Peaceniks should back Trump – not Biden – to make the world safe again

The transactional former president has a better chance of resolving both the Ukraine and Taiwan crises

U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a working dinner after the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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Do you remember where you were when you realised Donald Trump was set to be elected president of the United States? I certainly do. I was a senior fellow at Malaysia’s national think tank, and the electoral college results gradually came in mid-afternoon Kuala Lumpur time that November day in 2016.

As the outcome became clearer, everyone gave up the pretence of actually doing any work, either appalled or fascinated or both, at the prospect that “the Donald” – flamboyant businessman, reality TV host, a man unbound by the normal political niceties – really was going to defeat the seemingly inevitable Hillary Clinton.

A large section of the commentariat spent the next four years wringing their hands, unhinged by “Trump derangement syndrome”. To them, it wasn’t merely unjust that Mr Trump was in the White House. They couldn’t accept that his presidency was legitimate; something had gone wrong with reality. We can expect the same if Mr Trump, the likely Republican candidate, wins again this year, as many polls suggest he could.

For a large swathe of liberal democracy proponents on the right and the nominal left, who never miss a chance to demand the West back military action in pursuit of what they deem “universal values”, Joe Biden has been the perfect US President.

Getting Nato to fight a proxy war against Russia to the last Ukrainian; arming Israel in its murderous campaign in Gaza; attempting to divide the world into an Alliance of Democracies lined up against what he calls “repressive governments” and “authoritarianism”: it’s all been music to the ears of the neocons and liberal interventionists who remain undeterred by their dire record of failure in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Indeed, some are already warning of the dire consequences if Mr Biden is voted out of office later this year.

If someone suggested to Trump that there was a grand bargain to be made with China, he could possibly be tempted

But could many others around the world, including the anti-imperialist left but also that huge mass of humanity who prize peace above all else, find reasons to welcome a second Trump presidency? To be sure, there will almost certainly be much to deplore in his domestic agenda; although that, really, is for the American people to judge. But turn to his foreign policy, and there may be reasons to be more optimistic.

Take Ukraine. Mr Trump has claimed that he could get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a deal within 24 hours. The timeframe may be a little ambitious, but it does seem likely that a future President Trump would push strongly for a ceasefire that left Russia occupying previously Ukrainian territory. Mr Zelenskyy wouldn’t like it, but many believe that is now the probable outcome. Wouldn’t saving thousands from death and dismemberment be a positive?

Mr Trump may have started a trade war with China during his presidency, but if someone suggested to him that there was a grand bargain to be made – perhaps indicating that the US would not stand in the way of unification with Taiwan, in return for guarantees on intellectual property and for China to increase imports from the US dramatically – he could possibly be tempted. Creating huge numbers of jobs for American workers and ending the risk that conflict over Taiwan could lead to a conflagration in the Asia Pacific would also be “wins”, and not just for Mr Trump.

Impossible? Well, don’t expect the highly transactional Mr Trump to be in the slightest sentimental about Taiwan. He has already said that not sending US troops if China took the island by force was not “off the table”, and his notional Republican rival – more of a self-declared protege – Vivek Ramaswamy believes the US should not defend Taiwan once America has achieved full independence on semiconductor production.

Whether one calls it “Make America Great Again” isolationism or the “principled realism” that Mr Trump said defined his foreign policy early in his presidency, it’s worth remembering his words in the past. “We are not the policemen of the world,” he said in an address at West Point military academy in June 2020. “It is not the duty of US troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands, in places that many people have never even heard of.”

Or consider his speech at the Riyadh summit in May 2017. “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others,” Mr Trump said. “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship ... We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention. We must seek partners, not perfection – and to make allies of all who share our goals. Above all, America seeks peace – not war.”

Some may be alarmed by the extent to which the US could withdraw from the world under a future Trump administration. The Trump team is ready to install loyalist true-believers at the state and defence departments if they win in November; men of experience but who aren’t fully signed up to Mr Trump’s belief system, such as Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, won’t be asked to serve again. One couldn’t rule out an exit from Nato or even the UN.

But if the statements above were made by almost anyone other than Mr Trump, they would be welcomed to the skies by everyone from old radicals such as Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky to the billions who want an end to military conflict wherever it is occurring.

Mr Biden’s campaign for the coming election is partly based on warning that nothing could be worse than a second Trump presidency. When it comes to US foreign policy, however, many may be asking themselves what could be worse than another term for Mr Biden. Put aside any distaste you may have for Mr Trump: consider who is truly more likely to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

Published: January 11, 2024, 4:00 AM