Opinion Columnists 14 Dec 2016 Talking Turkey: Trum ...
S Nihal Singh has four editorships under his belt, with globetrotting stints in Singapore, Pakistan, Moscow, London, New York, Paris and Dubai.

Talking Turkey: Trump readies ‘sarkar’ - With surprises, shocks

Published Dec 14, 2016, 12:22 am IST
Updated Dec 14, 2016, 7:04 am IST
Donald Trump. (Photo: AP)
 Donald Trump. (Photo: AP)

Donald Trump shook the world by winning the US presidential election, yet again demonstrating that poll forecasting is an imperfect process. And now he is shaking both his country and the wider world by choosing his future Cabinet that is full of surprises, some of them outlandish, and seemingly turning long-held US policy positions on their head. As the chancelleries in world capitals sit down to analyse the string of Cabinet-level appointments he has made, they strive to find a common thread. The only pattern they can discern is that he favours successful businessmen like himself and has an appetite for articulate generals for jobs that had previously been left to civilians. Mr Trump’s announcement that he would scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s legacy work in his pivot to Asia, the day he enters office was no surprise because of his shrill pitch for maintaining and creating American jobs in consonance with his “Make America Great Again” slogan and his main constituency. Free trade agreements, in his view, rob American jobs. But the biggest surprise of all, apart from reopening the “One China” chapter, was his choice of secretary of state.

By springing Rex Tillerson, chief of ExxonMobil, as his choice for secretary of state on an unsuspecting public after considering his old Republican rival Mitt Romney and his loyalist Rudy Giuliani for the job, he has chosen a businessman and a dealmaker, a man in the good books of President Vladimir Putin and once awarded the Order of Friendship by Moscow. He is sceptical of Western sanctions against Moscow. If there is a parallel, it is in his appointment of Terry Branstad, Iowa governor, as the country’s ambassador to Beijing. He has a decade-long relationship with President Xi Jinping, calls him “an old friend”, a compliment returned by the official spokesman of the Chinese foreign office, who described him as “an old friend of the Chinese people”. In contrast to this gesture, Mr Trump had the Chinese grinding their teeth when, for the first time since the 1970s, a sitting US President or President-elect has spoken over the telephone with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. In his election campaign, he had been railing against China on its currency tactics, military buildup in the South China Sea and its attitude to North Korea without storming into the One China policy.

Far from retreating, Mr Trump declared on television: “I don’t see why we have to be bound to the One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things.” In other words, the One China proclamation is a bargaining chip for him. Last year the US imported $483 billion worth of goods from China, exporting to that country $811 billion worth. The President-elect is now suggesting that the One China policy, which was the basis of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Communist China and the US, is an open question. Washington closed its embassy in Taiwan while maintaining an interests section and is supplying arms to Taipei to protect itself. The Chinese have reacted to this new barb with a firm but measured tone because the relationship with the US is simply too important for them. As Mr Trump has amply proved, he is no respecter of norms and conventions. But many Americans have been scandalised that after meeting Al Gore, the prominent environmentalist, he nominated Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He is a friend of the oil and gas industry and opposes “Obamacare”, the assisted healthcare landmark of Obama legislation. Mr Trump himself had expressed scepticism over industrial activity and global warming, although he has moderated his views after the election. Mr Trump had other surprises up his sleeve. He nominated Nikki Haley of Indian origin and South Carolina governor as US ambassador to the United Nations. She has little experience of international diplomacy although she made a name for herself as a resolute governor. The tough-talking Gen. James Mattis was nominated defence secretary and Steven Mnuchin, who worked for 17 years with Goldman Sachs, is the new treasury secretary. Homeland security goes to Marine Gen. John Kelly while Gary Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, is director of the National Executive Council. No one can be surprised by the fact that Mr Trump’s choices are right-wing, with little care for what the US prides itself on: keeping the civilian establishment firmly in charge of the military. The President-elect has no time for this separation nor is he overawed by conventions. Indeed, he won the presidential election by being unconventional and unabashedly populist.

In a sense, America is passing through a new phase for a variety of reasons that have been amply cited. But the question is how permanent this tilt to the right will be in a new world of privation for the working man at the bottom of the ladder? Mr Trump has been pressing American business not to move abroad to take advantage of cheaper labour. While two corporations have heeded his advice to save American jobs, US businesses are looking forward to promised lower taxes and a more business-friendly environment at home. The President-elect is fond of communicating through tweets, which have now become must-read for the business community. Imagine making Andrew Puzder, CEO of a restaurant chain, his new labour secretary. He is against government intervention in the labour market and says higher wages are bad for workers because they lead to unemployment. One objective Mr Trump has achieved by the nature of his appointments is unpredictability. The results can only be a matter of speculation at this early stage. If he believes that he has his country and the world befuddled, he is right. Counting the costs of the exercise is another matter. The US is yet to discover the wages of Mr Trump’s ascent to the political world as the leader of what is still the most powerful nation on the planet.

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