Comment

It is judgment time for Donald Trump

In the U.S., opinion polls can be grossly misleading, the electoral system throws up leaders who do not have popular support, unreadable ballot papers may lead to unexpected results, and absentee and advanced balloting may open a Pandora’s box. An intense battle in the Supreme Court may well bring out a result which goes against the majority public opinion. Like it happened in 2016, psephologists, journalists, strategists, thinkers and astrologers may fail to predict the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. But if poetic justice is of any consequence, the U.S. should get a new leader.

Volumes have been written on the good and the bad about the incumbent President. Donald Trump’s claim for a Nobel Prize is not as far-fetched as it appears. His campaign will make a case by arguing: Who made the effort to tame the “rocket man” of North Korea? Who sought cooperation and friendship with China and Russia? Who volunteered to mediate India’s problems with Pakistan and China? Who downgraded NATO, a relic of the Cold War? Who brought about changes in West Asia, including normalisation of Israel’s relations with the UAE and Bahrain? Who ended the American war in Afghanistan? And who has refrained from despatching American troops to different corners of the globe?

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The question is a moral one

Within the U.S., many identified with slogans such as ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First’. Mr. Trump’s conservative political, social and cultural policies and protectionist trade politics have a huge following. As a result, many may vote for him. But the question is a moral one. Is the U.S. today more prosperous, secure and liberal than in 2016? Has the U.S. increased its allies around the world? Does it inspire confidence among its friends? Does the U.S. government provide security, well-being, justice, inclusiveness, diversity, transparency and personal freedom to all its people? Has its handling of the pandemic saved more lives and livelihoods? Were the people given the right advice on health and prevention of infections? Did the President show by example how a responsible citizen should behave during the triple crisis facing the U.S. — the pandemic, the economic meltdown and racial strife?

Weakening institutions

In the international arena, the Trump administration’s biggest disservice was the undermining of the post-war architecture of peace, which was built brick by brick by the U.S. and its allies. The UN, which is at the centre of multilateralism, has been weakened to the extent of being paralysed. When China used its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block even a meeting of the Council to consider a multilateral effort to fight the pandemic, the U.S. threw the baby out with the bathwater when it withdrew support from the World Health Organization (WHO). This left China as the champion of the WHO. The U.S., with its economic and scientific prowess, should have led an international effort in fighting the pandemic. Multilateralism reached its lowest ebb when the UN failed to tackle the biggest challenge to international peace and security. This would not have happened if Mr. Trump had not called the UN a “club” and made absolute sovereignty the fulcrum of his foreign policy.

International treaties constitute another pillar of the international framework. Nations voluntarily sign these treaties after careful consideration and open debate. These treaties are ratified by the respective legislatures, where necessary. Occasions do arise for member nations to leave the treaties in their supreme national interest. But Mr. Trump walked out of treaties, agreements and arrangements on the environment, nuclear non-proliferation, arms limitation and trade with the abandon of someone leaving a distasteful stage show.

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Unpredictability and inconsistency are the stuff that bad foreign policy is made of. As David Nakamura wrote, Mr. Trump’s promise that “he could tame China’s rise through a mix of personal charisma and deal making prowess has faltered… giving way to the most hostile period of bilateral relations in decades.” Mr. Trump bewildered friends and foes alike, not to speak of his own advisers, by his foreign policy pronouncements and announcements on Twitter. Some of his advisers, whom he himself had chosen, marched out of the White House one after the other, while some others stayed on, pledging to safeguard the interests of the nation anonymously by violating the spirit, but not the word of the law.

The handling of COVID-19 was the unkindest cut of all. Mr. Trump genuinely believes that COVID-19 is like the common flu, which would take its course with a few deaths here and there. He has defied science and ignored the experience of many countries. It is incredible that he sent out confused signals to the people, some of whom still seem to believe him more than they believe the health officials as his methods are oversimplified, though often contradictory and self-destructive. He could have saved many of the more than 2,25,000 lives, and thousands of livelihoods, lost in the bargain. Optimism and self-confidence are virtues for leaders, but not for the kind of leaders who fiddled as the nation burned.

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On India, calculated moves

Indian Americans are of marginal significance in this election, but they have occupied centre stage because of the impression that Mr. Trump has been good to India and that many Indian Americans have moved from their traditional Democratic moorings to vote for him. Mr. Trump was no more friendly to India than his predecessors, except when he calculated that he could derive economic or political benefits for the U.S. and himself. It was an opportunistic posture, liable to be abandoned in the next tweet. He had no problem threatening his “good friend” Prime Minister Narendra Modi on matters of trade, immigration, or even on the issue of India supplying medication. ‘Howdy Modi’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ were sheer exhibitionism. On Pakistan and China, he preferred to mediate rather than support India. India has nothing to fear in a change of leadership as India-U.S. relations enjoy bipartisan support. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, whatever their past record, would see the logic of friendship and cooperation with the world’s largest democracy. George Bush and Barack Obama were not great friends of India till they became Presidents. Indian Americans will vote in their own best interests; surveys indicate that many will remain loyal to the Democratic Party.

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The disastrous first presidential debate, which marked a new low in democratic traditions; Mr. Trump testing positive for COVID-19, his brief hospitalisation and his immediate recovery; his statements relating to white supremacy; his ambivalent position about peaceful transfer of power; and his resumption of the campaign have confused the world. None of it seems to have changed the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the White House has become a “super spreader” of COVID-19.

The election process has started, with more than 65 million voters having cast their votes. When the final results are known, we will know whether poetic justice played a role in the U.S. presidential election.

T.P. Sreenivasan, former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, is Director General, Kerala International Centre

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2020 6:14:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/it-is-judgment-time-for-donald-trump/article32957217.ece

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