Throughout his presidential election campaign, Donald Trump made it clear that he intended to prioritise the United States in his politics and economics. His “America First” policy which he is due to elucidate at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) gathering in Davos, Switzerland, has been dubbed by many commentators as “another form of transactional politics”.
This refers to a political practice where governments undertake to reciprocate each other’s actions in equal measure; in other words, give and take politics. The term may also refer to a business-like attitude of governments when it comes to national spending.
Trump has accused previous US administrations — particularly that of his predecessor President Barack Obama — of allowing countries to take advantage of the US and its generosity. He has been scathing about certain member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), for example. The US leader has accused them of reneging on their financial commitment to NATO, leaving the US to foot the larger part of the bill.
He has taken similar stances with poor countries dependent on US aid. Days after he assumed office he indicated that aid to certain developing countries was going to be cut as he focuses on the needs of the American people. According to Interaction, an alliance of US-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), “The ability to deliver life-saving and life-altering assistance is paramount to poor communities and USAID’s curtailing of programmes, that include support for food and nutrition assistance, the education of young children, the treatment of contagious diseases, democracy and good governance, among other areas, comes at a time of outstanding need.”
The first victims of Trump’s transactional politics have been the African countries and Palestine. The decision by the US to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move its embassy from Tel Aviv surprised and angered many people around the world. Notwithstanding the politics surrounding this decision, there is a general feeling of Israel-Palestine conflict fatigue across the globe, and many people would like to see a peaceful solution in that area. Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem jeopardised what few prospects of peace there were, adding to the global frustration on the subject.
Hence, when Yemen’s Ambassador to the UN, Khaled Hussein Alyemany, introduced the resolution calling the US decision on Jerusalem “null and void” and urging all “peace-loving countries” to vote for it, many heeded the call. The UN General Assembly duly voted 128-9 with 35 abstentions in favour of the resolution. This was despite Trump threatening to cut US funding to certain countries if they voted for the resolution. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told the media after the vote that, “The president has requested a report of those countries who voted for the resolution” and that she would — like a schoolmarm dealing with naughty pupils — “be taking names.”
However, many countries remained resolute even after such threats. Botswana has been one of the most outspoken on these developments. In a strongly-worded statement, the government in Gaborone pointed out, “Botswana will not be intimidated by such threats and will exercise her Sovereign right and vote based on her foreign policy principles, which affirm that Jerusalem is a fundamental final status issue, which must be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions.” According to the US State Department, since 2004 Botswana has received over $750 million in support from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which promotes sustainable, high-quality, cost-effective HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care interventions.
The transactional politics of wrist-wrangling by Donald Trump took another turn on 25 January at the WEF in Davos. Following his marathon meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May amongst others, Trump met with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
It was in this meeting that Trump announced that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, had disrespected US Vice President Mike Pence during the latter’s visit to the region this week. The Palestinians boycotted a meeting with Pence and refused all other interactions with him during his visit.
Trump’s denunciation of Abbas was followed by another bombshell; “Jerusalem was off the table,” he told journalists who were vying for his attention. He went on to threaten the Palestinian government that the US may withdraw its financial assistance. Abbas responded promptly to Trump’s threat. “If Jerusalem is off the table,” said the PA President, “the US is off the table.”
Donald Trump is expected to explain his America First policy to the global elite gathered in Davos. Many African countries, including South Africa, have vowed to boycott his speech, in a move suggesting that there is a growing defiance of Trump’s style of politics. Such open defiance by countries such as South Africa, Botswana and, indeed, the President of Palestine against a sitting President of the US will have a serious impact on the country’s standing in the world. Trump’s transactional politics will certainly lead many poor countries to turn to new emerging powers for assistance. How will that impact on US hegemony in global affairs? We can but wait and see.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.