It’s been a busy start to the year for Donald Trump. Already, less than three weeks in, he’s assassinated the top Iranian general, he’s brokered a significant trade deal with China, and he’s been impeached.
Which of these three developments will turn out to be the most significant in the long-term remains to be seen.
Least significant overall looks likely to be impeachment. The Democrats have built some kind of a case against Mr Trump, but it looks far from conclusive. Given that the Senate is controlled by Republicans who are almost to a man (or woman) minded to view the charges as opportunistic and partisan, it’s almost certain to go nowhere. Instead, the Democrats themselves look vulnerable to charges of grandstanding and manipulation of their own primaries, since the timing of the trial is likely to demand significant time from the socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, which he could otherwise have spent campaigning out in the field.
Then there’s the missile strike against general Qasem Soleimani. Here President Trump appears to have had a stroke of political luck. The ineptitude and duplicity of the Iranian regime was highlighted internationally when it shot down a civilian airliner in its own airspace. All claims to the moral high ground were lost, whatever one’s views of general Soleimani.
Will the Middle East be a safer place as a result of the strike? Probably not. In any case President Trump’s naked alignment with Israel and the Sunni Arab states against Shia Iran has ended any pretence that the US, as the world’s only superpower, is attempting to stand above the fray as neutral arbiter. That development makes the US look weaker than it did just a decade or so ago, as indeed it is. Yes, the US is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. But it’s also less influential in the Middle East overall. Remarkable to watch has been the resurgence of Russia as a regional power.
Which leaves the deal with China. Will this be more significant than the death of General Soleimani? Perhaps. Critics argue that the size of the deal isn’t exactly earth shattering, and that more to the point in regards to global trade and the free movement of goods, tariffs are still in place.
On the other hand, the US approach has some merits. Mr Trump and his team have recognised that they’re not likely to get everything they want in one go, so they’re now doing it in chunks. The real measure of the success of this deal will be whether it leads to another deal, in particular one that effectively covers and provides mechanism for policing intellectual property rights.
For all its remarkable growth in the past two decades, China has not really developed any kind of reputation or track record in innovation. It’s in this area that the US can draw some comfort that the inexorable rise of China may yet run out of steam. Almost all the know-how that’s been put to work in the Chinese economy is Western. The Chinese may feel that they have a moral right to steal it, after the Century of Humiliation, but in the long-run that may not be good business.
So Mr Trump is playing for high stakes in all areas, as we always knew he would. The moral panic running through liberal America remains as jumpy and fretful as ever, but what’s notable is that markets remain relatively sanguine. Stock markets in the US hit records yet again while the ink was still drying on the trade deal, and although the VIX volatility index did spike a little in response to the killing of Soleimani, it remains closer to long-term lows than it does to long-term highs.
It’s an election year, but at this stage Mr Trump must be feeling that the Presidency is his to lose.