Donald Trump is not going to win any plaudits for his response to the death of his bitter rival Senator John McCain. Trump’s critics have lost no time in castigating him over what they regard as his lack of respect for Senator McCain, reflected in the president’s decision to only keep the Stars and Stripes at half mast for little more than a day after the 81-year-old war hero finally succumbed to brain cancer.
The public outcry eventually forced a change of heart, and the flag will now fly in tribute until the funeral takes place. Trump, though, will be a notable absentee because, in his final days, Senator McCain made a point of excluding the president from the list of attendees, a deliberate posthumous snub designed to cause the White House maximum embarrassment.
The deep-seated personal antipathy between these two leading figures in Republican politics should not, however, be allowed to overshadow Trump’s achievements beyond the self-obsessed bubble of the Washington beltway.
For, as the new trade deal announced this week between Mexico and the US demonstrates, when the president’s performance is looked at in the round, the evidence suggests Trump is making a good fist of delivering on his election promises.
One of the key objectives of Trump’s “America First” approach is to tackle the country’s astronomical trade deficit, which last year stood at $810 billion in goods alone. The president argues that the deficit puts the American economy at a distinct disadvantage, one that has resulted in the devastation of communities throughout America that are dependent on manufacturing.
To reverse this trend, Trump is demanding better terms with those trading partners, such as China and the EU, that benefit enormously from their access to America’s $20 trillion dollar economy.
The president has attracted enormous criticism over his threat to initiate trade wars with countries that are unwilling to negotiate new trading arrangements. To this end Trump has already imposed 25 per cent tariffs on steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium.
Trump has been especially critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the 24-year-old commercial arrangement between the US, Mexico and Canada which accounts for a significant slice of Washington’s shortfall. Trade with Mexico is responsible for $71 billion of the deficit, a figure Trump now expects to be reduced radically following the successful conclusion of trade talks with the Mexican government. The new deal seeks to end the unfair advantage Mexico has enjoyed for two decades by dint of its lower employment costs.
Much work still needs to be done to keep Nafta alive, not least persuading the Left-wing government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Toronto’s interests are best served by negotiating fairer trading terms with Washington. The fact, though, that, with the Mexico deal, Trump has proven his detractors wrong, and that it is possible to secure better trading conditions for American businesses, is a significant victory for the White House, one that suggests the Trump administration is deeply serious about fulfilling its manifesto commitments.
Furthermore, it should send a warning shot across the bows of other trading partners that are disinclined to take seriously Trump’s determination to end America’s massive budget deficit.
China, at least, has taken the hint, and its officials have just completed two days of intensive negotiations, which finished inconclusively at the end of last week, about addressing America’s staggering $371 billion trade deficit with Beijing.
The Mexico deal will also encourage Trump to maintain pressure on the EU, which currently enjoys a $151 billion surplus with the US. Trump can already point to the fact that a number of European members of the Nato alliance have agreed to raise their defence expenditure as proof that Europe is no longer taking American policymakers for a ride.
Nor is it just in the field of trade talks that the Trump administration can claim to be making headway. The negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programme may have stalled, but the recent reunion of family members after decades of separation on the Korean peninsula points to an improvement in relations between North and South.
In Iran, the political turmoil over the country’s increasingly perilous economic predicament is the direct result of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose new sanctions. For all the criticism Trump has received, including from Britain, for withdrawing from the deal, hitting the ayatollahs where it hurts most, in their pockets, remains the best way of persuading them to behave more responsibly.
All of which suggests that, while Trump might not be the most sensitive politician ever to have occupied the Oval Office, he could still prove to be one of the most effective.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.