In comparison to his immediate predecessor, Trump’s first foreign foray was not only late but also stood in stark contrast to Obama’s early trips to Canada, Britain, Germany, and France.
The trip was scheduled well before Trump’s current travails over the firing of FBI Director James Comey, and offered a welcome temporary respite for his team.
The visit was orchestrated in a manner that would help Trump show his differences with Obama’s Middle East efforts. Making Saudi Arabia his first foreign stop was designed to dispel the idea that Trump was anti-Muslim. Second, Trump did not skip Israel as Obama did. No US president has ever visited Israel this early in his term. He also exhibited a much tougher position on Iran -- a change that delighted both the Saudis and Israelis.
The “Trump Durbar” in Riyadh, formally dubbed as the “Arab-Islamic-America Summit” was participated in by around 40 odd Muslim countries including Bangladesh. They were there on the official invitation of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. It was particularly interesting to note that both Iran and Syria were absent. This highlighted the sectarian aspect that has been the source of so much conflict within the Middle East.
A ray of hope?
In his address to Muslim leaders, Trump stressed that his goal was to create “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism” and providing a future full of hope. He also reiterated that the US was there “to offer partnership based on shared interests and values.”
After that, he went on a rampage against Iran, which was basking in the glory of having been able to hold a free and fair election (a few days before this meeting) where former President Rouhani was re-elected for another term after having defeated Ebrahim Raisi.
Iran was singled out by Trump for giving terrorists “safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment.” Such a tirade was, of course, greatly appreciated by the different Arab countries, and particularly by the Gulf Cooperation Council States. Quite understandably, it was followed by stern Iranian reaction.
The significant aspect of the Riyadh episode, however, appeared to be not the speech by Trump but the fact that the US and Saudi Arabia ended up agreeing to invest almost $400 billion in their two countries.
It was also explained by Trump that this would create thousands of jobs in the US and Saudi Arabia. This equation included an agreement whereby Saudi Arabia would make defense purchases worth $110bn from the US. It was explained by Trump that this would enable the Saudi military forces to take a greater role in security operations.
In other words, after having stoked the sectarian paradigm, the salesman had laid out a horizon that had the potential of more arms sales. For obvious reasons, this course of action had the tacit approval of the Israeli leadership.
After Saudi Arabia, President Trump arrived in Israel and had bilateral meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
After having stoked the sectarian paradigm, the salesman had laid out a horizon that had the potential of more arms sales
Subsequent media reports, however, indicated that the US did not have any concrete plan for a Palestine peace agreement. It was also apparent that, this time round, Israel avoided committing itself to any restraint with regard to its settlement expansion policies. There was also no clarity as to whether the US would eventually shift its chancery from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump also became the first serving American president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place where Jews can pray. That is being taken as support for Israel. President Trump also identified himself four-square with Israel while delivering a major address at the Israel Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem by affirming that he would never let Iran have nuclear weapons although, according to security analysts, Israel has a substantial and officially undeclared nuclear arsenal.
After this, Trump had a short “cordial” meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. They agreed about opposing abortion and also shared concern about “persecution” of Christians in the Middle East. The Pope, however, reiterated that Trump should be an instrument of peace, help solve the problem of migration, and assist in mitigating the effects of climate change.
G7 Summit and NATO affairs
After Rome, Trump travelled to Brussels. In addition to having lunch with newly-elected French President Macron in the US Embassy, he also separately spent time with the leaders of the NATO countries. As expected, there were observations from Trump about NATO members increasing their share of contribution to the NATO effort and also advice that they should do more to fight terrorism, training and mentoring troops in Afghanistan, and equipping local forces in Iraq.
This was followed by his visit to Sicily, where he attended a summit meeting of the G-7 countries (US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan). Their discussion was dominated by the issues: Migration, terrorism, and climate change.
Then Trump let it be known that he had not decided as yet whether or not to endorse the Paris agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who was also in Sicily for the meeting, later told the BBC that the accord would survive regardless of Trump’s position. There was however some relief that Trump agreed to include in the final G-7 communique the pledge to fight protectionism and commit the US to a rule-based international trade system.
Trump’s first foray on the international stage touched on many pressing core global issues but it has become clear at the end of the trip that he will be unable to escape the uncertainty created by the Russian controversy despite his tweet that “trip has been very successful. We made and saved the US many billions of dollars and millions of jobs.”
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]