Naming Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism

Each of these represents a big decision, one that either creates fresh conflict and/or grounds an already troubled relationship into still more perilous waters.

CNN’s Luke McGee recently quoted Raffaello Pantucci of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore on the apparent motivation for Mr Trump’s team to pursue such a foreign policy: “The Trump administration is locking in place a series of conflicts that change the starting point for Biden walking into office on the world stage”.

Clearly, even before the January 6 US Capitol siege incited by Mr Trump, it wasn’t a peaceful transfer of power so much as an attempt by the outgoing administration to knock the Biden team out cold.

Preferably on Day One.

It’s a subjective evaluation but I think the terrorist designation for the Houthis is one of Mr Trump’s most horrifying parting acts. It came into force on January 19, just one day before Mr Trump’s term  ended. The Elders, a group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, said the action “will punish the whole of the Yemeni population, raising the prospect of mass famine and significant loss of life, and possibly make a future diplomatic solution even more difficult”.

Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General and deputy chair of The Elders, pointed to the “timing” of Mr Trump’s action. “It is likely,” he said, “to be counter-productive to the goal we should now all be focusing our energies on: ending this disastrous war as soon as possible and protecting the lives of the Yemeni people. I fear that this move may make the Houthis even less inclined to engage with the international community.”

And Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said, it’s “irresponsible” to pick a side in the seven-year war between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The terrorism designation will make it harder for aid groups to deliver food and medical supplies to the country or to have staff on the ground, he added.

UNICEF has called Yemen the “largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.”

Then there is the Taiwan issue. Since 1949, when Taiwan split from China, the US has been careful in handling the issue. It has maintained a cordial relationship with Taiwan. And after establishing formal diplomatic ties with China in 1979, it took great care not to allow official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This has been a matter of bipartisan support but Mr Trump appears to be trying to unilaterally up-end it.

If Mr Biden tries to call his bluff by reversing the decision on Taiwan, it could make him appear overly pro-China, therefore losing political capital at home, while giving Beijing the chance to crow that the US recognises its claim to Taiwan.

(In the days leading up to the Trump administration’s exit, it cancelled a planned visit to Taiwan by its UN envoy Kelly Craft. China had already warned the administration it was playing with fire.)

Finally, of course, there is Mr Trump’s Cuba policy, which reverses the Obama-Biden administration’s normalisation of the relationship. In 2016, the US Department of Transporta­tion estimated that up to 110 daily flights operated by US carriers would start flying to Havana, turning the Caribbean’s largest island into a major holiday destination for Americans. But even before the pandemic hit, Mr Trump’s virulent approach to peace, amity and goodwill prompted him to announce he was “cancelling” the Obama administration’s deals with Cuba.

As the White House door shuts on him one last time, Mr Trump has tracked his own special brand of ordure all over American foreign policy.

And then for good measure, he’s lit as many fires as he can.