Steve Erlanger, one of the great contemporary New York Times journalists, a Pulitzer prize winner, and currently the Brussels-based Diplomatic Correspondent (Europe), came to talk about Trump – and more particularly his foreign policy – to a crowd of 70 plus in the Dorfman Centre.
He began with some personal background: he had written a piece about Trump and his yacht in 1988. The yacht had been as garish as we now all might imagine, but, intriguingly, even in 1988 (and at this point nowhere near being a Republican), Trump felt America was being taken for a ride, ‘treated as a chump’ – not least on trade matters. We should not be surprised at the America First policy he now espouses.
Steve sketched out the business background: Trump had flirted with bankruptcy, was not much of a regular bill-payer, and had not been overly fastidious about regulatory niceties. He had, however, been exceptionally good at brand-building.
There followed an erudite and richly informed tour of large parts of the globe, beginning with a look at the ‘bromance’ with Putin, motivated on Putin’s part by his belief that Hillary Clinton had been central to a policy of fomenting unrest in Russia from 2011 on. Now, because of the Mueller investigation, any hopes of a re-set of the US relationship with Russia were on hold. Steve noted the Russophobia of many parts of the US government’s policy apparatus.
On Europe, Trump had not had any interest, which might be better for Europe than vice versa. But Macron had ‘seduced’ him. Merkel was not ‘Trump’s kind of woman’ – apart from anything else, she likes evidence – and May, having rushed off to Washington, was now nowhere in particular with the White House, with Trump hating the fact that London had a Muslim mayor, and so on.
Steve thought the wild gyrations of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements might, just might, be working with North Korea, and even with China. But overall he had hugely weakened America’s soft power – ‘the idea of what America represents’.
There were questions galore: a little about journalism (Trump has had a benign impact on New York Times subscriptions), some about the challenge posed by authoritarian characters in democracies (Trump, Berlusconi, Erdogan, etc.), and a discussion about Obama’s diplomatic policy, too. Syria was his biggest failure, and although Obama was still pleased that American had not repeated the mistake of Iraq (in particular) it had been at a catastrophically high price. The loss of life in Syria dwarfs that of Kosovo in the late 90s.
We adjourned, but a crowd gathered around for more discussion. The planet’s problems had not been solved, but brain stimulation had been achieved.